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Monday, June 10, 2013

Improving Your Memory for the Real-World Applications


Can a better memory improve your performance in an intellectual endeavor? The most obvious need for good memory is for absorbing large amounts of information, individual items of which are not always logically connected to one another. The syntax of a programming language may be a logical thing, but you still have to memorize hundreds of operators, attributes and many other things, with the same applying to the other exact sciences and even more so to the descriptive ones.

We also have to rely on memory during an early stage of a learning curve, when our [somewhat] limited knowledge of the subject-matter is still insufficient to see the logical connections.
There are great many offerings in the area of improving memory; the authors promise almost unreal things - "Never forget anything again!". But some people somehow have the concept of memory, which is removed from the needs of the real life; they think in terms of artificial tests and situations, which are of no use to the most of us. For example, I heard of a memory test, in which one listens to a sequence of numbers and then tries to repeat it in a reverse order.

Whatever are the merits of that test, an average person does not encounter such problems in real life.

Circus-like memory tricks are certainly entertaining to watch, competitors memorize "impossible" combinations of cards, as well as perform other feats. But can you get a good job with such memory? And the simple reality is that this type of memory has no practical value for those who hold normal jobs!
In the real world you need the type of memory, which is good for practical applications; and the memorization tasks in the real world can be made very manageable through organization, diligence, attention to detail, mental discipline, ability to maintain concentration, ability to merge with a productive process, as well as other aptitudes.

Imagine an engineering meeting, every member of the engineering team gets a specific task, but one engineer was thinking about something else and he missed a part of what was being said. If he starts bugging the project leader for information, that would produce a perfectly natural reaction - "Everything has been presented, how is it possible you did not get it? How can I entrust you with a part of this project if your ability to absorb information is at this level?"

The engineer, who has not been following the presentation, was unable to concentrate; maybe he was overwhelmed with some temporary problems and his mind was someplace else as a result; and even though this situation had manifested itself as a memory issue, its origins may be completely different, it could be lack of mental discipline, inability to maintain concentration, to name just two.
Demands for memory performance are different in various situations; in a static setting, something similar to when you have to remember product locations in a warehouse, the demands on performance may not be as strict, as in a dynamic one, such as monitoring an instrument panel and making decisions on the basis of readings.

A situation, where you interact with others in the process of gathering and sharing information, poses still another set of requirements on your "memory performance".

But the ability to maintain concentration is a universal aptitude, which is required for all kinds of tasks.

 It can be developed with the help of certain exercises and you will see the effect of improved memory, as well as the overall productivity of your mind.
There were a few professors in our university who had no problem with making a case if a student would present the material on an exam differently as compared to how the professor was presenting it.
What is involved here?

You can memorize how it was written in your lecture notes or you can learn the methodology of that particular formal method and produce this or that derivation by applying the process of logical reasoning.

The more "comprehension" is added to the process of learning, the more reliable that knowledge becomes.

Memorization by rote is the lowest-grade learning process, which is used by those who have difficulties understanding the subject-matter. It can be compared to the task of converting inches, yards, pounds, miles, degrees Fahrenheit into the metric values; you can try to memorize which factor to use for this or that "direction of conversion", or you can calculate it by using logical reasoning. Clear thinking here would produce much better results than blind memorization.

And overall, the only memory issues, that are worth considering are those, which are connected to the demands of the real world.

Below are a few examples, you can see for yourself if "memory-improvement" courses would be of any use to tackle those situations.

I have a permanent list of things I may need for a trip, I only need to adjust it for each occasion; without that list I would be trying to think frantically at the last moment if I took everything I need. And, of course, I always have a list of groceries with me when going to a supermarket. If I forget only one item out of ten, it is very good in terms of memory performance, but unacceptable in terms of organization.
Any productive activity requires that we take care of many things, and if we would be relying on memory to keep track of ISOLATED things, this would be planting the seeds of doubt and adding strain on the brain resources.

