How to Improve Your Memory
Tips and Techniques for Memory Enhancement
How to Improve Your Memory
Tips and Techniques for Memory Enhancement
If our brains were computers, we'd simply add a chip to upgrade our memory. However, the human brain is more complex than even the most advanced machine, so improving human memory requires slightly more effort.
Just like muscular strength, your ability to remember increases when you exercise your memory and nurture it with a good diet and other healthy habits. There are a number of steps you can take to improve your memory and retrieval capacity. Physical exercise and engaging your brain with intellectually stimulating activities will not only improve your memory, it can also afford your brain greater protection against disease or injury as you age. First, however, it's helpful to understand how we remember.
Simply put, memory is the mental activity of recalling information that you have learned or experienced. That simple definition, though, covers a complex process that involves many different parts of the brain.
Memory can be short-term or long-term. In short-term memory, your mind stores information for a few seconds or a few minutes: the time it takes you to dial a phone number you just looked up or to compare the prices of several items in a store. Such memory is fragile, and it’s meant to be; your brain would soon read “disk full” if you retained every phone number you called, every dish you ordered in a restaurant, and the subject of every ad you watched on TV. Your brain is also meant to hold an average of seven items, which is why you can usually remember a new phone number for a few minutes but need your credit card in front of you when you’re buying something online.
Long-term memory involves the information you make an effort (conscious or unconscious) to retain, because it’s:
Personally meaningful to you (for example, information about family and friends).
You need it (such as job procedures or material you’re studying for a test).
Or it made an emotional impression on you (a movie that had you riveted, the first time you ever caught a fish, the day your uncle died).
Some information that you store in long-term memory requires a conscious effort to recall:
Episodic memories, which are personal memories about experiences you’ve had at specific times.
Semantic memories (factual data not bound to time or place), which can be everything from the names of the planets to the color of your child’s hair.
Another type of long-term memory is procedural memory, which involves skills and routines you perform so often that they don’t require conscious recall.
Areas of the brain important in the formation and retention of memory:
The hippocampus plays the single largest role in processing information as memory.
The amygdala helps imprint memories that involve emotion.
The cerebral cortex stores most long-term memory in different zones, depending on whether the information involves: language, sensory input, problem-solving, and so forth.
In addition, memory involves communication among the brain’s network of neurons, millions of cells activated by brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.
Stages of memory foundation and maintenance
There are three stages that the brain goes through in forming and retaining memories
Stages of Memory Foundation and Maintenance
Acquisition →New information enters your brain along pathways between neurons. The key to encoding information into your memory is concentration; unless you focus on information intently, it goes “in one ear and out the other.” This is why teachers are always nagging students to pay attention!
Consolidation →If you’ve concentrated well enough to encode new information in your brain, the hippocampus sends a signal to store the information as long-term memory. This happens more easily if it’s related to something you already know, or if it stimulates an emotional response.
Retrieval →When you need to recall information, your brain has to activate the same pattern of nerve cells it used to store it. The more frequently you need the information, the easier it is to retrieve it along healthy nerve cell connections.
Techniques to improve memory
Do you feel that you have a poor memory? As we age many of us experience minor memory lapses, which are not usually signs of a serious neurological disorder, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, we may just have some less-than-effective habits when it comes to taking in and processing information. Barring disease, disorder, or injury, it is possible for you to learn how to improve your memory.
Brain exercises to improve memory
Memory, like muscular strength, requires you to “use it or lose it.” The more you work out your brain, the better you’ll be able to process and remember information. Brain exercises that will improve memory include:
Novelty and sensory stimulation. If you break your routine in a challenging way, you’re using brain pathways you weren’t using before. This can involve something as simple as brushing your teeth with your nondominant hand, which activates little-used connections on the nondominant side of your brain.
“Neurobic” exercise is an aerobic exercise for your brain that forces you to use your faculties in unusual ways, like showering and getting dressed with your eyes closed. (See Keep Your Brain Alive Exercises in related links.)
Learning new skills can be the most effective way to improve memory. Take a course in a subject you don’t know much about, learn a new game of strategy, learn a new language, or cook up some recipes in an unfamiliar cuisine. The key here is to choose something that interests you. The more interested and engaged your brain, the more likely you’ll be to continue learning and the greater the benefits you’ll experience.
General guidelines to improve memory
In addition to exercising your brain, there are some basic things you can do to improve your memory:
Pay attention. You can’t remember something if you never learned it, and you can’t learn something — that is, encode it into your brain — if you don’t pay enough attention to it. It takes about eight seconds of intense focus to process a piece of information into your memory. If you’re easily distracted, try to receive information in a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted.
Tailor information acquisition to your learning style. Most people are visual learners; they learn best by reading or otherwise seeing what it is they have to know. But some are auditory learners who learn better by listening. They might benefit by recording information they need and listening to it until they remember it.
Involve as many senses as possible. Even if you’re a visual learner, read out loud what you want to remember. If you can recite it rhythmically, even better. Try to relate information to colors, textures, smells and tastes. The physical act of rewriting information can help imprint it onto your brain.
Relate information to what you already know. Connect new data to information you already remember, whether it’s new material that builds on previous knowledge, or something as simple as an address of someone who lives on a street where you already know someone.
Organize information. Write things down in address books and datebooks and on calendars; take notes on more complex material and reorganize the notes into categories later. Use both words and pictures in learning information.
