13 Memory-Boosting Tips from Brain Scientists
Improve your memory so that you can recall your shopping list and even remember those numbers in your cell phone!
“A lot of ‘forgetfulness’ is simply the result of not listening or concentrating properly in the first place,” says Catherine Loveday, a professor of psychology at the University of Westminster and author of the book The Secret World of the Brain. “If you really want to learn or remember something, then focus your attention.” If you keep losing your glasses, to improve your memory, start making a mental note every time you set them down. If you read an article about something you know you’ll want to tell friends about, spend an extra second on the juicy bits so they’ll stick in your head. Check out these 12 games that are guaranteed to boost your brainpower.
Remember that practice makes perfect
When you were a kid, did you ever have to recite a poem in front of your class? You knew it then, and it’s still true: To improve your memory, you have to practice to get information installed in your mind accurately. “Whether it’s learning to play the piano or remembering a lovely day out with a friend, we only remember by going back over things again and again,” Loveday says. You’re practicing when you tell your mom about the gift you’re planning on buying for your sister, or when you explain a recipe to your spouse—that information will be more permanently recorded in your brain because you’ve thought it through another time. “This strengthens the neural pathways in our brain,” Loveday says.
Turn short-term memories into permanent ones
Just in the past few years, scientists have been able to pinpoint exact cells where particular memories are stored in mouse brains, according to the online publication Quanta. Researchers used to think that short-term memories were formed first in the hippocampus, and long-term memories formed later. But the new mouse studies show that both types of memories form at the same time, although the long-term memories in the prefrontal cortex begin as “silent engrams” and aren’t accessible right away. Over a few weeks of maturing, they become available for recall. This process can seemingly be strengthened by reliving the event or recalling the information through rehearsals, but the scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology conducting the mouse studies also speculate that it might be possible in the future to use drugs to access those silent memories. Try these 17 easy tricks to improve your memory.
Write and draw in a journal
In the meantime, another way to improve your memory by solidifying the storage of facts and events for the long term is to relive day-to-day events or details about important milestones in your life in a variety of ways—Loveday calls it mixing and matching. “The richer the learning experience, the more likely we are to remember it,” she says. “Read it, watch it, talk about it, draw it etc.; the more ways we experience something, the easier it is to cue that memory later on.”
Get plenty of sleep
The physical process of memory storage in the brain depends on sleep, so don’t skimp on it. Recent studies have started pinning down how it works: According to a 2016 report in Nature Communications, when study subjects went without sleep, the electrical activity in their brains stayed elevated, essentially becoming noisier and noisier. Researchers suspect that the heightened activity doesn’t allow for consolidation and formation of permanent memories. “A good night’s sleep is vital,” Loveday says. “Numerous experiments have shown that a lot of memory storage occurs while we sleep.” Consider adding these 25 brain-boosting foods to your shopping list.
“Walk, run, swim,” Loveday says. “Anything that gets your muscles moving and heart working has a positive impact on overall brainpower, and there is evidence that it may specifically boost the chemical processes that enable the brain to learn.” A University of British Columbia study found that regular aerobic exercise can actually increase the size of the hippocampus, which should improve your memory overall. But other research has shown immediate benefits to moving while learning: Subjects in a study published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Functions who walked while they studied foreign-language vocabulary remembered what they learned better than those who sat while they studied.
Protect your mental health
Depression, in particular, has been linked to short-term memory problems, and anxiety and stress can make it hard to concentrate on what you’re trying to learn, according to the Mayo Clinic. Whether forgetfulness is a consequence of mental illness or a contributing factor, you should definitely make sure you seek treatment if you suspect that you have depression or anxiety—you’ll feel better and more functional day to day and improve your memory. Try these foolproof tips for remembering names.
Watch your medications
Certain drugs, including some antidepressants, tranquilizers, and blood pressure medications, have been linked to forgetfulness, according to the Harvard Health Blog. If you think a medication you’re taking might be making you confused or sedated, check with your doctor, because there are good alternatives to most of the common offenders. Be careful, too, not to take Benadryl more often than you need it: A 2015 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found evidence that long-term use of anticholinergic drugs—so named because they block the action of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine—is linked with dementia. Besides Benadryl (otherwise known as diphenhydramine), other anticholinergic medications include some antidepressants and bladder-control drugs.
Spending time with friends and loved ones is an important factor in slowing memory decline as we age, according to the Harvard School of Public Health, but having a rich social life is also a great way to make sure you have lots of opportunities to rehearse and relive the memories you’re forming, and thus improve your memory. If you read a novel on your own, you might not remember all the details in it, but if you discuss it with your book group, you’ll have chances to describe what really moved you and you’ll be reminded of secondary characters that your friends found memorable. Plus, Loveday says, having a positive attitude is good for improving your memory: “Recent studies have shown that people who think of themselves as younger than they are generally do better on memory and tests, and may even live longer.” Check out these medical issues that could affect your short-term memory.
Use smartphones wisely
“Smartphones can be a fantastic way to support our memory,” Loveday says. She suggests using alarms and reminders as a way to free up mental space: “If you are continually thinking, ‘I mustn’t forget to pick my son up at 4 p.m.,’ then you’re not able to focus on what you’re doing.” Plus, taking photos with your phone’s camera provides another avenue for retaining visual memories. Still, caution is warranted here if you’re looking for ways to improve your memory: A 2016 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that subjects who were taking lots of photographs were so focused on the visual aspects of their experience that they didn’t remember information they heard.
Don’t totally outsource your memory to Google
Depending on phones and computers to remember things for us is called cognitive offloading, according to a Vox article. While this can be useful in many cases (trusting your phone to get you to a store you’ve never visited or to remember all your friends’ phone numbers), the feeling that we can just look something up makes us less likely to expend the little effort required to remember the name of the new restaurant we’re planning to try, or the grill-cleaning tips we just read. Loveday, however, says we still come out ahead: “In many ways, having access to the Internet means that we are able to learn more faster,” she says. “While the Internet may mean that we use our memories slightly differently, there is no evidence that it has a negative effect on our ability to learn and remember.” Find out the ordinary things you don’t realize are messing with your brain.
If you’re trying to memorize the names of all the dogs at the park (or the important events leading up to the Revolutionary War, or the major events in the Marvel Universe), you’ll quiz yourself to see what you’ve learned and what you still need to focus on. But evaluation isn’t the only benefit of self-testing—it also gives you valuable practice recalling the information, according to a study in Psychological Science. The students who were tested on new information as soon as they’d learned it remembered it better a week later than those who just studied in the interim.
Move your eyes from side to side
Next time you open the refrigerator and immediately forget what you were looking for, you might want to spend a few seconds moving your eyes rapidly from left to right and back again if you’re trying to improve your memory. A 2003 study published in the journal Neuropsychology found that doing so for half a minute helped subjects retrieve memories. Study author Stephen Christman told Live Science that he suspects horizontal eye movements might help the left and right hemispheres of the brain interact more effectively. Next, read on to learn 50 surprising things about your brain.