What are ways to remember what I've heard?
March 12, 2009 12:21 AM   Subscribe

Lately I've realized that I have a really hard time remembering something if I only hear it. I'm okay at remembering things that I read, but if it's spoken it doesn't have much staying power. What are some ways I can improve my memory of the spoken word?

It's also a cultural thing, I think. I was raised with technology (including writing things down) taking care of remembering things for me, and I'd like to get better at remembering things in my head. It makes me sad when I hear an interesting speech and then realize a few minutes later I can't remember a single sentence that was spoken.

In a classroom setting, I know that it's recommended to keep notes. But really here I'm talking about conversations with people or things I might hear. This would be in circumstances where note-taking would be difficult. I'm also highly unwilling to take notes since I'm a slow, sloppy writer whose hands get tired easily (I can type fast, but bringing my laptop with me everywhere just to remember a conversation I had with a friend seems crazy).

It might be helpful to note that I don't really think visually or remember visually (how I remember things I'm not clear on, which may be part of the problem).

As a piggyback question, any good tips for remembering specifically the names of people? I find whenever I'm listening to a narrative or meeting people the names all fall right out of my ears. If I focus very hard I can at least remember the names of the people that I met, but that means I can't relax.
posted by Deathalicious to Grab Bag (9 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Like you, I've always had a hard time remembering things I've only heard rather than seen, read, or written down. However, ever since I started listening to public radio podcasts on a regular basis, an odd but pleasant side benefit seems to be that my aural recall has improved considerably. I have no idea why. Maybe I had to train my brain to receive information by listening without writing anything down (I've always been a note-taker, but as you pointed out, it's not always practical). Anyway, if you enjoy listening to podcasts it might be worth a try. It didn't happen overnight, but I have noticed a definite difference.

You said that you're not sure how you remember things--that you don't think it's visual. Perhaps it's kinaesthetic--that the act of doing something helps you to remember. You could try doing something with your hands while you listen, as long as it's discreet and wouldn't make your conversational partner think you're not listening.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:23 AM on March 12, 2009 [3 favorites]

The two things that have helped me are a) trying to make a visual connection in my mind, and b) repeating silently to myself what was just said.
posted by Harald74 at 1:40 AM on March 12, 2009

My travel journal from my recent trip to Morocco was incredibly helpful later in recollecting what had happened, but I only wrote in it for about half an hour at the end of the day, right before going to sleep, and I re-read it multiple times. Journaling conversations after the fact won't be as accurate as a recording, but will be better than nothing.
posted by mdonley at 1:47 AM on March 12, 2009

Best answer: Confucius allegedly wrote "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." - so it is not just newly observed phenomenon.

A commonly recommended technique for trying to remember things like speeches is to use Loci Mnemonics - basically imagine the elements you are trying to remember in relation to places in an environment you are familiar with. A few years ago I noticed that something like this worked for me when it came to remembering things I had heard on the car radio while driving; if I drove through a place a second time I could often remember what I had been listening to when I was there previously.

So next time somebody offers to tell you a story, why not take them on a walk?
posted by rongorongo at 2:40 AM on March 12, 2009

Best answer: Definitely visualize as much as you can from the speech. Don't write it down just imagine you are writing it down. I've found this very helpful for phone numbers and names, etc stuff that I would typically forget on the spot before the person even left me. Now I write it down in my imaginary notebook and this can help.

Active Listening, by making connections with the speech or words like recommended above will also help.
posted by aetg at 3:52 AM on March 12, 2009

What has really helped me develop a better audio memory is repeating the words at least ten times, or, if you have the chance, to listen to a recording several times. After having my brain practice at this, I found that I was able to retain more of what I was listening to after the first listen.

I teach and I can never remember the names of my students on the first day. Over the first few classes, I go out of my way to say their names back at them when I'm talking with them, so if you can, use a person's name in conversation as many times as possible. If you don't remember it you can always ask them again!
posted by so much modern time at 3:59 AM on March 12, 2009

All the above techniques are captured in a book -- Use Your Perfect Memory by Tony Buzan. It teaches techniques for remembering and the beauty of it is the techniques are based on research on how the brain works.
posted by Judyst at 6:31 AM on March 12, 2009

Best answer: Do you remember things if you say them? I also have trouble listening. So I'll concentrate for a little while, and then (gently) interrupt the person and paraphrase what they've just told me. I couch it in terms of making sure I understand some subtlety or nuance of the story, but I'm really just repeating the facts so I will remember them later. Also, when I meet people I make sure to say their name a bunch of times after they introduce themselves, while I'm still talking to them. It may sound weird and awkward to do that, but I've never run into anyone on the receiving end who thought it was out of the ordinary. If anything, they appreciated me trying to use their name. People like it when you pay attention!
posted by bluefly at 8:56 AM on March 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I appreciate the responses so far. Just to reiterate, I really can't visualize things, although I agree for others reading the thread it's very possibly a useful suggestion. I actually do sometimes write out people's names in the air in front of their faces. However, without question the easiest way for me to remember someone's name is to see their name written down (in print) along with a photo. So, for example, I always remember piratebowling's handle (because I see it all the time when I see the site) but have to be reminded of her real name at every Meetup.

As far as travel, I have a pretty good memory for food, so I often remember my travels by the food I ate that day. Journaling conversations after the fact would help if I could remember what was talked about even 5 minutes after the fact.

In a perfect world if I, say, listened to a news report on the radio or had a conversation with a friend, I'd be able to recall the main points as well as 3-5 facts from the conversation. I think active listening would definitely help.

What about situations where it's just not possible to repeat things, in one-sided communication particularly? Any suggestions?
posted by Deathalicious at 9:23 AM on March 12, 2009

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