It happens to everyone: Someone introduces themself to you and then you promptly forget their name 10 seconds later. Or maybe your memory fails you in other ways on a regular basis in other ways. Say you’re standing in the checkout line at Target staring at your full cart but can’t remember the one thing you actually came in to buy.
These memory lapses happen, but according to renowned brain health expert Gary Small, MD, the chair of psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center and co-author of The Memory Bible ($16), there are ways to train your brain so these type of slip-ups become less common.
In fact, there’s one brain-training tip he puts into use on a regular basis that helps with both short- and long-term memory. It’s a little something he calls the look, snap, connect method. “It’s a simple way to learn and remember something, as well as recall it later in the future,” Dr. Small says. In his book he writes, “By mastering look, snap, connect, you will incorporate a foundation for solid memory-training.”
Want to learn the look, snap, and connect method? Keep reading to see how to do it.
The first step of the method is about actively observing what it is you want to learn. “The biggest reason why people don’t remember something is that they’re distracted,” Dr. Small says. “This is a reminder to focus your attention.” He says that people are so often trying to multitask, splitting their attention between several different things, and that this is a big barrier to remembering information. If you want to remember something, put away your phone and focus on the moment, Dr. Small advises.
For example, if you’re driving somewhere new for the first time and want to recall exactly where it is so it’s easy to find in the future, Dr. Small says to focus on specific landmarks you pass on the way. Actively note the gas station on the corner or the Wendy’s at the traffic light where you turn.
Feel like you’re observing the scene pretty well? Now it’s time for the second step: snap. “This involves creating a mental snapshot of the information you want to remember,” Dr. Small says. “They say a picture is worth 1,000 words, and it really is because if you can create a visual image connected to something you want to remember, you have a better chance of doing so.”
Dr. Small says your mental snapshot can be real (legit what you are seeing) or imagined (a visual image you’re putting together in your mind). “For me personally, I prefer unusual snapshots because they jog my memory better,” Dr. Small says.
For example, if you want to remember someone’s name is Abe, creating a mental snapshot of them resembling Abe Lincoln may help—this is an example of an imagined snapshot. “Other people may prefer a more logical snapshot,” Dr. Small says. “It just depends on what works for you.” An example of a logical snapshot is visualizing an empty laundry detergent container in the trash can so you remember to buy more when you’re at the store later.
Here’s another example of how to practice the snapshot method. Say you’re at the gym and you stash your clothes in a locker with the number E12. You can create an imagined mental snapshot of a dozen elephants wearing gym clothes to give meaning to a locker number that otherwise means nothing to you. Want to go with a more logical snapshot? Take a minute to actively observe exactly where your locker is and take a mental snapshot of something meaningful. Perhaps you observe that it’s the closest to the showers or the locker next to it has a little gum stuck on it. Take a mental snapshot of the landmarks you’re noticing before leaving the locker room.
The last step in the look, snap, connect method is helpful for when you have to remember several things that aren’t related to each other. Maybe after work you need to pick up your dry cleaning, buy dog food, and water your plants. “Connect is the basis of the link method, which orders items by associating the things to be remembered with one another—the ideas or images become part of a chain, starting with the first item, which is associated with the second, which is associated with the third, and so forth,” Dr. Small explains in his book.
Coming up with a few snapshots that link each of these tasks together can help. You may create a snapshot of you picking up your dry cleaning with a dog eating by the register and then the dog running out of the store and coming back over with a watering can. Again, the beauty of mental snapshots is that they can be totally imagined and silly. In fact, creating a funny story by linking playful mental snapshots may even help you remember something better.
If you’re only trying to remember one thing—like someone’s name—you only need to use the observe and snap steps of the method. But if want to remember more than one thing, applying all three steps is your best bet.
“The more you practice it, the easier it becomes,” Dr. Small says. It’s just like working any other muscle. “Memory can be improved,” Dr. Small says. “Your mental capacity can be improved. And that’s encouraging.”
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