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574 doesn't ring a bell? Boost memory with simple tricks
Tribune Staff Writer

Five seven four. Five seven four. Five four ... Uh, what was it?

Three little numbers -- our new area code -- are stumping Michianans. Why does 219 seem so easy, yet 574 seems as slippery as butter on Teflon?

Jan Atwood, for one, finds the new area code elusive.

"There's nothing to connect it to," said Atwood, an Elkhart resident who works as a registered nurse and lactation consultant at Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center in South Bend. "Or is it just memory overload?"

What with so many access codes to memorize, especially at her job, "I feel there are so many numbers to know these days," she said.

Given the way memory works, it's not surprising that a new area code might pose a challenge, experts say. Arbitrary groups of numbers are difficult to learn; what's already stored in the brain can clash with new information, and to a small extent, age plays a part.

Peak performance for memory occurs in the mid-20s, just as with the physical body, said Frederick W. Unverzagt, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. Of course, people can learn new information their whole lives, "but it isn't so easy or efficient. It takes more effort," he said.

Children seem to memorize so easily compared to adults because of a lack of interference. Previously learned information can interfere with similar but new material, said Ruth Propper, assistant professor of psychology at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.

For example, an old phone number may stubbornly pop up for a long time after you try to retrieve a new one from memory, Propper said.

Children have fewer memories to interfere with new information compared to adults, she explained.

Another factor at play is that many people are overloaded with passwords, personal identification numbers and multiple phone numbers for the household, not to mention numbers for the office, said Unverzagt. "Not so long ago, you would get by with one household phone number," he said. What makes memorizing even harder is the fact that fax, phone, cell numbers aren't organized in a particular way.

What's more, it's harder to memorize information that you aren't interested in or what you aren't happy about, said Michael Epstein, professor of psychology at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J.

To a lot of people, 219 means a physical location, so it is understandable to be perturbed over the change, he said. "You have lost your place."

The good news is there are many tricks to help boost memory, and not only for phone numbers. These tools work for tasks as diverse as remembering the names of people you meet at a party, studying for an exam, remembering appointments and recalling grocery lists.

Pay attention and make connections. Don't let your mind wander when you are being introduced to someone new, Epstein said. Make sure you are really hearing the person's name and not thinking about what you are going to say next. Then connect the name with a feature about the person. For example, if a man named Steve has a lot of bushy hair, find a rhyme and tell yourself you could "weave a rug out of hair from Steve."

Translate numbers to images. Use the phonetic alphabet (see sidebar) to translate numbers to words, which are more easily remembered, Epstein said. For example, 574 translates to "lkr." It sounds like "locker." Now you can visualize the new area code as a phone sitting in a gym locker.

Give it a story. Because numbers like area codes are relatively arbitrary and hard to remember, find a way to make it personal, Propper said. For example, "574 can be translated as May 1974, so think of something significant that happened back then."

Make it into a song. Ever wonder why we have perfect recall of the beer ads from 20 years ago? One reason commercials work so well is they use jingles to make the information stick, Propper said.

Rehearse with intention. Write the information out on paper, but each time change the size, style, shape or color of what you are writing, suggests Donalee Markus, a learning and critical-thinking consultant in Highland Park, Ill.

Though people learn through hearing, sight and touch, most tend to find and stick with their favorite way of learning. However, the most effective way to memorize is to apply all the learning tools, said Markus, who has coached scientists at NASA. For example, read or sing the information out loud, write it several different ways and create a colorful, patterned drawing, she said.

Memory flubs tend to worry people, but in the majority of cases, they shouldn't be a cause for concern, Epstein said. It isn't a problem if you forgot where you left your car, but if you forget you have a car or how you got where you are, it might indicate a physical problem, he said.

Don't worry about the occasional memory glitch, Unverzagt advised. "Cut yourself a little slack, put that effort into remembering better, be as organized as you can be, make lists and use a date book," he said. "Take the load off the memory and save yourself the frustration."

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