Using Imagination to Improve Memory

By: Jenna Savage

There are a variety of ways to improve upon memory skills, as we have reported in the past. Eating well, sleeping well, playing brain games, and even exercising can help boost memory retention and recall. However, it turns out that those aren’t the only tools for helping individuals retrieve information. A PsychCentral article reports that new research on memory has indicated that self-imagination — for example, imagining oneself performing a task — may lead to better recall.

The idea that memory can help people learn about themselves is not new. Previous research has shown that people can use their imaginations to develop strategies and come to personal conclusions. However, the new study described in the article, which was conducted by University of Arizona psychological scientists Matthew Grilli and Elizabeth Glisky, suggests that when people think of something from a personal perspective, their ability to recall specific information improves.

To test this hypothesis, the scientists studied 15 participants with memory impairments that resulted from traumatic brain injuries and 15 participants without memory impairments. They were asked to engage in free recall, a process of recalling a list of items. In this case, the list consisted of a set of personality traits. Participants were asked to use one of five methods of recall: baseline, semantic elaboration, semantic self-referential processing, or self-imagining.

The results showed that both groups experienced better free recall after using self-imagination. In particular, the participants with memory impairments found that if they thought of the personality trait provided in terms of self-description, they remembered it better than if they were asked to think about a time when they acted out the personality trait. This method of self-imagination improved memory and also confirmed previous research conclusions, which suggested that traumatic brain injury patients struggle with knowledge about the past.

In addition, the study suggests that memory impairments can be treated through the use of self-imagination. The scientists also suggest that using self-imagination as a context for working on improving recall may help patients with traumatic brain injuries and memory impairments learn the skills that they need to encourage independence. In fact, it may also help integrate them learn skills necessary for returning to work.

While it is possible that this study will improve upon the treatments used for traumatic brain injury patients, it also provides important insight into memory for individuals who do not have brain injuries or memory impairments. Students and employees can also benefit from the study’s conclusions by using self-imagination to remember important concepts or facts for exams or projects.

If you are interested in learning more, the study will be published in Clinical Psychological Science, an Association for Psychological Science journal.