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How to Strengthen Your Memory with Danielle Winton

danielle winton how to strengthen your memory

Today’s episode is a beautifully practical; we’re talking about memory with Danielle Winton of Memory Strategies!

Danielle founded Memory Strategies in 2018 with a focus on how to help students and professionals learn effective and efficient techniques for studying, learning, remembering, focus, and productivity. We’re talking about some things Danielle wishes people understood more about human memory and how it works, and some basic things folks can do to improve their memories. Enjoy!

🎧 Want to listen? This post is based off of Episode 53 of the Neurodiverging Podcast! Listen on Apple Podcasts Google Podcasts | Spotify | Youtube

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Show Notes:

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Guest Bio:

Danielle Winton has a Business Degree with a concentration in International and Managerial business. Upon graduating, she worked abroad in Taiwan and earned a Teaching English as a Foreign Language certificate. She taught for over 10 years and later started teaching for the Asian Affairs Center at the University of Missouri, receiving a credential from the Association for College and University Educators in Effective College Instruction. Danielle founded Memory Strategies in 2018 with a focus on how to help students and professionals learn effective and efficient techniques for studying, learning, remembering, focus, and productivity.


Transcript of How to Strengthen Your Memory with Danielle Winton

Danielle Sullivan (DS): Welcome Danielle, thanks for coming on the Neurodiverging podcast! How are you doing today?

Danielle Winton (DW): I’m doing great, thanks so much for having me.

DS: I’m very excited you’re here, we can dig right in. I know you’re the owner of Memory Strategies, and you provide ‘personalized memory strategies for learners and leaders’ is what it said on your website – I love that! And this is such a cool niche field of like, memory, learning about memory, and how memory functions. How did you get started with it originally?

DW: So the start is kind of interesting…

DS: [laughs]

DW: I started off as a teacher and I was teaching English as a second language, so I had students from all over the world coming to learn English. These were really high intensity programs and we had a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy, [DS agreeing] which means if you failed a class three times, you’re out of the program. So the stakes were really high, you know, parents are sending their kids abroad, it’s expensive, it’s stressful. And what I saw is that these students, you know, it was really burdensome on them.

DS: Yeah

DW: And so as a teacher I was thinking, ‘okay, what can I do to help these kids remember more vocabulary, remember their grammar rules, how can I help them improve their test scores, and keep them in this program?’ And I came across- it was actually a TV show, have you ever heard of the TV show Child Genius?

DS: I don’t know that one. Is it what it sounds like? [laughs]

DW: [laughs] Yeah, it is. It’s these kids, they’re like nine, ten years old, and they’re competing for a scholarship of a hundred thousand dollars.

DS: [Agreeing] Mmhmm

DW: And what was really fascinating is they had a memory round. And they had to memorize a deck of cards, fifty-two cards within an hour, and they couldn’t make any mistakes. And I remember this one girl talked about a memory palace and I was like, ‘what is that?’ So I started doing some research. And so what I did was I learned the memory palace method of learning how to memorize information, and it was really effective. I was able to memorize a deck of cards in an hour without any mistakes, and it was easy. And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I bet I could teach this to my students!’ And so instead of memorizing cards let’s memorize vocabulary words. And I taught them and their scores skyrocketed three hundred percent! So I was like, ‘Okay, I’m on to something. I’ve figured out something that not a lot of teachers use.’ And so I thought, well, let me spread this not just to ESL [English as a Second Language] students but to every student and you know, anyone who needs to get licensed or certified in a professional field [DS agreeing] and they need to cram a bunch of stuff in their head, it’s a really great method. So that’s where it started and that’s why it’s called Memory Strategies, but it’s really grown into how to learn, how to remember, how to study, how to recall, how to really engage with material, and so it’s sort of turned more into, like, study skills.

DS: [Agreeing] Mmhmm

DW: But memory is kind of like that core element, that when you can remember information then things become so much more limitless. You can build on what you already know. That’s what it is, is you’re connecting old information to new information. And the more information you have, the more connections you can make. So that’s what’s so fascinating about it.

