Memory is kind of funny; some things seem cemented in right away and others, even if you want to remember them, just don’t stick. And as we get older, it’s often harder to remember things than it was in younger years, whether they were memories you made decades prior or just the week before. Because memory is so significant in our lives, it’s been a popular subject for researchers and, thankfully, they’ve discovered all kinds of things that can help improve your memory.
There are two main ways that people usually want to improve their memory: being able to better remember specific things now and keeping the memory functioning generally well. Depending on what your goal is, there are different things you can do to attain it.
When you’ve got an upcoming test, a presentation, or something else where you need to be able to recall specific pieces of information, your goal is memorizing that info and being able to recall it on the spot. In this case, you can focus on using some key tricks while you’re working on memorizing the material that will make it easier for your brain to bring it back up.
Scents can be taken advantage of when memorizing information. Have you ever smelled something and had it bring up a vivid memory of another time that involved that same scent? It’s because scents are processed by a part of the brain called the olfactory bulb which is connected to parts that are responsible for emotion and memory. It’s the only one of the five basic senses that sends information by this part of the brain which is why it tends to have a greater effect on memory than the others. The information and scent become associated in the brain, so when you’re exposed to the scent, it can bring up the information. While you’re studying, try having a bit of perfume or essential oil nearby that you can smell periodically. Then in the test or during the presentation, having that scent somewhere you can access easily can help make the memorized information easier to recall.
Another option is chewing gum. No one is sure exactly why this one works, but it does. There are two main theories: the first is that chewing increases blood flow to the area and improves brain activity. The other theory is that it works through association, similar to scent. If you chew gum while you learn the information, chewing gum when you need to remember it will help you do so. It’s a simple trick, but it can help get your mind working to bring up the info you need.
If you’re right-handed, you can try squeezing your fists to help you remember things. The technique revolves around the act of forming your hand into a fist and clenching tightly. When you’re trying to store information, like while you’re studying or practicing a speech, you clench your right fist for 90 seconds right before reviewing the material. Then, when you’re in a situation where you want to remember what you’ve learned, clench your left fist to help access the stored information. This technique was proven to be effective in a research study from Montclair State University. The scientists believe that by clenching your right fist, you activate the part of the brain responsible for encoding information, and that clenching your left activates the part responsible to retrieving it. The study only included right-handed individuals but evidence suggests that the opposite may work for left-handed people, though it hasn’t been confirmed.
Singing the information you want to remember to a tune is another trick to try. Have you ever tried to memorize a paragraph but had a hard time remembering the words, even after seemingly countless repetitions? How about song lyrics? You probably know the lyrics for dozens of songs. For some reason, it’s easier for us to remember words when they’re set to music than when they’re on their own. This is a great way to learn facts. Write them out in a way that fits with a song you already know and sing it to yourself until it starts to stick. It’s a bit of work to get it laid out, but it’ll make the information easier to memorize and help you retrieve it more easily when you need it.
If you don’t have the time to make a song and sing it to yourself, try talking to yourself instead. Typically when we’re trying to learn information, we’re exposed to it by reading notes or watching a video or listening to a recording—it comes to us from an external source. When you speak the information, you’re filtering it through you, and it offers your brain another way to absorb it. Speaking the information yourself has been shown to improve the accuracy of your memory by up to 10%. One benefit of this method is that it can be used not only while studying, but also in the moment you’re exposed to new information. For example, use it in social situations to help you remember someone’s name. When the two of you are introduced or before you part ways, saying something as simple as, “Nice to meet you,” and including their name can help it stick in your mind. For people who consider themselves bad with names, this is a trick to remember.
So now you’ve got a few ideas for how to better remember bits of information, but what if you want to work on your memory’s ability in general so it can be improved now and preserved over the years to come? That requires habits that are repeated over time rather than small tricks to use in specific situations.
One contributor to memory deterioration is stress. It can interfere with all three stages of memory processing: encoding new information into a short-term memory, consolidating that into a long-term memory, and recalling the memory later on. If any part of the process is hindered, you’ll have trouble with remembering things you’ve heard, seen, or experienced either because the brain couldn’t store the memory or because it can’t access it. For the sake of your memory and your overall health, make stress reduction a priority—take a bath, do yoga, get a massage, or do something else that relaxes you when you’re feeling stressed out.
Meditation is a good option for relaxation, and is also an activity known to improve memory function. As people age, it’s not uncommon for parts of the brain to suffer some loss of volume; but in meditators, especially those who’ve been meditating regularly for many years, the brain is often found to be well-preserved. One study found that mindfulness meditation can change the structure of the brain after just eight weeks, increasing the cortical thickness of the hippocampus—the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. Another study found that meditating for 20 minutes, four times per day can increase cognition from 15% up to 50%. While that’s big commitment, even just one 20 minute meditation session most days of the week can offer some positive effects. The memory benefits of meditation are well-documented, so it’s a good option to consider if you want to secure your memory function.
Exercise benefits almost every part of the body and the brain is no exception. For some time it’s been known that exercise is helpful for memory but it’s only recently that scientists learned that it’s because aerobic activities encourage the growth of fresh grey matter. It may be due to increased blood flow, stress reduction, or the hormones released during exercise. In any case, exercising regularly is great for keeping your brain—and your body—in shape.
Stimulating your brain through puzzle games like sudoku or crosswords will also help with your memory. This is another one where the exact reason why it works isn’t known, but it’s believed that the way these types of games activate synapses in parts all over the brain helps delay a decline in function. If you’re not into those type of games, video games can be beneficial as well. This specifically applies to game where you move in three dimensions as opposed to 2D ones, like side-scrollers or top-down games that are common for older systems. A study was conducted where participants were asked to play Super Mario 64 for half an hour every day for two months. By the end of the study, participants saw an increase in volume in a few different parts of their brains, especially in those parts used for strategic planning, muscle control, spatial navigation, and memory formation. Games are an easy way to keep your mind and memory sharp while having fun.
Memory function is important for our quality of life. Forgetting facts for a test can be frustrating in the short-term, but frequently forgetting things like where you put the keys or when an appointment is can make life difficult every day. Taking advantage of proven memory-improving tips can help you remember what you need to remember and keep your brain in great working order as you age.