If I had to ask you whether you wish you could improve your memory”, I would imagine many of you would sound a resounding “yes”. There have been many books written on improving memory (names, phone numbers, lists) and they usually rely on memory tricks where you attach vivid imagery to poetry to create in the hope of creating meaningful associations. That might work when remembering names, but what else influences what we remember?
I have mentioned that what you attend to is dependent on what you know, and what you know is what is held in our memory banks. These memories would include the autobiographical facts (your name, where you got the scar on your knee; memories gives you the sense of who you are) and historical memories (Leningrad is in Russia, I had eggs for breakfast) and memories of how to do things (how to read, ride a bicycle) and emotional memories (the smell of peanut butter biscuits makes me smile, I am scared of spiders).
What and how much you remember depends on how much you know, and whether you understand what you’re trying to remember.
The bigger or more elaborate your “framework” or associations, the easier it is for you to “hang” new information on the existing framework. Structure and and meaning are therefore critical to retaining information. If something makes sense, it is easier to understand.
The context in which we have remembered something also matters a great deal (called the “compatibility principle” or “context dependent memory”). Retrieval cues, things that are associated with the memory, help you remember. So you have a better chance of remembering something you learned in the classroom, if you are tested in the same classroom, or remembering what you had for breakfast when standing in the kitchen.
Your mood influences what you remember. If you were happy when you learned something, you’ve got a better chance of remembering it when you’re happy. You even have a better chance of remembering something you learned when under the influence, if you are slightly tippled when you are try to remember (so what happens in Vegas, really does stay in Vegas).