DS: That’s really cool. And yeah, the- not only the connections but the way you manipulate information, right, is so affected by memory. I’m somebody with very good- and I don’t know the terminology for memory so you can [laughs] add some in if you like – but I have very good long-term memory, memory of experience, memory of sensory input. I have very poor working memory and so, I’m one of those people who can walk down a street that I haven’t been to for ten years and be like, ‘that’s the place with the really good cookies!’ but if you ask me, like, where did somebody put the thing that I was just holding two minutes ago, that part of my memory is very poor. And so, it’s just, I think that a lot of- and you know, as somebody with Executive Dysfunction and a lot of listeners who are working with folks with Executive Dysfunction – I think that memory piece is so integral and so important and it’s just, it’s just so interesting.

DW: I’m so glad you mentioned that because you know, there are so many- you know we hear short-term memory, long-term memory, working memory, implicit memory, you know, we’ve got muscle memory, we’ve got semantic memory, [DS agreeing] we’ve got episodic memory, so like, it’s…it’s overwhelming, right? And so what I like to tell people is that you know, there are so many different types quote-unquote of memory and just because you’re maybe “bad” at one type of memory doesn’t mean you’re “bad” at another.

DS: [Agreeing] Mmhmm

DW: So you mentioned, like, that place down the street has really good donuts right. That information is processed differently than having to, like, study for the ACT.

DS: [Agreeing] Mmhmm

DW: And so you can learn techniques to improve your semantic memory which is that how to take a test, how to, you know, dates and processes and orders and facts.

DS: [Agreeing] Mmhmm

DW: That information you can learn how to remember. So it’s a skill. Memory is a skill.

DS: Yes. Yes!

DW: You just have to practice it. Yeah.

DS: Which is- I really appreciate you bringing that up because I think a lot of folks, especially those of us who are dealing with ADHD or autism and there’s this framing of it’s a medical issue and therefore it’s that you’re fixed, right, [clears throat] there’s not a lot of growth, these traits are just the way they are. And you know, as a coach, that’s something that we push back against a lot, right. There is growth potential and there’s ways to change. And it’s really fantastic to hear that memory is an area for growth too, that we can adapt and adjust our techniques and our approaches to build that skill. So that’s really exciting.

DW: [inaudible] And what’s even more fascinating is that there are tons of people and especially in the memory world, [DS agreeing] who were dyslexic who were – that had ADHD and they started learning these memory techniques and they could do things that people just didn’t even know were possible. So let me give you an example.

DS: [Agreeing] Mmhmm

DW: There is a world record right now for number of digits of Pi memorized. So Pi is that random number, there’s no pattern or sequence to that number, so it’s just rote memory. Or quote-unquote rote memory.

DS: [Agreeing] Mmhmm

DW: Can you guess the world record for number of digits of Pi memorized?

DS: I feel like if people are out there memorizing decks of cards in an hour, [DW laughs] it’s probably several hundred digits, right, but I have no idea. [Laughter]

DW: Okay it’s [inaudible] several hundred, it’s actually seventy thousand digits!

DS: Wow!

DW: So imagine, like, people for fun… [Laughs]

DS: [Laughs] I guess if you have time, you know, if you’re spending your day there [laughs] I can see you getting that.

DW: Everyone has a hobby, right? [Laughs]

DS: I can see that, yes. [Laughs]

DW: But the point is, these people – or at least, very few of these people are born with this Einstein-like memory, you know, it’s a skill- it’s a type of technique and method [DS agreeing] and discipline that they’ve put into place so that they can remember this arbitrary information. And that’s what learning is. Learning is you have something new that you have never seen before and you have to figure out how do I understand this piece of information, I have to use what’s already in my brain to make those connections.

DS: [Agreeing] Mmhmm

DW: That’s what learning is, connecting old to new.

DS: Absolutely.

DW: And so anyways, so it’s just fascinating that, you know, people with, you know, with either learning disabilities or any other sort of like brain functioning that’s different, like neurodivergent, [both laugh] that it’s a skill that can be learned and people can be really successful despite these learning disabilities.

DS: That’s so excellent. What are some- some of the- you’re not going to give away all your trade secrets obviously but are there some basic things folks who are listening can do or try or teach their students that we can do to be improving our memories? Like, are there everyday things that you’d suggest working on?

DW: Yes. I’ve got a few and I would say the one that I love to share is simply closing your eyes. There was a study done and they said that people who close their eyes when they were trying to remember something were able to recall twenty-three percent more.

