Episodic Memory - What is It and How Can You Strengthen It?

We use our episodic memory when recalling events, situations or experiences. It is a form of long term memory that gives us information about the who, what, where, when and why in relation to our past experiences. For example, think back to your 13th birthday party, a concert that you attended, a story that you read in a book or the first time that fell in love. In recalling these experiences, you are using your episodic memory.

Why Are Episodic Memories Important?

Episodic memories are a vital and taken-for-granted part of our cognitive repertoire. For starters, they allow us to develop a sense of our own personal history and identity, by allowing us to recall the past events that have shaped us into the people that we are. They also allow us to revisit what has happened in the past so that we can learn from those experiences; or simply to bond with our friends and family by reminiscing about a shared past.  

Techniques for Improving Episodic Memory

Let’ explore some simple, evidence-based strategies that you can start using to improve your episodic memory today.

A)     The name-face technique

This involves using a person’s facial features to remember their name – something that you’re likely to struggle with if your episodic memory is poor. In doing this, we want to create an imaginary scenario based on a person’s facial features. Here’s how to do it:

Step 1:

Identify one noticeable facial feature in the person that you have just met: what stands about them? A noticeable beard, flowing hair, bright eyes or a protruding nose, perhaps?  

Step 2:

Find an associative word that you can link to their name. For example, for the name Tom you might use the word ‘tomato’; for Sally you might use the word ‘silly’.

Step 3:

Create an interactive image – like a movie in your mind – where you link your word with that person’s distinguishing feature. It’s important to be creative and to actively visualize this scenario.

Let’s look at an example of how you might perform these steps:

You meet a man called Patrick and quickly spot a distinguishing facial feature: he has a shiny, bald head. His name makes you think of the word ‘pat’. Now, you can link the word “pat” with the gentleman’s distinctive facial feature by imaging, say, a gigantic hand patting him on his head! Because this thought is dynamic and stored as an image, you’re likely to be able to recall it far more easily than an abstract name.

So, the next time you forget the name of your balding friend, start by identifying the facial feature that distinguishes him – i.e. his bald head. This should remind you of your interactive image and your associative word (pat), which will bring you to the name Patrick.

B)     Create A Memory Palace

This technique involves using a familiar place to help you remember a series of events or details. This strategy works so well because we’re activating the part of our brain that’s responsible for spatial thinking – and this part is also linked to our episodic memories. Here’s how to perform the memory palace technique:

Step 1:

What do you want to remember? You could use a shopping list, a vacation or the plot of a movie, for example.

Given that we’re improving our episodic memory, for this example let’s use your favourite series: we’re going to remember what happened in each episode.

Step 2:

Choose a familiar space to use as your palace: your office, home, or your route to work. The bigger the place, the more information you can store in it.

For this example, we’ll use your childhood home.

Step 3:

Imagine yourself walking through your palace and choose the different locations that you can use to store memories. Each memory will go into a different location in your palace, so the number of locations must correspond with the number of memories you want to recall.  

In your childhood home, for example, your front door could be used to store your first memory. The second memory could go in your passageway; and the third, fourth and fifth memories could be placed in different parts of your kitchen.

Step 4:

Place each component of what you want to remember in the different locations of your palace. The strategy works best if you can get as creative as possible.

For example, in episode one the protagonist fell in love. How can you link this to the front door of your childhood home? Imagine that your door-bell is shaped as a heart, which will cue you to remember that the theme of episode 1 was falling in love.

In episode two, the protagonist had his heart broken. Imagine yourself walking through the front door into the hallway. The vase that’s usually there is lying broken on the floor, which will cue you to think of a broken heart; and so on.

Step 5:

Exercise that memory muscle by practicing this technique as often as you can! Run through your memory palace and try to bring back the plot of each episode until you’re able to remember the whole season. Then you can move onto season 2!

C)     Practice Mindfulness

While the name-face and memory palace techniques are very effective for strengthening your memory, these can be challenging for people who struggle to think visually. In this case, you may want to try out mindfulness: a form of Buddhist mediation that has been successfully incorporated into various forms of psychotherapy.

At its core, mindfulness is about focusing intensely on the present moment and re-directing one’s focus when distractions occur. The idea is that because you’re focussing fully on what’s happening in the moment, your brain is better able to store those episodic memories, which can then be more easily recalled later.

Mindfulness training exercises are readily available online. You can find a free and comprehensive course here; or a list of the top 5 mindfulness apps here.

D)     Healthy Lifestyle

Science tells us that the connection between our bodies and brains is remarkably strong. This means that having a healthy body can dramatically improve your brain’s functioning. What can you do to target episodic memories? Focus on sleep and exercise. If you can sleep for a minimum of 7.5 hours every night and engage in daily physical activity of at least 30 minutes, you’re likely to see real improvements in your episodic memory. Adopting a healthy lifestyle can also make the other techniques we have discussed today more effective.

Additionally, you may want to consider adopting a brain-food diet that’s rich in delectables such as olive oil, nuts, blueberries chocolate and coffee. The components of a brain-friendly diet are described in more detail here, along with some helpful recipes. 

E)     Other Resources

When it comes to reading material, on the other hand, there is no shortage of content for people seeking to improve their episodic memory. For example, memory athlete Kevin Horsley’s has written a Wall Street Journal Best Seller titled “Unlimited Memory: How to Use Advanced Learning Strategies to Learn Faster, Remember More and be More Productive”. This book describes creative tricks and techniques for sharpening one’s general memory systems. Similarly, the acclaimed Dr Daniel Amen’s “Memory Rescue: Supercharge Your Brain, Reverse Memory Loss, and Remember What Matters Most” covers strategies for strengthening memory and improving overall brain health.

Final Thoughts

Neuroscience has made the exciting discovery that our brains can change – psychologists refer to this as neuroplasticity. This means that, in a sense, our brain is like a muscle: if we train it correctly, we can shape it to behave in the way that we want.

We have explored the idea of episodic memories and looked at four scientifically informed strategies for strengthening them. But, keep in mind that a bodybuilder doesn’t look that way after a single day in the gym. Repetition is key: the more we exercise our brain the stronger our episodic memories are likely to become!


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