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The Memory Process (Part 4)
Visual memory is an enigma to many people. Some expect that if they are to memorize something visually, they should be able to close their eyes and see a clear image - a 'snapshot' - of the information when they retrieve it. It is almost impossible to describe in words how to see in "the mind's eye." Just as many people don't initially grasp that you can think without using words, many struggle equally with the idea that you can remember without using words. When I teach classes in memory strategies, I often begin with assignments that involve students remembering a set of four numbers that briefly flash on a computer screen, and then figuring out how they remembered them. Clues that they used an auditory-verbal strategy include simply reciting the numbers, or pairing the four numbers into two sets of two numbers. Students who used a visual strategy - before we've discussed what those strategies are - may have noted a shape to the numbers' sequence, but more often they don't have words to describe how they remembered, insisting they simply did.
Improving visual processing, like improving auditory processing, again requires strong attention skills. Although it is not as transient as auditory information, visual information presents us with numerous aspects to process simultaneously rather than the sequential nature of auditory-verbal information. We really tend to skim visual information without actually paying attention to it. For example, we have 10 digit number pads on telephones, calculators, and computers. Are they all the same? How are they different? As often as you may have used these items, you may have seen them without the intention of remembering them. Do you do better seeing the items you intend to remember? Visualization exercises (like those used by athletes) can lengthen the duration of a visual image as well as improve the detail. When needed. twill often recommend software that requires the student to visually manipulate information. For example, The Right Turn by Sunburst, presents a three-by-three grid of differently colored squares. The student then tries to predict the sequence of the colors when the grid is turned on its side. There are few compensatory techniques for visual processing other than photographing and video-taping or the few techniques for the visual processing deficits that produce some forms of dyslexia (a reading disorder). Most visual information to be remembered isn't transient, and can be processed repeatedly and verified, if we remember to take the time to do so. For visual short-term memory, like auditory short-term memory, I have seen little to improve it other than to challenge it by visually repeating or retrieving lengthier and more complex information.
Visual long-term memory retrieval can be improved by the repeated retrieval process, discussed in improving auditory memory retrieval, provided it is done in detail. For example, to remember specific structures in the brain stem for an anatomy class, you might first work on copying a diagram from your text of the brain stem and its labels (because the average short-term memory store is 5-9 pieces of information, try to restrict the number of details you are trying to retrieve to this range). Then begin working on reproducing the sketch from memory, looking back at the diagram when you have forgotten something. Eventually, you should be able to reproduce the sketch from memory. Now take a brief walk. Upon your return, try to produce the sketch again. When details are forgotten, refer to the diagram again, but linger on each forgotten detail, trying to find ways to better hold it in your memory. Your brief walk was a short distraction; if you were successful in remembering the diagram, then try a longer distraction, and again try to produce the sketch. Each time you retrieve the information, you have strengthened the memory, and increased the chances that you will remember it when requested. This process of repeated retrieval should help improve your visual memory.
There are many compensatory techniques for visual long-term memory. The most common involve visual associations. Much like verbal associations (described in TPN, Summer 1996), these involve linking the new information to familiar words - or in this case, images, and creating an image that you can later retrieve. It has often been noted that the funnier (or more embarrassing) the links or images become, the more likely you are to be successful in retrieving them later. I have learned, however, that students have a better chance of remembering their own creations, funny or not, over any associations that might be created for them. It is in the creation process that the strongest links are made. Visual associations can be to remember new vocabulary (for example, to remember that the hippocampus is the site of short-term memory, my students often use images of a hippo walking on campus, while reciting a phone number - the classic example of short-term memory), or for factual information (for example. to remember that John Horsely created the first Christmas card, picture a Christmas card with Merry Christmas, John written at the top, a horse on the front, and signed Lee).
A second group of strategies that are visual in nature are diagrams. These can include flow charts, organizational charts, mind maps (also called semantic maps or clustering), or visual chains. Flow charts can be helpful for visualizing a process, and can help the visual learner (whose thinking isn't often analytical) focus on each specific step of the process. Each step is written briefly in a rectangle with an arrow to the next rectangle step. Each decision to be made is written in a diamond, with two arrows leading from it, depending on the outcome of the decision. One outcome (such as a "yes" to a question) will lead to a continuation of the process, while the other outcome (such as a 'no" to that question) will either lead to a different process or back to an earlier step in the original process. Flow charts are commonly used to determine computer programs, but are also helpful with mathematical processes, steps in experiments, and other processes such as how a bill becomes a law. Organizational charts are helpful for information that needs to be grouped in categories, such as biological groups, individuals associated with particular types of governments, or concepts that developed from particular theories (such as in psychology). Mind maps, which are also called semantic maps or clustering, is thoroughly described in Tony Buzan's book, "Use Both Sides of Your Brain." He is also particularly effective at integrating drawings into his mappings. This process is helpful for organizing information from almost any reading, notes from lectures, or preparing to write a paper. In general, the main idea is placed in the center of the page (which is often turned sideways), with related topics branching off from it. Details then branch off from each topic. Visual chains are often seen in textbooks, and are the simplest of these diagrams. Each step of a process is drawn as a single image, with an arrow leading to the next image. Visual chains are most helpful with simple processes and circular processes, such as events in nature, chemical reactions, and psychological concepts like behavior modification. These various diagrams often contain few words, assisting the memory more by their overall image and their specific images.