DS: [Agreeing] Mmhmm

DW: What that does is, when you’re closing your eyes, you’re…you’re temporarily banning input coming in [DS agreeing] so you’re – it’s basically a focus technique and not so much a memory technique, but that’s a really quick and easy thing anyone can do. Another thing that I love talking about is getting organized [DS agreeing] so that you don’t have to remember everything. Like sometimes we think, oh I can’t remember, but we have so many tools available to us, so much technology, so many systems we can put into place so that that way we aren’t burdened down with, you know, [DS agreeing] the day to day, and we can kind of save our brain power for the more important things. We kind of talked about that before [DS laughs] we got on this podcast. But, throughout a day, we have you know hundreds of thoughts that come in and it’s up to us to sort of- well, and our brain – to sort out like, okay, what’s important. What do I need to remember, what do I not need to remember. [DS agreeing] So anything that you need to remember, you need to have a place for. So I’m sure throughout your day you’re like, oh I have to get my oil changed and I have to put the laundry in and I have this blog idea and I found this little bit of research, but you know, I have a link that’s just in a document somewhere [DS laughs] or bookmarked. You know, and so the idea is in order to remember more you have to set up systems so that when that thought comes into your brain it immediately has a single location where it goes. [DS agreeing] That’s not just like a junk drawer, like, oh I’m just going to deal with all of this later because now you’re dealing with the same issue twice cause you’re having to go back to it, so taking the time to set up the systems to put information in specific places is going to save everyone a lot of time and a lot of headache.

DS: Yeah. Thank you! And that’s a huge piece of focus for a lot my autistic, ADHD clients too, because – and you know, in coaching at least, maybe in memory too – we call it externalizing, right, you get out of your brain and you get it out, somewhere into, you know, a calendar, into a to do list, into a Notion board or a Trello board, right. You have a process for how you’re going to do it.

DW: And speaking to that process-

DS: Yes, absolutely

DW: Because a lot of people put it in a couple of different places and then you’ve just created a new problem. So like being really, really diligent with yourself—

DS: Yeah, highly specific, yeah

[Both laugh]

DS: I’m with you there. That’s really – yeah, and it does reduce so much of that cognitive load and clears so much more space for just thinking to work . And I love the “closing your eyes,” I think I do that automatically. It reminds me of when you’re driving and you get lost and you have to think and you turn off the radio [laughs] because it’s like—

DW: [unclear]

DS: —reducing the load, I can’t see, I don’t know where the turn is, so I’m going to turn off the noise. Which doesn’t make sense, logically, unless you’re thinking about the sensory piece and the reducing input. So I love that you highlighted that cause it’s just so important. Yeah, that’s fantastic. Thank you! And, have you noticed- and I know you work with a mix of different brains and I know you work with ADHDers and dyslexics, have you noticed any difference in how people are using memory or using memory techniques that’s, like, kind of related to brain. That’s like, do ADHDers tend to have different kinds of memories or different strengths than neurotypical people, or is it all mixed? [laughs]

DW: Yeah, I don’t – I mean, I can just talk about my experience [DS agreeing] when I have worked with people with ADHD and like, this isn’t proven this is just kind of what I’ve picked up—

DS: Yeah, your experience, mmhmm.

DW: —it seems like a lot of people that are neurodivergent are actually really good at picking up these memory methods and techniques because it allows for a little more of that creativity. A lot of times our learning processes in a school setting or lecture or workplace you know, it’s the boring video and you have to click through it [DS laughs and agreeing] and it’s not very engaging. So the memory techniques I teach are highly engaging and it uses a lot of creativity, a lot of imagination, a lot of sort of insanity and funny-ness-funny things. And people that are neurodivergent just tend to – I’ve seen tend to pick up on it a little faster [DS agreeing] and can run with it a little easier. I’ll give you an example. There was a kid who attended one of my workshops – this was, let’s see, I think he was, like, maybe sixth grade, there were teenagers there, there were parents there – and I gave them an activity. I said, “I’ve got a list of ten items and I want you to make a story to memorize these ten items.” And I started to go through the example one, two, three, and by the time I got to ‘three,’ this boy raises his hand and he’s like, “I’ve already got the rest of the story,” and he went into detail about every single thing about the little movie he made in his head to remember those ten items. [Snapping her fingers] He was picking up on it so quick, and he didn’t- you know, he wasn’t bound by traditional learning methods [DS agreeing] and so that was really exciting to see. And I’ve seen the same thing happen with other, like, high school students [DS agreeing] that had dyslexia or ADHD and they were able to pick it up really well.

