Stories make effective memory techniques

Creating a little story is among the best memory techniques

Stories make some of the best memory techniques

Creating a tiny story in your mind can be a simple but very effective memory technique

Recent research has backed up what we’ve known for years – that your memory works better if you create vivid images and stories whenever you’re learning. Psychology professor, Dan Johnson, of Washington and Lee University, had begun to notice how his ‘stories’ (little stories he’d used in the classroom to illustrate a point) would regularly reappear in his students’ work later on. They had not only remembered what he was teaching them, it seemed, they’d also remembered the method he’d employed to make the point.

Retelling the ‘story’ aids memory

“Maybe six weeks had gone by between my telling a story and when students had used it in a essay,” Johnson said. “I hadn’t told the story again. But they were retelling it to help them think through that concept.”

Prof. Johnson had a hunch that getting students to create little stories (he calls them ‘nano-narratives’), would enable them to more easily remember what they were studying. It didn’t have to be much of a story – just two or three lines of information, preferably including the traditional beginning, middle, and ending.

He decided to conduct a series of experiments, along with three senior psychology majors, Brandie Huffman of Warrenton, Va., Meredith Roberts of Sequim, Wash., and Eric Shuman of Black Mountain, N.C. The study was entitled “Imagining the Abstract: Using a Brief Narrative as a Memory Aid.”

A personalised story is among the best memory techniques

“Our hypothesis is that generating a very brief narrative about the concepts in something new you’re trying to learn can help clarify those concepts, and will create an anchor in memory that you can then go back to,” Johnson said. “In the future, when you’re trying to recall these concepts again, you have this story in mind that you can follow along. As you follow that story along, those concepts come to life for you, and, therefore, should provide better learning in the long term.”

They asked three groups to use different methods to study various words and concepts. One group was asked to link the concept to a single image that they would visualise. The other two groups were asked to construct a nano-narrative about the concept. The two groups making up the story were also differentiated. One was just directed to make up a brief story, while the other was asked to place themselves directly in the story, as an important character.

Even abstract concepts can be made memorable

To test the effectiveness of these memory techniques, the first subjects of study were very simple words, and they were of easily imagined items, but later subjects were more vague and abstract. Obviously the more concrete words and concepts were easier to visualise and weave into a story, since it’s a lot easier to visualise, say, a car or a stagecoach than awkwardness or trepidation. Memory techniques work best, as a rule, if you can use easily visualised ‘things’, as opposed to vague concepts.

These various words and abstract concepts were shown briefly to the students on a screen and they were asked to memorise them in whichever way they’d been directed.

The personal touch creates memory ‘anchors’

The researchers were able to show that generating a nano-narrative for even an abstract concept could improve the students’ recall of the subject material when tested several days later. Johnson noted that the group who were asked to include themselves as a character in the story were asked to make the story as self-relevant as possible, including lots of little personal touches wherever possible. This created ‘anchors’, points in the memory where they could readily identify with and go back to.

Johnson said, “I think we have been able to show experimentally what my students have been demonstrating for me when they bring these stories back up on an exam. There is something about these brief narratives that sticks. It’s not a fleeting thing, either. It really sticks in memory.”

Memory is key to learning

He is fully aware how important memory is in learning, and is encouraged by the results of the study, although he is at pains to point out that the sample size was small. Cautiously, he says, “I’m not close to recommending it to my students as a study strategy yet, but we will continue to pursue this area.”

Improve your memory with basic memory techniques

I understand the professor’s reluctance, but I’m not constrained by his study criteria – I would heartily recommend this method to be used when studying or memorising anything. The more you can make something make some kind of sense (or, better still, nonsense!), and the more you can personalise it by linking it to yourself and events in your own life, the more likely it is to stick in your memory.

This is one of the basic tenets of memory work – to make things unusual or ‘special’ in some way (by imagining them in a ridiculous or exaggerated form, for example), and to personalise them by imagining them happening to you, or being done by you. These are some of the most basic and effective of all memory techniques.

If you just do this and nothing else your memory will surely improve.


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