How to Improve Your Memory by Forgetting the Right Things

By: Jon Weaver


Back in 1885, the German scientist Hermann Ebbinghaus made the first experimental studies in remembering and forgetting. What he discovered then still holds true today -- that using the common method of memorizing, we forget forty percent within twenty minutes and seventy-five percent by the end of the week! Doesn't it stand to reason, then, that if you are going to bother to learn things once, you might just as well go to a little extra trouble and protect your investment of time? You can do this easily by repeating briefly what you have learned once a day for a week, and then once a week for a month.

There have been men with a genius for memory, but their feats lie entirely outside the experience of us ordinary mortals. Lord Macaulay could memorize entire books at a single reading, Mozart as a boy wrote down the score of an oratorio after hearing it once, and Dumas pere never forgot anything he had read. My course in memory training cannot claim to teach you to duplicate such miracles. It is based simply on the laws of the workings of the minds of normal men, and its success is due to the fact that few people realize the potential powers of their thinking processes.

You and I remember only what we know, and we know only what we remember. The art I can teach you is the ability to use to the best advantage what you know, to be able to draw upon the great storehouse of your memory when you will, at a moment's notice. The more easily you can accomplish that seeming miracle, the farther and faster you will travel toward your ultimate success in life.

This brings us to our next important consideration: what shall we take the trouble to remember? We know of course that we neither can nor want to remember everything. To make our memories serve us intelligently, we have to be able to choose the things we want to remember and concentrate on developing a selective type of memory. Dr. R. S. Woodworth, of the National Research Council and Columbia University, after testing the memories of countless subjects, has come to two significant conclusions:

1. That everyone has greater power of memory than he imagines.

2. That although intensive training produces great improvement in memory, training does not develop the general faculty of memory, but simply increases the particular kind of memory job that is practiced.

From this you will conclude that to develop your memory in order to increase your personal efficiency you must first choose the kind of remembering on which you want to concentrate. If you learn to memorize poetry effectively, your friends may consider you more cultured and you may get extra enjoyment out of life, but it will not help you to remember the grocery list. Nor will strengthening your memory for geography or history help you to remember names and faces.

To help you decide what kind of memory you yourself want to cultivate, I suggest that you get a piece of paper right now, and write across the top the business or profession in which you are now engaged. Below that write the answers to the following questions. Take your time, thinking about the answers carefully:

1. Do my activities bring me into constant contact with people?

2. Would cultivating a better memory for names and faces pay dividends in my work?

3. Does my work necessitate my knowing many facts and figures?

4. Is a general cultural background of miscellaneous information important in my work?

5. Outside of business, what specific kind of memory would I like to cultivate for my own enjoyment?

6. Based on these questions, what kind of memory should I go about developing first?

By studying your answers thoughtfully, you will have a pretty clear and definite idea of what things you should make an effort to remember, and what you can afford to forget.

A surgeon, for instance, will want to remember the bones and tissues of the body, the kinds of surgical instruments and their uses, the virtues of the drugs and medicines in his materia medica, the history and development of the art of healing, and most of what he has read or learned of the achievements of other medical scientists.

In addition, he will want to retain enough of his nonmedical reading to hold up his head in a general conversation. If he is fortunate enough to have some outside interest, such as collecting stamps or amateur photography, he will want to develop his memory along that line too. He, like all people, will also find it advisable to remember the dates of his wedding anniversary and family birthdays, as well as personal data about his patients and colleagues.

With all this information and more to remember, wouldn't it be the height of folly for him to waste energy remembering the precise date of Congress's approval of the act authorizing the Reconstruction Finance Corporation? You agree, of course, that the chances are a thousand to one against a surgeon's ever requiring such information. On the other hand, a lawyer, a politician, a banker, or an editorial writer might be called upon to produce such an item at a moment's notice, out of his head. Inability to do so might even appear a serious reflection on his general qualifications.

So by simply going through the questions above, you are on your way to remembering more by allowing yourself to forget the right information.

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