The last group of strategies that utilize visual processing to assist memory are the most creative and often exert their influence almost subconsciously. They involve using color and/or shape to assist in coding information. This is the basic concept behind using highlighters with text, and I often notice that visual learners will carefully choose various colors for specific purposes, for example, highlighting new words in pink, with their definitions in yellow. There are no guidelines for these strategies; I can only share examples that may stimulate your creativity. One student impressed me with her Spanish vocabulary flashcards. She'd written the masculine nouns on blue index cards, while her feminine nouns were on pink cards. This subtle use of color will reinforce her memory, because the visual learner will retrieve the color of the card while trying to retrieve the information from it. Writing information on white cards using colored markers is another example. I often have math students use colored markers in algebra, changing colors for each new step. Shape can also be helpful in assisting the visual learner. A student memorizing the spelling of easily confused words had enlarged the "A" in words ending in "-ance" until each had the image of a triangle, and enlarged the "E" in words ending in "-ence" until each had the image of a rectangle. I've also seen students who used shapes in their books (rather than highlighters), marking names in circles, dates in triangles, and places in rectangles. Using colored markers with an assigned color to each shape will further enhance this technique. Again, the visual cue will be retrieved almost subconsciously for the visual learner as they focus on retrieving the content information.
Learners who find their preferred processing style is kinesthetic, that is, movement and feeling-based, will have a difficult time relating their processing to most academic or interactive information. While kinesthetic learners may be excellent at learning dances, athletic moves, or sign language, their best learning situation may be in the style of the apprentice. Academically, I encourage these learners to use movement, demonstration, and physical materials when trying to understand concepts, but to focus on visualizing the movement and materials (using visual strategies) when trying to improve their memory. Adding rhythm and motion to important information - even moving while studying - can assist these individuals, but retrieval can be very difficult if sound and movement must be inhibited during a test (or very disruptive to the others if it is not inhibited). Using physical materials such as magnetic letters, friction pieces, and index cards (as flashcards or spread out in groups to organize a paper) can also assist these students, but again, are not usually allowed during tests. All of these things are excellent for understanding the concepts. But once they understand the concepts, I encourage these students to study by practicing "seeing themselves" (visualizing) moving or using the physical materials.
A second important concept arises in memory improvement if a learner's preferred processing style is kinesthetic. I often find that since these learners process by movement and feeling, they are the most susceptible to impairments in retrieval caused by stress. Stress blocks feelings other than those involved in fight-or-flight, and these emotions usually block both memory and new learning. This is compounded when the learner's processing style involves feelings. It is critical that these individuals learn and practice stress management techniques well before they are needed. Well-practiced stress techniques will be helpful both during tests (such as slow breathing, stopping of negative thoughts, and relaxation training), and in general (such as exercise, sufficient rest, and enjoyable hobbies). In addition, these learners will do best when they study in an environment similar to that in which they will be taking their tests. Therefore, I often encourage these individuals to study in empty classrooms, the library, or at least the campus cafeteria. At home, they should study at a desk or table, rather than on the couch or in bed. Once they understand the material, their study techniques and memory strategies should be visual in nature, or easily visualized.
A memory strategy that encompasses all of the processing styles is the use of flashcards. These are index cards with a question or key word on one side and the answer or target response on the other. Answers or target responses should be limited to 5-9 concepts (within the range of one's short-term memory), and should be supplemented by pictures, shapes and color for visual/kinesthetic learners. The key to flashcards is in the studying. I often see students with large stacks of index cards; all they succeed in doing is re-reading the cards! A better approach is to leave the stack of cards (stack A) at home (or in your backpack) and keep 5-9 cards with you at all times (is this range of numbers getting familiar?). With each card limited to 5-9 key concepts, each is able to be memorized. When you can read the question/key word and retrieve the answer successfully, then begin a new stack of memorized cards (stack B). Place each memorized card in stack B, and place a new card from stack A in the group you carry with you. About once a week or so (depending on how long you have to learn these cards), review the cards in stack B. If you have forgotten any from stack B, place them on the top of stack A (because you will memorize them again pretty quickly) so they will soon be back in the group of cards you carry with you. Flashcards assist the auditory-verbal learner because they are basically words, can assist the visual learner if color, shape, and/or images are used, and assist the kinesthetic learner because they are physical material and there is movement in the studying of them.
One last memory issue involves a different type of memory. I used to refer to this as 'to-do" memory, but in their research, McKay Sohlberg and Catherine Mateer have labeled this "prospective memory." This involves situations like remembering to stop for gas, refill a prescription, go to a doctor's appointment, replace a book of checks in your checkbook, or even to take medications. There is no test on these items; they must be retrieved when they need to be done, or problems follow. While some individuals have done well using alarms to remind them to take medications, and schedule books to help them remember appointments, other situations preclude these approaches. When these occur, I often suggest the following type of strategy. Take some item you frequently refer to and expect to find in a given location (a watch, jewelry, something in your pocket, etc.). Slowly and consciously move the item to a different location (e.g. put your watch on upside down, or on the other wrist) while you recite the one thing you are to remember to do. Each time you notice the item is out of place. remind yourself of what you are to do. If the repeated reminding doesn't help you, the aggravation of having the item out of place may encourage you to complete the necessary task at the earliest possible time! It is important to link only one task to the item, and not to overuse the same item, because it then becomes possible to "tune our your reminder because the misplaced item is getting familiar.
Improving your memory takes creativity and it takes practice. Understanding how the memory process works can help us understand how our memories are functioning. Working together with individuals assessing our memory can help us pin-point where in the process we need to improve. Learning to linger with new information and to play creatively with it can help us develop a more effective memory. And continued practice will make the process take little additional effort. While many of us believe our memories were effortless before the brain injury, they really did take an effort (perhaps as long ago as when we were children) that through repeated use began to seem effortless. If you watch a young child, they learn by playing, and repeat the play over and over until the learned process appears effortless. We don't often play as adults, but to improve our memories, "playing with information" is exactly what we need to do!
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