I can’t remember my high school math teacher’s name. I forgot to pick up dog food (again).
Every day I have a shake-my-fist-at-the-sky moment, “Arg! Why do I have such a terrible memory?”
I know I’m not alone. But after a conversation with three-time Swedish memory champion Mattias Ribbing, I have hope. Here are the best ways to improve memory.
He’s one of only 122 people in the world who have been awarded the title of Grand Master of Memory. His memory is ranked 75th best in the world.
So, yeah, he’s kind of an authority.
Mattias told me, “Emily, you don’t have a bad memory. You’ve just never been taught how to train it.”
That got my attention. Now, do I have yours?
Read on for some very memorable advice about brain training, the importance of nutrition, and the secret to remembering where you put your keys.
How did your interest in brain training begin?
I started training my memory specifically in ’08 when I was 27. I was working as a teacher then and had always been very interested in the science of how we learn and how that can be improved.
Since our memory is not in a specific part of the brain, but essentially the result of all the brain’s work, this kind of training also improves a lot of our cognitive functions, such as the ability to focus, thinking speed, visualization, creativity, and structured thinking.
Memory is like the skeleton key to unlocking all sorts of brain training.
In what other areas of life is your incredible memory retention useful?
The more you train and become conscious of how you use your brain optimally, you start to realize that we use our memory practically all the time; so I use it daily for many things big and small.
I recently gave a speech at an event where there were many CEO’s in attendance. Afterwards many of them came up to talk and wanted to hire me for other events.
When speaking to many potential customers it’s not just their name, but all the stuff they say, that are important to be able to close a deal. And that’s a typical situation where you can’t bring out a pen and paper.
What role does nutrition play in your brain training?
For me it plays a huge role. When I switched to a high-fat, low-carb diet, I was able take my competition scores to a whole new level.
So I basically eat paleo, making sure to add extra fat. Three weeks before competitions I make sure to stay really strict on this regimen.
Maintaining an even blood sugar is essential for mental stamina. It makes intense focusing possible for really long hours.
In memory competitions, if your focus wanders for just a few seconds, you lose points. For instance, one of our challenges is to memorize the order of a shuffled deck of cards.
I can do that in 79 seconds. But if my focus wanders for just a few seconds I lose time, and thus I lose score.
This is a perfect illustration because your focus is so concretely verifiable in your score. I can track exactly the ups and downs of my concentration. It’s like meditation with measurable results.
Are there certain foods that you find help you perform better? Do you have a nutrition routine before or after memory competitions?
In the mornings I eat a high-fat, low-carb breakfast – usually eggs and bacon, with plenty of butter.
The thing is, I think less about about food. When food is more satisfying you don’t have the carb cravings or hunger pangs, allowing you to focus completely on the task at hand.
How to remember names and faces
Mattias says, “People who think they have a bad memory have just never been taught the right way to memorize.”
- Make an image out of the name
“Instead of Sam, it will be a package of ham, for John, it’s a pair of longjohns. Visualize that image – make it super clear – floating in the air in front of you.”
- Associate the face and image
“See the long johns at the same time as you see their face. Or even put the long johns on him! The important part is to establish a connection in the brain between those two images. Just repeating the sounds is not enough. Images create a bigger gateway to store much more information.”
But aren’t some people more “naturally inclined” to visual or auditory learning? Do you believe some people have inherently better memories ?
There is fantastic cognitive science that proves every person thinks in images. Scientists have measured movements of our eyes.
Yes, we have different personalities, but our brains are ultimately similar in structure.
I work with younger school children, older people, and people in mid-career, and I have yet to discover one who is unable to train like this. The secret is to train our brains to do it consciously. Then, after a while, it becomes automatic.
Mattias says start with a newspaper article:
“Visualize the storyline of what you’re reading like a movie. Train your brain to make the images bigger, more detailed,” he says.
Observe how you retain this information better or can more easily recount the story to a friend later in the day.
How would you encourage someone who has never tried brain training before?
It’s about controlling the process of storing information in the brain. It’s definitely not rocket science – quite the contrary, it’s a lot of fun!
You don’t have to be extra intelligent or anything like that. It’s actually a bit like rediscovering how children play and then doing it in a structured way.
The result is a new skill set to deal with all kinds of information in an optimal way.
Read more on the “learning style myth” here (PDF).