"In One Ear ... and Out the Other"
Think - Volume 52, Number 3 by Patricia Brooks; Contributor: Grant M. Bright

"I'll never forget What's-his-name..."

The line may prompt a smile, but in fact, memory experts say, you probably haven't forgotten What's-his-name, you've just momentarily misfiled him.

When you consider that a single human brain is capable of storing more than the capacity of five hundred 3850 Mass Storage Systems, it's no wonder that files may be temporarily or even permanently misplaced. Yet knowing what your brain is capable of storing is no help if you can't remember last night's TV movie or a phone number you just looked up.

Not to worry. When we speak of memory, we usually mean our long-term memories. Actually, we all have short-term and long-term memory, which some specialists have likened, respectively, to an "in" box and filing cabinet. Short-term memory stores temporarily, sometimes for less than four seconds, and usually no more than seven items of information at a time. To remove information from the "in" box to the limitless file cabinet involves a storage and retrieval system that is different for each of us.

What distinguishes a good memory from a poor one is the ability to organize - to code and remove data from short- to long-term memory, and file and store it so that retrieval is possible.

First, let's clear away some myths about memory.

  • "Memory strengthens as you lay burdens upon it," wrote Thomas De Quincey. Not so, say the experts. Memory isn't a muscle that improves with exercise. It must be trained and disciplined to be used efficiently.

  • Forgetfulness is a normal, expected aspect of aging. Wrong. Maestro Arturo Toscanini at 85 could still recall the scores and notes of 250 symphonies and 100 operas. And he wasn't unique. A trained memory will function at any age.

  • Forgetting is a sign of a poor memory. Not necessarily. While forgetting has been called a failure of the retrieval system, it is also a way or sorting out insignificant data. There is no need to remember every telephone number you ever dialed.

  • You can remember anything if you sleep on it and let the data flow effortlessly through your brain. Actually, to remember something, you have to actively learn it first.

    Dr. Kenneth L. Higbee, associate professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, calls the process of remembering: Recording (acquiring the information), Retaining (storage) and Retrieving.

    "A man must get a thing before he can forget it," said Oliver Wendell Holmes. If you understand something, your chances of remembering it are better than if you just memorize it by rote. And the more you review it for content, the more quickly it goes into the long-term memory file. Before learning a speech, for example, it's better to read, reread and reread it again.

    Memory experts like IBM's own Grant Bright stress over-learning information in order to remember it. Bright, manager of advanced manufacturing engineering with the General Products Division in Tucson, Ariz., has been interested in the subject of memory since childhood. He has developed a four-hour module on memory improvement, which he teaches at IBM's professional development school in Tucson. He uses an acronym to illustrate six major rules that have helped him and others develop a good memory.

    "I call it the real McCoy," he says, "but spell it MACCOI - for Motivation, Association, Concentration, Confidence, Observation and Intention."

    Motivation is the first essential, according to Bright. You have to want to retain information and then work to do it. This means making Associations (or linkage) to help you retrieve the information when you need it. It also requires Concentration, the Confidence that you can retain it and Observation of what you need and want to remember.

    Bright's first five rules may be obvious, but as an example of the sixth, Intention, he suggests that most of us do not really listen when we are introduced. Without the intention of remembering a new name, it isn't likely it will be fed into the long-term memory filing cabinet.

    Mnemonic means aiding the memory (from the Greek goddess of memory, Mnemosyne). Mnemonic systems - artificial aids - are like mental filing systems that assist in data retrieval. William James, the Harvard psychologist, once wrote that "Judicious methods of remembering things are nothing but logical ways of conceiving them and working them into rational systems, classifying them, analyzing them into parts, etc."

    There is no single perfect system. Everyone files information in different ways, and you have to develop a system or combination of systems that works best for you.

    People with good visual memories often rely on visual images. For others, numbers help, or color association, alliteration, rhymes ("In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue'), any kind of linkage that will make retrieval easier. Most of us still keep the number of days in each month straight with an aid we learned in school - "Thirty days hath September..." And generations of music students learned the scales by recalling the simple sentence, "Every good boy does fine (E, G, B, D, F)." Acronyms can also do their bit. HOMES, with any luck, will conjure up the names of the Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior).

    Human understanding of how memory actually functions in the human brain is one of the still uncharted areas of scientific knowledge. Current studies by Dr. Gary Lynch, professor of psychobiology at the University of California at Irvine, and others suggest that there are two separate and distinct memory systems, one controlling "fact or declarative knowledge." the other controlling "skill or procedural knowledge." The two systems, according to Dr. Lynch, are separated in the brain and may be controlled by different biochemical mechanisms.

    But since we now live in the Computer Age, why all the fuss and bother about memory? Isn't everything fed into a machine, anyway, and called up at an instant's notice? Tell that to the sales rep who can't recall a customer's name. Or the speaker who forgets a key point in mid-delivery. Or the instructor who can't remember the second part of a student's two-part question.

    Information explosion or no, a good memory is the key to both social and business success. Agreed? All right, now for starters, what were those six rules for a good memory that Grant Bright calls "the real MACCOI"?

    End of "In One Ear ... and Out the Other"


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