What Is Verbal Memory, And How Can You Improve It?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated February 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Memory is an essential and complex part of human cognition. It can be divided into many different types according to how long information will be stored—such as with primary and secondary memory—and the type of information being stored—such as with visual memory and verbal memory. Today, we’ll be focusing on verbal memory in particular. Read on to learn more about this important type of memory, including how it works and how you can improve it.

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It can be scary to face memory challenges

Verbal memory, defined

The American Psychological Association defines verbal memory as one’s capacity to remember written or spoken information previously learned.

It involves the recognition of speech sounds that make up a given language so we can recall and reproduce sounds that correspond to words that we’ve read or heard in the past. 

Challenges with verbal memory—which can manifest as trouble with oral comprehension and difficulty producing speech—can occur as a result of damage to or degeneration of the left side of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls it. A medical professional can check an individual’s verbal memory ability through neuropsychological tests. These can take a variety of forms, but they’ll often involve word lists or short stories that the tested individual will be asked to provide information on later.

The components of verbal memory

Verbal memory can be both short-term and long-term. For example, you may recall certain words on your grocery list from last week, and you also recall thousands of vocabulary words in the language(s) that you have heard and spoken all your life. The three distinct components of verbal memory include:

  • Capacity: the amount of information that you can hold
  • Duration: the amount of time you can hold various types of memories
  • Encoding: techniques that allow us to maintain short-term verbal memory, such as the repetition and rehearsal of verbal memories (like practicing your lines for a play again and again until you remember them)
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An example of verbal memory

The most common example of verbal memory is being able to remember the words of a quote or a poem that you heard or saw written, but that’s not the only function of verbal memory. Let’s take a look at a slightly more complex example to get an idea of some of the nuances in this type of memory.

Say you’re taking a word association test that pairs similar words together. You hear “house” and then “flue” (the term for the duct inside a chimney that smoke travels through). Even if you’ve never heard the word “flue” before, you’re likely to recall it later if you hear “house.” This is the result of your verbal memory allowing you to continue to associate the two words you heard together even after the test is over. It’s one of the ways in which verbal memory can be an important tool for learning.

What’s the average verbal memory capacity?

Our capacity for verbal memory—or any type of memory—is not infinite. In fact, although it seems paradoxical, we need to forget to some degree for our memory to function properly. Otherwise, our brains would be too cluttered with small, unimportant memories (like what kind of sandwich you had for lunch five years ago) to be able to store new information. That’s why individuals with a healthy memory capacity and functioning will typically retain and forget information automatically as needed so there’s always space available for new information.

The number of items that the average person can retain at a time in terms of short-term working verbal memory is Miller’s magic number, which dates to a 1956 study. At the time, they found that most adults could retain roughly five to nine items on average within their short-term memory.

Ways to improve verbal memory

For most people, it’s possible to strengthen different types of memory at various stages in life. Taking measures to improve verbal memory may be especially relevant for those who have certain types of brain injuries as well as for older adults since verbal memory tends to decline with age. Either way, the research suggests three activities that may help:

  • Walking. One small study worked with individuals who were trying to learn vocabulary words in a new language. Its findings suggest that those who practiced the words while walking at a slow pace on the treadmill demonstrated greater retention than those who practiced them while seated. 
  • Participating in music training. A 2021 study indicates better verbal memory in those who were involved in musical improvisation and/or had a history of music training. The participants in this study were older adults, but other research has suggested that music training may help improve verbal memory in children, too.
  • Reading aloud. Other studies suggest that reading study materials aloud may help improve verbal memory too, particularly in adults with minor intellectual disabilities. 

There are also techniques you can try that are intended specifically to improve your verbal memory retention. One that you might consider is called “elaborative rehearsal,” which involves connecting information to other information to aid in later recall. For example, think about all the song lyrics you’ve retained over your lifetime. The reason this comes so easily to most of us is that music can act as a powerful mnemonic device—and is one of the most effective forms of elaborative rehearsal. It’s why teachers use songs to help children remember everything from the alphabet to the state capitals—and why many adults can still recite all these years later.

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It can be scary to face memory challenges

Seeking support related to memory

Facing challenges related to your memory can be confusing and frightening. Similarly, watching a loved one go through such challenges can be difficult as well. If you’re facing either of these situations, you might benefit from speaking with a therapist. They can provide emotional support for what you’re going through and can offer healthy coping mechanisms for any stress or anxiety you may be feeling. Note that if you’re experiencing memory problems yourself, it’s typically recommended that you also consult with your doctor for evaluation.

Attending regular in-person therapy appointments is not feasible for everyone, such as those who live in a rural area or those who have trouble leaving the house or poor transportation. In cases like these, online therapy can represent a viable alternative. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging from the comfort of home to address the challenges you may be facing. Research suggests that online therapy can typically offer similar benefits to in-person sessions, so it may be worth looking into this format if it’s more convenient for you.

Takeaway

Verbal memory refers to our capacity to encode, retain, and recall written or spoken information. Children and adults alike may be able to improve their verbal memory skills through walking while studying information, getting musical training, reading aloud, or using musical mnemonic devices. If you’re having difficulty managing emotions related to memory challenges in yourself or a loved one, meeting with a therapist may help.
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