Understand and be able to interpret complex material. For more complex material, focus on understanding basic ideas rather than memorizing isolated details. Be able to explain it to someone else in your own words.
Rehearse information frequently and “over-learn”. Review what you’ve learned the same day you learn it, and at intervals thereafter. What researchers call “spaced rehearsal” is more effective than “cramming.” If you’re able to “over-learn” information so that recalling it becomes second nature, so much the better.
Be motivated and keep a positive attitude. Tell yourself that you want to learn what you need to remember, and that you can learn and remember it. Telling yourself you have a bad memory actually hampers the ability of your brain to remember, while positive mental feedback sets up an expectation of success.
Mnemonic devices to improve memory
Mnemonics (the initial “m” is silent) are clues of any kind that help us remember something, usually by causing us to associate the information we want to remember with a visual image, a sentence, or a word.
Common types of mnemonic devices include:
Visual images - a microphone to remember the name “Mike,” a rose for “Rosie.” Use positive, pleasant images, because the brain often blocks out unpleasant ones, and make them vivid, colorful, and three-dimensional — they’ll be easier to remember.
Sentences in which the first letter of each word is part of or represents the initial of what you want to remember. Millions of musicians, for example, first memorized the lines of the treble staff with the sentence “Every good boy does fine” (or “deserves favor”), representing the notes E, G, B, D, and F. Medical students often learn groups of nerves, bones, and other anatomical features using nonsense sentences.
Acronyms, which are initials that creates pronounceable words. The spaces between the lines on the treble staff, for example, are F, A, C, and E: FACE.
Rhymes and alliteration: remember learning “30 days hath September, April, June, and November”? A hefty guy named Robert can be remembered as “Big Bob” and a smiley co-worker as “Perky Pat” (though it might be best to keep such names to yourself).
Jokes or even off-color associations using facts, figures, and names you need to recall, because funny or peculiar things are easier to remember than mundane images.
“Chunking” information; that is, arranging a long list in smaller units or categories that are easier to remember. If you can reel off your Social Security number without looking at it, that’s probably because it’s arranged in groups of 3, 2, and 4 digits, not a string of 9.
"Method of loci”: This is an ancient and effective way of remembering a lot of material, such as a speech. You associate each part of what you have to remember with a landmark in a route you know well, such as your commute to work.
Healthy habits to improve memory
Treating your body well can enhance your ability to process and recall information. Healthy habits that can help to improve memory include:
Regular exercise Increases oxygen to your brain.
Reduces the risk for disorders that lead to memory loss, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
May enhance the effects of helpful brain chemicals and protect brain cells.
Managing stress Cortisol, the stress hormone, can damage the hippocampus if the stress is unrelieved.
Stress makes it difficult to concentrate.
Good sleep habitsSleep is necessary for memory consolidation.
Sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea leave you tired and unable to concentrate during the day.
Not smokingSmoking heightens the risk of vascular disorders that can cause stroke and constrict arteries that deliver oxygen to the brain.
Drink plenty of water Toxins can have an adverse effect on memory. Drinking plenty of water helps to flush away toxins from your body.
Walking can help improve memory
New researchindicates that walking six miles to nine miles every week can prevent brain shrinkage and memory loss.
Older adults who walked between 6 and 9 miles per week had more gray matter in their brains nine years after the start of the study than people who didn't walk as much. Researchers say that those who walked the most cut their risk of developing memory loss in half.
Source: American Academy of Neurology
Nutrition and Memory improvement
You probably know already that a diet based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and “healthy” fats will provide lots of health benefits, but such a diet can also improve memory. Research indicates that certain nutrients nurture and stimulate brain function.
B vitamins, especially B6, B12, and folic acid. (Best sources: spinach and other dark leafy greens, broccoli, asparagus, strawberries, melons, black beans and other legumes, citrus fruits, soybeans.)
Antioxidants like vitamins C and E, and beta carotene improve the flow of oxygen through the body and brain. (Best sources: blueberries and other berries, sweet potatoes, red tomatoes, spinach, broccoli, green tea, nuts and seeds, citrus fruits, liver.)
Omega-3 fatty acids are concentrated in the brain and are associated with cognitive function. (Best sources: cold-water fish such as salmon, herring, tuna, halibut, and mackerel; walnuts and walnut oil; flaxseed and flaxseed oil). Because older adults are more prone to B12 and folic acid deficiencies, a supplement may be a good idea for seniors. An omega-3 supplement (at any age) if you don’t like eating fish. But nutrients work best when they’re consumed in foods.
Preventing age-related memory decline
Several factors cause aging brains to experience changes in the ability to retain and retrieve memories:
The hippocampus is especially vulnerable to age-related deterioration, and that can affect how well you retain information.
There’s a relative loss of neurons with age, which can affect the activity of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters and their receptors.
An older person often experiences decreased blood flow to the brain and processes nutrients that enhance brain activity less efficiently than a younger person.
However, in healthy older adults, these changes represent more of a slowing in the ability to absorb, store, and retrieve new information, not a loss. The factual information you’ve accumulated over the years remains largely intact, as does procedural memory. You can make and recall new long-term memories; the process just takes a little longer.
Of course, some older adults do develop more significant problems with memory that are the result of diseases such as Alzheimer’s or stroke; injury; poor nutrition; other physiological issues; or emotional problems.