A student recently asked: “Most of the time it happens that, when I keep moving forward in my GMAT studies, I forget some topics I had learned in past. I need some tips regarding it please.” This merits a discussion of memory. Of course, folks who are preparing for the GMAT are trying to learn material, and of course, what it means “to learn” involves a few cognitive skills, among which is long-term memory. If I can’t remember something, even several weeks later, then I really haven’t “learned” it. What can a GMAT student do to improve her or his memory?
The capacity for memory
The human capacity for memory is truly vast, and we folks in the modern world often fail to appreciate this. I think of us modern humans as memory idiots, compared to folks in ancient cultures. In ancient Greece, it was simply part of a young man’s education to remember the entire Iliad and be able to recite it from memory. Similarly, in many Moslem countries, folks would be able to recite from memory either the entire Qur’an, or large parts of it, and in ancient India, folks would be able to recite most or all of the great Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Now, it’s important to realize: genetically and physiologically, our brains are not any different from the brains of folks a couple thousand years ago. We are inherently capable of the same feats of memory. It’s just that, with all our modern reminders and memory substitutes (written remainders, electronic alarms, etc.), we don’t exercise memory, and we have trouble with it. Memory is like a muscle: if you don’t exercise it, it becomes weak and ineffective.
Imagine a future dystopia in which nobody walked, and everybody rode around in personal carts. Of course, everybody’s leg muscles would atrophy, and anyone who could even walk a mile would seem like a demigod. We would simply be astonished that, at other times in history, some people could run marathons or hike 15 miles in a day. That’s very much analogous to our current situation with memory: we have become so accustomed to weak memory usage that we mistake this diminished condition for the norm. The first step in improving memory lies in recognizing that the norm for which we all settle is astonishingly below our potential.
What can one do to draw on one’s potential for memory? Well, first of all, like many other parts of the human body, memory has a “use it or lose it” quality. If you want to improve your overall memory, start practicing opportunities to remember. Force yourself to remember everyday things without writing them down, or maybe use the written record only to test yourself. Make memory tests for yourself every day, several times a day. If there is anything that means a great deal to you — a short poem or song lyrics or an inspiring quote — then commit it memory, so you can recite it. I have dozens of poems memorized. My highly literate friend Chris has memorized the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels — he can recite the entire list. I would recommend committing to memory historical aspects of your own country & culture. For example, for Americans, I would recommend trying to remember all the presidents in order, or the twenty-seven amendments to the Constitution in order. For someone Chinese, I might recommend remembering, say, all the Chinese dynasties in order. If you are religious, memorize some long passages from your sacred text, passages that you consider particularly meaningful. Similarly, with other countries & cultures: every country has a history on which to draw, and every culture has cultural icons about which one can learn more deeply. Exercising one’s memory consistently over time will bring noticeable progress. If there are lists of GMAT relevant strategies or formulas you need to know, practice reciting all of them from memory. If you can recite a whole list cold, without any hints or prompting, then you really own it. Practice remembering as much as you can. Use it or lose it.
Another very important part of memory is one’s capacity for focus and attention. If I study on automatic pilot, passively letting the information pass in front of my eyes, then chances are very good that I will not remember it. The more one can bring laser-like focus and unwavering attention to any task, the more one will remember. How does one develop attention and focus? Well, the ancient disciplines of mindfulness, especially mindfulness of one’s thoughts, and meditation build attention and focus when practiced over time. When one is calm and centered, one remembers much more deeply than when one is stressed and distracted. Many of the lifestyle recommendations that would enhance memory, attention and focus run counter to the way most modern people choose to live their lives.
Long-term memory is reinforced by repeated exposure. This is one of the advantages of mixed practice, because during mixed practice, one sees every kind of problem, and thereby, every topic is regularly given a little bit of review. It can help to create opportunities for repeated exposure. Suppose on Monday, one reads a chapter or watches some videos on some GMAT topic. It can helpful a few days later, to see how much one can recall, cold, without any hints. Can one remember all the important points of those lessons, without any hints? The more one drills one’s self, trying to remember something cold, the stronger the memory connections. This is the value of flashcards.
Relatedly, one learns more deeply and remembers more thoroughly when one truly remembers, rather than simply memorizing. What’s the difference? When I memorize, say, a mathematical formula, I am trying to remember that one individual factoid in isolation. By contrast, when I understand the underlying logic, and able to follow the derivation of the formula from fundamental principles, then one is much more able to remember the formula: in fact, even if one forgets the formula itself, one may be able to re-derive it from the underlying logic: if one can do that repeatedly, then one really understands a formula deeply. It’s important to strive for that standard in every aspect of math, and as much as possible with verbal information.
A huge part of one’s memory is one’s emotionality. One’s primary memory apparatus is located in the limbic system, the brain’s emotional center. When events are emotionally charged, we remember them with no problem. When we are emotionally flat, remembering anything becomes considerably more challenging. The more one can generate in one’s self genuine feelings of enthusiasm and curiosity for one’s studies, the more effectively one will remember. One has to get one’s self “pumped up” for and excited about studying every single time one returns to the material. If nothing else, let yourself get excited about how much you will now be able to remember!
Finally, as long as we are talking about the brain, the brain-state that is singularly most important for memory consolidation is REM-sleep. To get enough REM-sleep, we need to get eight hours of sleep every single night. Sleep comes in 90-miniute cycles, and the REM-phase comes toward the end of that cycle, after deep dreamless sleep. Furthermore, the REM-phases get longer and longer with each cycle, with the longest phase coming in the last sleep cycle. If one gets, say, 6-7 hours of sleep, one cuts off that last sleep cycle with its long REM-phase, thus depriving the brain of one its most potent natural opportunities to encode memory. If you rely on caffeine and energy-drinks, those will make you feel awake and less tired, but they do absolutely nothing to replace the lost opportunity of the memory-enhancing function of REM-sleep. There is absolutely no substitute for eight hours of sleep.
The human capacity for memory is truly enormous, more than enough you would ever need to learn the information for a dozen different tests as hard as the GMAT. By following these recommendation, you can improve your memory over time, and in doing so, learn more deeply and more thoroughly. Continue to practice all this throughout your life, and the relative advantages will multiply over time. You have the potential to master a skill for which the vast majority of modern people are minimally competent.
If you have some experience with building memory or some further exercises that would help build memory, we would love to hear from you in the comments sections below.