When I have to perform operations in logical sequence, I see no need in using "memory props", but the isolated items are a completely different story!

And overall, with bad organization, when we rely exclusively on our memory, we would be creating a situation when memorization process competes with the thought process for the brain resources. If I work on something that requires concentration and mental effort, I do not want anything allocated to my active memory, except what is related to the task on hand.

When I was working as a field service engineer, I forgot an item once, which I needed for repair; I had to come back from the customer location to the office, almost two hours out of life.
After that incident I have prepared several lists of what I need to take on a field service trip to various customers; there were no more "memory issues" on that job.
Organization is everything in such cases, that is why I am very skeptical about various schemes of memory improvement for the real-world problems.

Obviously, it is much better to have a good genetic memory, just as it is great to have high genetic intelligence, but whether or not it is worth the trouble of training your memory for the circus-like competitions, is another story.

For example, at one job I was spending about an hour on an average week putting things back to stock. It was not often enough for me to be able to memorize all those locations "naturally", and it was not worth the trouble to apply an extra effort to memorize them, it was much easier to resolve this situation through organization, to compile a list.

When I was working as a field service engineer, I was diligently making sketches of every printed circuit board (PCB) and other important parts of all instruments I was working on, there was simply too much to rely on memory.

If I replace a PCB, I have to reproduce all jumpers, positions of miniature switches, plug all connectors where they should go. I was not even trying to memorize it! What is the point? My priority is not to exercise my memory skills, but to finish the job as fast as possible and go to another customer.
By the same token, when I was taking apart the units that were coming for repair, I would put all screws and parts into a separate tray, and I check it before the final assembly. This way I could be sure I did not forget anything.

I often had to take over additional repair items from my supervisor when he was going away; he would tell me the status of various items, which were "on hold", and I was writing it all down; what is the point in relying on memory if you can make a quick note? This unit needs an approval from the customer to replace an expensive part, these ones are waiting for spare parts, another one is also waiting for a part, but we can take it from a used unit in our surplus stock.
These information items are isolated, why relying on memory if you can apply some diligence and write everything down?

I used to work for a CNC company, they use a standard procedure for checking whether or not any tools were broken during the machining cycle (six parts on a machining table). You take the LAST part and check ALL holes and ALL threads on it. If any one is not there or is not full depth, this means that the corresponding tool was broken. (obviously, the tool might break when machining the very first part, then you would have to keep checking from the last part towards the first to identify the rejects or the parts to be reworked). You then replace the broken tool(s) and continue.
And unless the operator is very disciplined about such things, he will be producing more scrap than the company needs to tolerate.
Is this a memory issue?

That CNC company was dealing with an outside consultant during the process of preparing for the ISO certification, but then he has forgotten to renew his license; (he did not fail the exams, he forgot to initiate the re-certification process with the regulatory body)
Is this a memory issue? I would call it a poor organization and a lack of responsibility.
I need two bus tokens every day, but I take five. I put them into different locations - pocket, backpack, wallet, all in small plastic bags to make sure I do not lose them. When I strictly follow this procedure, it relieves stress from my mind, leaving more brain resources for other things. If I forget tokens even once on a thousand trips, this is unacceptable performance from the point of view of organization, but very good if I would be relying on memory. I also keep one token at work, just in case.

Good organization does the trick, no memory-improvement courses are required!
When I was doing my nursing practice in a hospital, I had a patient who had to undergo a second operation to remove a surgical towel, which was left behind from the previous operation. There is a special nurse in the operating room whose only job is to count surgical towels and other items, which are temporarily placed into the operating site. That is her only responsibility, and yet she somehow managed to lose the count!
Is this a problem of memory or inability to maintain concentration?
And overall, learning the art of concentration, as well as other aptitudes, is a much better way of improving your memory.

Oleg Chmelev is the webmaster of
That site deals with the issues of intellectual performance and how to improve it
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