Would you like to improve your memory?

Have you ever marveled at how experienced speakers and evaluators can speak fluently without notes or with minimal usage of notes?

Many of us would like to improve our memories, but we are not sure if improvement is possible and if possible we are not sure what tricks or techniques would work for us. Dr. Barry Gordon (2003) has written an inspiring book entitled Intelligent Memory: Improve the Memory That Makes You Smarter. Gordon and co-author Berger distinguish between “ordinary memory” and “intelligent memory” (p. 3). They break intelligent memory into the components of “paying attention, storing memories and pieces, building connections, finding the right memories or pieces, and tuning” (p. 10). This mini essay describes each component.

Paying Attention

Many of us have worked hard to improve our listening skills and have developed techniques for paying closer attention to important messages. Internal, external, and personal distractions can interrupt our listening or attentive work at any point. We have all experienced that “inner voice” that keeps asking the same question: Did you lock the front door? Did you remember to pay that bill? External distractions can be weather related or related to world or local events. Our own habits often lead to personal distractions. If we are hooked on email, social media, or addicted to cigarettes or coffee, we can often distract and interrupt ourselves or that “inner voice” can interrupt our train of thought with a nagging reminder of “I need a smoke” or “I need a cup of coffee” (or “I need to check my email”). Bailey (2016) points out that paying attention requires the self-discipline to manage the time hijackers. 

Storing Memories and Pieces

Storing memories and pieces of information is a lifelong on-going process. We have all had deliberate experiences such as memorizing the times table and cramming for an exam. The times table is probably a good example of one of Gordon’s (2003) main points about intelligent or deliberate memory. While some students possibly struggled with rote memorization with the multiplication tables, other students probably noticed patterns of counting by two’s (2, 4, 6, 8, 10), counting by three’s (3, 6, 9, 12, 15) and counting by eights (8, 16, 24, 32, 40). Intelligent memory places a structure or pattern that connects the pieces. Keeping a diary or journal can remarkably improve our abilities to recollect or retrieve details about events and developing ideas from the past.

Building Connections

Building connections is perhaps the most interesting and unique of Gordon’s (2003) points. Gordon introduces the concept of the “minimind” (p. 9) [also called radiant thinking]. We are sometimes aware of the minimind working, but other times it works swiftly “below the surface of our consciousness” (p. 9). When rehearsing for a community play, I was having trouble memorizing my lines until I started building mental associations and triggers to help jog my memory. My last line (and the last line in the play) was “And a very good thing, too.” (Hart & Kaufman, 1937). This was not a difficult line, but I put a little mnemonic note in the margin of my script book (aavgtt). I had used a similar technique in trigonometry class: soh, cah, toa, cho, cha, cao translated to sinƟ = opposite/hypotenuse; cah was cosƟ = adjacent/hypotenuse; toh was short for tanƟ = opposite/hypotenuse, and so forth. These are hardly the best examples of miniminds, but our brains often make subtle and subliminal connections that we are not even aware of. Taking courses, participating in theater events, attending conferences, and watching movies are some of the many ways to build connections.

Retrieving Memories and Pieces

Similar to a file we have stored somewhere on our computer or a fact that we can’t quite recall, we often have a challenge recalling the memories and bits of knowledge that we have lurking somewhere in our cranium. Similar to the process of filing computer files in logical locations, Gordon (2003) recommends several techniques to sharpen our thinking and thus improve our intelligent memory (increase our miniminds); 1) think outside the box (avoid being limited to a binding framework); 2) look for unexpected connections; 3) question your assumptions; 4) slow down your thinking and analyze a step by step solution or approach; 5) improve your critical thinking skills and acquire more related tools; 6) check your results (change hats from writer to editor, student to teacher, speaker to evaluator); 7) relax and let your brain operate without undue stress or pressure (meditate, exercise, or sleep); 8) find some fun or passionate motivation to stimulate your effortless effort; 9) begin and begin again (take breaks as necessary); and 10) scramble, reverse engineer (work the problem backward), brainstorm, free associate, eliminate nonessential factors, add new factors, and simplify. According to Chaffee (2006), “the world is constructed in a complex web or causal relationships” (p. 438). Often we can find correlations that occur, but have no cause-effect connection. Sometimes we can use these correlations to help us locate a root cause. A person might get hay fever every spring, but spring is not causing the hay fever. Perhaps a specific and treatable allergy is causing the hay fever and lab testing might help to identify the allergy. 

Tuning and Pruning

As mentioned above, we can improve our attentiveness, be more deliberate and effective in how we store our memories and mini-minds, be proactive about building connections, and become more cognizant of how we retrieve memories and pieces of information. As we consciously make these improvements we can be tuning the process and improving what works for us and perhaps pruning away what doesn’t quite fit in the orchestra of our activities. In order to have plenty of time for rest and relaxation, for example, we have to give up or minimize activities that hijack our precious time.

Concluding Thoughts

If you have read this far, you probably believe the subtitle of Gordon’s (2003) book (improve the memory that makes you smarter). Believing in the process is the important first step. When I first heard about cholesterol and the dangers of having elevated cholesterol, I mistakenly assumed that like a tree or a plant or many other objects in nature, growth is one-way (as in upward). I later learned that cholesterol could be lowered with intelligent diet and in some more severe cases, with medication. With a lot of historical emphasis on intelligence quotient (IQ) many of us believed that intelligence was fixed for life.  We now know that intelligence can be measured in many ways including emotional intelligence (EQ) and cultural intelligence (CQ). As Gordon, Chaffee (2006), and many other authors demonstrate, intelligence can be improved. Perhaps, the most gratifying point is that as we acquire knowledge and experience in a life-long learning journey, we also improve our abilities to retrieve lessons and stories from that data base of living.


Chaffee, J. (2006). Thinking critically (8th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Gordon, B. (2003). Intelligent memory: Improve the memory that makes you smarter. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

Hart, M., & Kaufman, G. S. You can’t take it with you. New York, NY: Dramatists Play Service.

About the Author

Mike Piellusch, ACB, joined Toastmasters circa 1985.  His first club was Jetstream Toastmasters, which was founded in 1957 and is still going strong.  Due to a Silicon Valley job change, Mike dropped out of Toastmasters in 1986 and was “club-less” until he found Gribble Gatekeepers at the Humphreys Engineer Center in 2015.  Mike earned his Competent Communicator Award (CC) at Gribble Gatekeepers and served as Vice President of Education (VPE), Club President, and Newsletter Editor.  Mike has also been a member of the REAL Advanced Club where he served as Vice President of Public Relations (VPPR) and Sergeant at Arms.  He is currently a fairly new member of the Belvoir Club (founded coincidentally in 1985).  A very slow driver in the “middle lane,”  Mike earned his Advanced Communicator Bronze (ACB) in 2018 after 33 years of speaking, thinking about speaking, and challenging a few dedicated VPEs .

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