Improve Your Memory — A Review Of Latest Research
Aamer Sarfraz writes that our memories were not built for the modern world as our ancestors did not need to recall phone numbers, names of so many people, or curricula we get tested on during medical school. He shares some ways to improve memory.
Forgetfulness may be a mode of freedom for some, but for the rest of us, it can be an embarrassing and frustrating experience. As we get older, time seems to slip like sand through the fingers and our memories become tired and lazy.
In extreme cases, parts of our lives get ripped away from us and from those around us without our knowledge. It can often feel like turning up for a film, long after it has started.
Memory is a generic term used to understand conscious revival of past experiences. It has three phases – registration, retention, and recall. The process of recall or remembering, however, is not an exact procedure as recollected events may get distorted according to the outlook of the individual.
Many factors may play a role in memory lapses, including genetics, age, and medical conditions. While not all memory deficits are preventable, people may be able to take measures to protect the brain against cognitive decline as they age. Serious memory loss (Dementia) as a result of underlying significant cognitive decline and medical causes is not covered here. I just want to explore ‘normal’ forgetfulness and see how we can make it better.
Photogenic memory is really a myth. Most of us have average memories, which can become impressive if we put some work into it. Those who appear to have exceptional memories actually learnt to think in some memorable ways unintentionally. Their brains are not significantly different from the rest of us. We need to perceive memory like a muscle, and memory training as a mental workout to get our memories better.
Memory does not operate by rote; it is more like an imaginative process. Improving memory is essentially about developing the ability to quickly create colourful images that link disparate ideas we are likely to forget together.
So, what else can we do in addition to employing commonsense methods (learn your memory style – audio or visual, diary keeping, talking aloud about things to remember, posting reminder signs, avoiding distractions, keep things where needed, and slowing down) to improve our memories?
To start with, a healthy life style helps keep the memory sharp. This involves regular exercise, healthy eating, and cutting down on alcohol if you drink. Obesity is a significant risk factor for cognitive decline. Therefore, maintaining a body mass index within the normal range helps avoid health issues including a poorer memory.
Vitamin-D deficiency is common, especially in colder climates and in those with darker skin. Check with your doctor about getting a blood test to find out if you need a vitamin D supplement which will help boost your memory.
Antioxidants help lower inflammation in the body by reducing oxidative stress. In addition to drinking moderate amounts of tea or coffee without milk, a recent review with a sample of over 30,000 people found that those who ate more fruits and vegetables had lower risks of cognitive decline compared to those who consumed less.
Berries are high in antioxidants; eating them is good for a healthy memory. Curcumin (high concentrations found in turmeric root) and Cocoa (in small amounts) are also great sources of potent antioxidants. Saturated and trans-fats are the baddies, but mono and polyunsaturated fats can be the heroes in our dietary battle to preserve memory. Make sure that you include brain-boosting omega-3s found in nuts (almonds and peanuts), grilled or baked fish (not fried), Olive oil, and Avocados in your regular diet.
Remembering needs to be understood like physical exercise where you need to have regular breaks to recover, and then come back stronger. It is always tempting to forego sleep to learn or study more, but sacrificing recovery time (sleep) can cause all of that hard work go to waste.
Research suggests that memories undergo a process called consolidation that can only occur during deep sleep. During this period, the neural connections and brainwaves that support the creation of memories become stronger and more active.
Another interesting way to boost memory is by learning how to play music. Children and adults, with no previous musical training, who engaged in instrument playing over a period of one year showed significantly improved performance on tasks designed to test attention and working memory. Doing crosswords is helpful but has modest benefits.
Acute and chronic stress have adverse effects on memory. Chronic stress can cause prolonged high cortisol levels, which can result in decreased hippocampal volume as well as deficits in episodic, spacial and contextual memory. Acute stress results in the release of adrenal steroids which may adversely affect both short-term and long-term memory processes.
People may practice mindfulness to manage stress and gain more control over alpha brainwave rhythm responsible for processing information.
In addition to relaxation, it is a workout for hippocampus and frontal lobe of the brain – both play key roles in memory recall. Depending on the cause, stress can also be manged successfully with psychotherapy and psychotropic medications.
Our memories were not built for the modern world as our ancestors did not need to recall phone numbers, names of so many people, or for that matter curricula we get tested on during medical school.
Mostly, they only needed to remember where to find food (edible not poisonous) and the route back home. We have since found through collective experiences and scientific experiments that the underlying principle of memory retention and recall is based on the fact that our brains are good at remembering visual images and interesting things.
We forget boring facts and dull items pretty quickly. The trick is to transform the memories our brains are not good at into the memories our brains are built to retain. The general idea, therefore, is to change sounds, lists, numbers and names, etc. into colourful and interesting visual images.
Regarding memory tricks, some tend to use the ancient Roman technique of “memory palace” where memories as objects are stored in different rooms and spaces in the palace. Retrieving a memory is akin to searching and finding an object already stored in the relevant place.
You may use the home or the street where you lived most of your life in the place of this palace. Another method is called the peg system, in which specific words are associated with a series of numbers they represent (like 1 to 10). These numbers function as “pegs” from which to hang pieces of information. When nouns are linked to numbers and the nouns rhyme with the numbers, it works more efficiently.
A different memory technique is used for remembering long strings of numbers. By binding each digit from 0-9 to one or more consonants, it allows you to create words out of number pairs. If you need to remember the phone number: 535-867-5309, change it into pairs first: 53-58-67-53-09.
Now create words from your key of number pairs (ignore silent letters and rely on the words sound): lamb (5-3), live (5-8), shock (6-7), limb (5-3), sob (0-9). Time to create a story using your words in order now; the more ridiculous it is, the easier it would be to remember.
To remember your number, work backwards. Recall your story, then recall the words that make it up, and finally translate each word back into its number pair.
Each time a memory is retrieved, that memory becomes more accessible in the future. Research shows that retrieval practice is a potent learning strategy, and that memory can be improved by doing it more often. Retrieval-based learning is also proving to be more effective than other popular active learning strategies. When practicing retrieval, retrieve more than once and space your retrieval attempts rather than doing them all together.
Research informs us that when we attempt to recall information in a different environment from which it was encoded, our memory falters. To reduce the effect of context-dependent forgetting, we encode information in the same environment in which we will be asked to recall the information at a later date. An old-school trick is that writing notes by hand instead of typing them on a computer yields better memory retention and a deeper understanding of the subject matter.
Finally, if you are a bit lazy like me, you could try and improve your memory by chewing gum while you learn new things, or by pinching nicotine skin patches from a smoker cousin for personal use because their short-term use can improve cognitive performance in a variety of groups.
M. Aamer Sarfraz is a philosophical psychiatrist based in London.