DS: Yeah, thank you. That creativity piece – also, again, from my experience and not evidence-based – I think a lot of autistic brains especially are sometimes hyper-connected, like we form associations between memories…kind of more randomly almost [laughs] You know, again, from this brief conversation that a lot of these memory techniques are based on forming links, forming connections, right, that’s what you said, forming associations. And so it seems like that might be kind of an interesting piece, something I’ll have to do more research on, is yeah, how that might be connected.

DW: So here’s a phrase I really like to tell people: the brain remembers the extraordinary not the ordinary.

DS: [Agreeing] Mmhmm

DW: So the more – you know, when you make those connections, and they quote-unquote don’t make sense, it’s actually good because what you’re doing is, you’re – you are purposefully making something more memorable. [DS agreeing] Our brains are so tired of seeing boring information go in and out, and that’s what we forget so easily, so the more jarring, the more obnoxious, the more bizarre, the more like random [makes air quotes with fingers around ‘random’], the better!

DS: Yeah!

DW: It’s actually good for your brain.

DS: You want that dopamine spike [laughs] to help you get excited about it. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

DW: Yeah.

DS: That’s really cool.

DS: I wanted to ask you, are there any specific myths about how memory works that you would love to [laughs] take this opportunity to correct or to talk about? Because I feel like there’s a lot of ideas – for example, around studying, right – so there’s a lot of ideas that I hear brought to me about how you should study. You sit down, you focus, you know, you read, you do the multiple choice, you do the flashcards, whatever. And some of those are really effective for some brains and some of them are highly [laughs] just not effective, or not a good usage of time. Are there any particular myths or misunderstandings that people come to you with in terms of memory that you think are worth adjusting or worth commenting on?

DW: Yeah, and I think the biggest myth is that memory is fixed at birth, or you’re born- that you have a ‘good’ memory or a ‘bad’ memory. [DS agrees] It’s, you know, being able to learn techniques on how to use memory. Because so often we just rely on like, ‘oh, I can’t remember, oh well’ or ‘darn it’ [snaps fingers] you know?

DS: Yeah

DW: And that’s it. Instead of like ‘Okay, what can I do to be proactive?’ And so, you know, we talk about memory myths but it also goes, you know, we can’t learn without memory and so there’s a lot of learning myths out there too and the biggest one is the one about learning styles.

DS: [Agreeing] Mmhmm

DW: So we’ve heard of the VARK method which is Visual, Auditory, Reading and Writing, and Kinesthetic.

DS: Yeah

DW: The problem with this is that, I mean, this has actually been disproven like for over a decade. And what’s unfortunate is that it’s like one of the largest psychological myths in education to date.

DS: [Agreeing] Mmhmm

DW: And there’s like, literally type in Google ‘learning styles myth’ and you will see hundreds of journal articles – peer reviewed, research-backed journal articles – that say, like, this isn’t actually the case. [laughs]

DS: [Agreeing] Mmhmm

DW: And so, and so some people might feel disappointed by that because maybe they felt like they have found, like, a learning style that works for them. [DS agreeing] And here’s…here’s the conclusion of this: is that people are capable of learning in more styles than they thought they could.

DS: [Agreeing] Mmhmm

DW: So it’s actually good news that this myth is busted. It was pigeon-holing a lot of people into, like, ‘oh, I can only learn this one way.’ And so you have, like, blocked off other types of learning. And so it suppresses that growth mindset. So the good news is that we are capable of learning in multiple, quote-unquote learning styles, we can learn in a lot of different ways.

DS: Yeah. That’s awesome. I love that it’s a- an argument for the growth, right, that it’s not just, ‘oh, you’re not a visual learner, you’ve lost something,’ but it’s ‘oh, you could be a visual learner and also access information’ [DW agreeing] through all these other ways because ‘visual learning’ isn’t a thing in and of itself, right? [DW agreeing] So that’s really cool.

