Ever find yourself forgetting your password when you really need it? Or have you spent loads of time hunting for your car all over the carpark because you forgot where you parked? These instants of absentmindedness are quite normal when life gets stressful or busy or as we get older. But it can be a source of annoyance. Aside from genetic factors, studies have shown that diet and lifestyle can also impact memory as well. The good news is that the brain’s memory hub, known as the hippocampus, regenerates throughout life so there are ways in which you can improve your memory at any age.
How are Memories Created?
It starts with a pattern of signals sent by our brain when we experience an event, which creates connections between neurons known as synapses. Our brain then consolidates the information to strengthen the pattern created by the synapses, especially when we sleep. When strengthened the memory over time, recalling it becomes easier. Every time we remember it, we reinforce the pattern of brain activity over and again, and eventually, it becomes easier to bring it to mind.
Ways to improve memory
There are a number of ways to improve your memory, or at least obtain the most out of what you already have. These involve engaging in simple mental techniques as well as making changes to your diet and lifestyle.
1. Mnemonic Devices
The most researched memory techniques are mnemonic devices. These work by enabling us to associate information we are required to remember with a visual image, sentence or word, much like mental clues. Here are examples of a few:
This technique aids memory by linking information you want to remember with patterns you are familiar with. First, pair a rhyming word with a sequence of numbers such as 1 = fun, 2 = blue, 3 = free etc. These are known as pegs upon which you will hang memory-sensitive information. For instance, let’s say you needed to remember your appointments for the day. You will have some “fun” with your financial advisor, you will be “blue” with the boss, and your dinner date will be “free”. Mentally go through the list of pegs, first remembering the peg word, and then the associated situation. It might sound complicated, but eventually, as you get familiarised with your pegs, memorisation will become easier.
A Memory Palace
People tend to remember the tangible rather than the abstract better. This is the basis for the “memory palace” technique, which extends the pegging method further.
Start by selecting a familiar space, filling it vivid images of the things you want to commit to memory. Make these images as strange as you can. Suppose you need to mail a letter then collect your dry-cleaning. Visualise a plane flying through your living room with a letter perched on it. Next, walk to your washing machine to see your dry-cleaner tossing around your laundry. Viola! You have thus created a memory palace to aid with remembering your chores.
These are words constituted of the first letters of the words or ideas you want to recall and generate a new word from them. For instance, to remember the 11 body systems, you can use the words “MURDERS LINC”: Muscular, Urinary, Reproductive, Digestive, Endocrine, Respiratory, Skeletal, Lymphatic, Integumentary, Nervous, and Circulatory.
Chunking involves taking individual pieces of information, known as chunks and combining them into larger units, thereby improving the amount of information you can remember. For example, a phone number 9-6-7-9-1-9-8-1 can be chunked into 9769-1981. This way you are storing merely two chunks as opposed to eight separate ones. You can even take it further and remember “1981” as a year, especially if it is significant to you.
2. Mental Games
A fun way to strengthen your memory and challenge your brain at the same time is playing mental games, such as Tetris, word-recall, crosswords and the various mobiles apps out there these days. Don’t opt for just any game though, choose those that disrupt your usual routine in order to test you, so that you will utilise and develop new brain paths.
3. Master a New Skill
The adage that an old dog cannot learn new tricks is a myth. You can master a new skill at any age. Picking up a new skill, like learning an instrument or gardening, stimulates the brain by keeping it focused on meaningful activity. Take into consideration that the activity should be meaningful, which means that it should be important enough to hold your attention and fully engage you. Opt for an activity that you’re interested in, not something that is currently trendy.
Diet & Lifestyle
1. Anti-Inflammatory Foods
We know how great anti-inflammatory foods are great for your body but they are also great for your brain. They keep your brain healthy and can improve your memory and concentration. It could even delay short-term memory loss. Potent brain-boosting foods include blueberries and turmeric, so try incorporating them liberally in your food.
2. Drinking Coffee
Love your coffee? Then here’s some good news for you. Caffeine and antioxidants have a positive impact on your brain, especially when it comes to memory consolidation. Aside from improving your alertness, studies have shown that consuming caffeine after learning a new task can improve recall up to 24 hours thereafter. But like all things, do keep your coffee drinking to moderate amounts.
3. Fish Oil & Omega-3
Our brain is made of 60% fat, half of which is of the omega-3 sort. Omega-3 is used to build brain and nerve cells and have important implications for learning and memory. The high omega-3 content in fish oil, flaxseeds and even walnuts aids in improving short-term memory and working memory. Low levels of omega-3s may even accelerate brain aging and contribute to deficits in brain function. Which is why it is important to eat more fish or take supplements if seafood isn’t your favourite.
4. Chewing Gum
Chewing gum has no direct benefits in improving memory, but it does help keep you focused and therefore able to retain extra information. Research has in fact shown that chewing gum boosts mental alertness by 10%, so chew away during your lecture to keep yourself focused!
5. Stay Away from Alcohol
Most of us indulge in a few drinks occasionally, and usually, this is not a big problem. In fact, some of us may even feel our memory sharpen after a glass or two. However, beyond that, alcohol reduces memory performance. Moreover, binge drinking can damage the hippocampus, the brain’s aforementioned memory hub.
The benefits of exercise have been exalted in all aspects of our life, from our physical to mental health. Our brain is no exception. Research has shown that even a modest amount of regular exercise for at least 20 to 30 minutes can improve overall brain performance, including memory. For more information on benefits of exercises on mental health, check out our article on exercise and mood.
7. Catching your Zzzz-s
Ever find yourself having trouble recalling things on days you don’t get enough sleep? Or perhaps things “slip your mind” a little too easily? There is no doubt about it; sufficient sleep has consistently shown associations with better memory functioning. The primary reason for this is that sleep assists in the consolidation of memories. Moreover, sleep deprivation impairs your ability to bring previously stored information to mind. So never underestimate the power of a good night’s rest.
Incorporating some of these tips does not require a major lifestyle change. Small changes to your diet and little more exercise, for both your body and brain, are all you need to improve your brain health and ensure the optimal functioning of your memory.
Photo Credits: EAMART, Pexels and Pixabay