Notes to Self

Thoughts on psychology, spirituality and soft skill development for personal improvement


Improve Memory

Everyone forgets. The good news is that we can learn to reduce these bouts of forgetfulness and improve our memory. But before we get to the tips, it helps to understand how the brain works.

How does the brain store information?

The mind is set up to store and retrieve information - anything from brief tidbits of sensory information to the retention of language and personal experiences. One of the most amazing discoveries about the brain is that learning actually changes the physical structure of the brain. When it comes to storing information the brain uses:

  • Short-term memory: This memory stores a limited amount of information for a few seconds or minutes. For example, you use short term memory to store the date of an appointment you just made till you immediately write it down in a diary or calendar. Learning or memorizing doesn't occur here.

  • Working memory: Working memory is a form of short-term memory. The brain uses the working memory to process information. For example, the working memory is used when you are trying to make a decision. Parts of information received from the five senses (hearing, sight, taste, touch and smell) or some information recalled from memory are also analysed here.

  • Long term memory: Considered to be of unlimited capacity, information stored here lasts for a very long time (some believe permanently). So if we want to remember something, this is where the information needs to be.

The brain secures information by implementing a series of molecular interactions but let's not get into the technicalities.

Why do we forget?

There are a number of theories on this:

  • Decay: The less we recall stored information, the more likely we are to forget it with time.
  • Interference: An example of interference (where an old memory 'interferes' with an existing one) can be trying to remember the new phone number of a friend, but recalling the old one instead.
  • Emotional Repression: Some memories might have unpleasant emotions associated with them, and we intentionally try to 'forget' (repress) them.
  • Old Age, Brain Damage: Self explanatory.

Tips to Improve Memory

  1. Remember less: New research reveals that people who forget less don't necessarily have a greater storage capacity. It suggests that the reason for their better memory might be the way they filter information - "a neural mechanism that controls what information gets into awareness". By consciously reducing the information clutter around us, and by being more aware, we could possibly increase our memory power.

  2. Review before sleep: Since most memory consolidation happens during sleep, anything you read right before bed is more likely to be encoded as long-term memory, says Candi Heimgartner, an instructor of biological sciences at the University of Idaho.

  3. Get a Good Sleep: Sleep loss affects our ability to concentrate and consequently makes us more forgetful due to our reduced awareness. Consolidation of memory also takes place when you are sleeping and an inadequate amount of sleep can affect this too.

  4. Be emotional: The more strongly you feel about something, the more you're likely to remember it.

  5. Explore: New research suggests that being exposed to new experiences can boost memory. Scientists from University College London (UCL) believe humans could be attracted to new information and have discovered that a region of the brain associated with a chemical important for the long-term memory is activated by novelty.

  6. Exercise your Neurons (related to tip 5): The brain is made of more than 100 billion neurons and a trillion synapses (which help cells keep in touch with each other). In general, brain neurons live up to 100 years or longer but if neurons are disconnected, they become sick and may die. So activate your neurons - solve a puzzle, learn something new, use your left hand instead of your right, do something different and force your unused neurons to communicate with each other.

  7. Eat Eggs: Choline is a B-complex vitamin that is found in foods like eggs and liver. Choline is a precursor to the brain neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is linked to memory, and thus a lack of choline can cause impairment of memory and concentration (low levels of acetylcholine have been linked to Alzheimer's disease and poor memory).

  8. Socialize: Research by the U-M Institute for Social Research suggests that even 10 minutes of socializing boosts a persons memory and intelligence.

  9. Limit alcohol intake: While small quantity of alcohol is healthy for your heart, in excess, alcohol is toxic to neurons (the brain cells).

  10. Eat Healthy and Exercise: Hypertension not only affects your heart but your brains too. They damage blood vessels thus limiting the supply of nutrients the brains needs to function efficiently. Exercising improves brain health and memory too, by helping it sprout new neurons and form denser interconnections among them.

  11. Watch less TV: People who watch greater amount of TV have poorer physical and cognitive health.

Tips to Remember Better

  1. 'Boring' things like appointments, addresses or passwords won't be stored properly in long term memory unless we attach some personal meaning or an emotional connection to it. For example, your password could be the first letters of a quote you love or you could remember a birthday by associating some fact with it - (for example) "his birthday is exactly one month after my first kiss with John".

  2. If you walk into a room and forget why you are there in the first place, retracing your steps mentally and / or physically can help. Visualizing what you need or want can also help you to not forget it later. For example, if you are stepping out but need to dry your laundry later, visualize yourself wearing those clothes, dripping wet in the rain. The more vivid the visualization the better you'll remember it.

  3. Lack of attention is often the reason why we can't recall where the keys or wallet are. Just paying more attention and being conscious of our actions ("I am throwing the keys on the desk") will help us remember it more easily. This also applies to other things we tend to do automatically without much thought - if you tend to forget whether you have switched of the iron or turned off the stove just be more mindful when you perform the action.

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