DW: Let’s say that you are learning, like, how to fix a car, right? So if you only listen to audiobooks about how to, like, tear apart an engine and rebuild it again, and you’ve only listened to audiobooks on this, you’re pro- like, when you have to go fix a car, you’re probably not gonna be very good at it. It’s because it’s a naturally kinesthetic job. [DS agreeing] You actually have to work with your hands, and so that’s how your learn, you practice using your hands. And same thing with a math problem, right. Like, a lot of people are not going to be auditory people with a math problem, like, they’re not just gonna speak the math problem in their head. A lot of people have to write it on paper. [DS agreeing] Reading and writing, a different learning style than maybe what they’re- what they thought they were. So, you know, different types of learning takes place in different channels, in different methods [DS agreeing], and so we’re capable of doing a lot more than we think.

DS: Yeah. That’s really cool. Awesome!

[Both laugh]

DS: We blasted through the questions I had for you. [Both laugh] Which is great, and sometimes that happens. Is there anything I didn’t ask you that I should [laughs] while I have you? Or anything you wanted to get across in this interview that I haven’t given you the opportunity to?

DW: I would say when it comes to memory and learning that there are study skills that a lot of people don’t know about. So one thing I want people to take away is that there are study skills, that especially teens or college-age students or even adults [DS agreeing] can use that go beyond reading something, highlighting, and making note cards. That’s kind of- when I ask people, like, how do you learn, how do you study, those are the three big ones that come up.

DS: Yeah.

DW: But there is so much- there are much more effective ways. And so one of those is to talk to another person about it, and if you don’t have another person, talk to the mirror, talk to yourself, [laughing] talk to your pet, and using your mouth to explain something [DS agreeing], a concept, it makes you the teacher and when you can teach something, you understand it to a whole new degree than you did just sort of consuming it.

DS: [Agreeing] Mmhmm

DW: So, some people think, like, ‘Oh, I’m reading this book, I’m learning a lot by reading.’ But we can read a paragraph and then forget what we just read. Or not understand what we just read. [DS agreeing] So being able to think about it, write- make a visual on paper, you know like, doodling. Doodling is so underrated! Doodling can do so much for helping us connect dots and rearrange information in a way until we finally understand. [DS agreeing] I’ll give you a real-world example of that. I was kind of mapping out one of my business processes, and it took me at four or five different tries to finally get it in a way that made sense, that included all the information, [DS agreeing] and that made sense to me. It wasn’t making sense to me and I created the process!

DS: Yeah

DW: And so I ended up drawing it on paper, drawing it on a whiteboard, using miro.com which is like another whiteboard platform [DS agreeing], then I ended up using Asana which allows you to input a calendar…so I played with the information, even though I was the creator of it until I could explain it to my assistant, right.

DS: Yeah

DW: So that’s what we have to do with information and with learning to really understand something is to play with it. Get dirty, try a bunch of different methods instead of just reread, reread, reread, I don’t get it, oh well.

DS: Yeah

DW: Really get your hands in there and play with it. That’s what I encourage people to do. [Laughter] and to be able to understand more of the world around them.

DS: Thank you so much! I really appreciate you being here today. Can you let folks know- where can they find your blog and all the information about Memory Strategies? [laughs]

DW: Yep. You can go to memorystrategy.com and you’ll see the blog and you’ll see all kinds of information there that will be really helpful.

DS: Awesome! And I’ll put links in the show notes below so please check them out. Thanks so much for being here today, Danielle, I really appreciate it, this was awesome!

DW: Thank you! I appreciate your time.

2 Comments

  1. I enjoyed the podcast.

    While there are many autistic people that have excellent visual memory there are many of us that do not. I have aphantasia and have no ability to visualize. Since memory palaces (a.k.a. the method of Loci) rely on visual memory it isn’t an option for me. I actually stumbled upon aphantasia because I tried really hard to learn to use memory palaces. One good book I highly recommend on the topic of memory palaces is Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer.

    And here are several articles I found when researching about memory in autistics:

    https://www.spectrumnews.org/opinion/children-with-autism-have-trouble-recalling-memories/
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autism_and_memory
    https://pubs.asha.org/doi/10.1044/2020_LSHSS-20-00062
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32210486/

    1. Hi Jeff, thank you for listening to the podcast and leaving this comment! I really appreciate the resources you’ve shared here and hope other folks will find them helpful. I also have very poor visualization skills and the memory palace technique does not work for me, but as you said, autistics vary so widely in our skill sets that I am sure there are folks who use that technique very successfully.

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