Never forget: Can anyone improve a poor memory?

Open navigator

1. Mind blank

There’s a lot more to presenting live television than simply reading an autocue. You need to remember the running order of the show, the names of your guests, who they are, what they’ve done and why they’re on the programme.

Memory plays a big role in our lives but we often think of it as the ‘thing’ that helps us remember information. But the brain goes through a collection of processes to achieve different levels of memory.

So whether you’re trying to remember a speech for a presentation or revision notes before an exam, what can you do to avoid those horrible brain-fades at important times?

2. What is memory?

Memory is the ability to encode, store and recall information and usually splits into three levels: sensory, short-term and long-term.

A number of factors can affect people’s memory processes. Alzheimer’s patients find it difficult to encode information, and as we get older we can often have more difficulty with retrieval. Other factors can also affect our memory such as anxiety, mood, stress and tiredness.

3. Techniques to remember

There are a number of different ways to get information to stick in your memory.

In 1972 psychologists Fergus IM Craik and Robert S Lockhart first introduced 'levels of processing' within memory, and the idea of being able to retain information better when you enrich the information in some way.

Different approaches suit different people. Some find it most effective to repeat sequences over and over, whereas others prefer to use a strong stimulus such as light or sound or make a pattern out of something.

Only 151 people worldwide have the title grandmaster of memory, and Ed Cooke is one of 14 from England. Ed won the title in 2004 when he managed to memorise 1,000 random digits in an hour, the order of 10 decks of cards in an hour and the order of one deck of cards in under two minutes.

"The first rule of memory," he says, "is to make things vivid and interesting and then you’re much more likely to remember it."

According to Ed, the co-founder of educational website Memrise, the best ways to consolidate information depend on what he’s trying to recall. “For lists, I’d probably use the ‘memory palace’ technique, whereas with facts or vocabulary I’d be likely to use mnemonics.”

While referring to the narrative method, Ed says: “It’s a fun technique to link different things all together in a story. You’d think that making a story would make it more complex but stories are so much easier to remember.

“By telling stories and using space, you can really absorb a lot of information very quickly.”

4. Tricks of the trade

Ed takes Alex through the narrative technique to help her remember the first 10 elements of the periodic table.

5. Interactive: Pick your brain

Different areas of your cerebral cortex are specialised for certain functions, but memory takes place in a complex circuit which requires input from several parts of the brain.

This content uses functionality that is not supported by your current browser. Consider upgrading your browser.

A brain injury can affect some or all of the structures within the brain. Due to the many areas of the brain’s involvement in memory, damage to processing, storing or retrieving information can lead to impaired memory. Click on the labels to see how each area of the brain relates to memory.

6. Live and learn

When you want to retain specific information, before an exam perhaps, it may help to know what memory style is your strongest.

Clinical psychologist Dr Jess Quirke says: "By using your preferred style you are more likely to retain and remember information."

These usually breakdown into three areas: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic.


“A visual learner prefers to read, to see words, pictures and diagrams," she says. "When learning information they tend to make lots of written notes, and may repeatedly summarise what they have written.

"You will remember best by making things as visual as possible. Techniques that may help you are written notes, diagrams, charts, mind maps, or create mental pictures or stories."


“An auditory learner prefers to hear or talk through information in order to remember it," says Jess. "When memorising information, they may benefit from recording what was said and listening back over it.

"You will remember best by hearing and talking through information. Have a discussion group or study session with a friend and talk through information, record yourself or others giving presentations and listen back to it, create phrases or mnemonics, such as those often used to remember colours of the rainbow or the order of the planets.”


“A kinaesthetic learner prefers to learn by ‘doing’ and may practise something over and over again.

"Methods that may help could be to practice putting things together, put notes around your house and walk about whilst reading information, create a route or a dance and associate information with different stages.”

Not everyone agrees with the idea that an individual has one specific learning style, particularly within the education sector. Some believe that people learn through a mix of styles and apply different techniques depending on what information they want to learn.

7. Were you paying attention?

So, what do you remember most about Alex in the first clip above? Find out what type of learner you might be.

What she said

You selected

What she said

You’re likely to be an auditory learner. These tend to recall what was said rather than how things looked.

What she was wearing

You selected

What she was wearing

You’re likely to be a visual learner. These tend to recall what things looked like rather than what was said.

What she was doing

You selected

What she was doing

You’re likely to be a kinaesthetic learner. These tend to recall what was done or what something felt like.