12 Tips On Improving Memory
Updated August 28, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Tonia Cassaday
Have you ever walked into a supermarket with a small list of items you need for dinner, only to forget what a couple of them were? You’re standing in Aisle 4 with a confused look on your face, void of any remembrance of what you needed. You remembered the milk, the olive oil, and ever-important French Silk Pie, but you’re sure there are two other important items you need. Finally succumbing to the idea that maybe the remaining items were frivolous, you head through the checkout stand and then proceed across the parking lot to your car. On the drive home, you’re stopped at a red light and, “BING”, there it is. You forgot the angel hair pasta and fresh spinach. Does that sound familiar? Well, you’re not alone, because many people experience a time they can’t remember something for whatever reason.
That’s an example of short-term memory loss. Long term memory loss is also prevalent. You’re sitting around the dining room table during your family’s recurring Sunday night dinner when your older brother, two years older than you, laughs about the time you finally caught a huge bass while your family was camping alongside the Animas River in Colorado. Your mom and dad and the other brothers and sisters remember the event as clear as yesterday. You held on to the fish refusing to let go, lost your footing, and fell in the river. The problem is you don’t remember.
What Exactly is Memory?
The brain and memory are interconnected. Memory refers to the processes that are used to acquire, store, retain, and later retrieve information. There are three major types of memory: Sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.
Sensory memory– Sensory memory is the earliest stage of memory. It’s the very genesis of when what we see, smell, touch, taste, or sense begins to form as a memory. However, unlike short-term or long-term memory, sensory memory is very brief – about a half of a second for visual input and three to four seconds for auditory. After that, the brain decides whether it’s important enough to proceed on either short-term or long-term memory storage.
Short-term memory–Short-term memory, also known as active memory, is the information we are currently aware of or thinking about, like remembering that grocery list. Many of our short-term memories are quickly forgotten. Most of the information stored in active memory will be kept for approximately 20 to 30 seconds. However, the information that is deemed important enough to be permanently stored is moved on to long-term memory.
Long-term memory–The process of retaining long-term memory is called consolidation. After consolidation, it can remain permanently to some degree. Only a small number of short-term memories are consolidated, which depends on the personal significance of the information being retrieved. It should also be noted that long-term memory, including age-related memory loss, does not necessarily have to pass through short-term memory first to be stored as long-term memory, which is the reason why some people with bad short-term memory can still have excellent long-term memory.
What Are Some Causes of Memory Loss?
Many factors can contribute to memory loss. Here are some common ones:
- Lack of Sleep – Not getting enough sleep is perhaps the greatest unappreciated cause of forgetfulness. Research shows that when a person is sleeping, there is a production of brain waves that play an important role in memory storage. These waves transmit memories from the hippocampus, a portion of the brain where long-term memories are kept. Low quality sleep in adults causes memories to linger in the hippocampus and not reach the prefrontal cortex, which results in forgetfulness and memory loss.
- Alcohol– Drinking too much alcohol can interfere with short-term memory, even after the effects of alcohol have worn off. Consuming too much alcohol can affect short-term memory by slowing down how nerves communicate with each other in the hippocampus. The hippocampus plays a significant role in maintaining memories, and therefore when healthy nerve activity slows down, short-term memory loss can subsequently also occur.
- Stress and Anxiety –It’s normal to periodically forget little unimportant details and tasks. Add to that stress, and the information trying to get in your brain and stay there becomes even more arduous. Generalized anxiety disorder can cause your working memory to become hindered by your worry, thereby causing you to forget short-term memory items like tasks or appointments.
- Depression – Depression is associated with short-term memory loss. However, it doesn’t affect other types of memory, such as long-term memory. People dealing with depression often have trouble remembering the fine details of the events they’ve experienced. For example, they might remember going to a barbeque but may have difficulty remembering some of the people who were there or the different types of food that were served.
- Medications – Antidepressants, certain blood pressure medications, and other medications can affect memory, usually by causing sedation or confusion. In addition, the combination of medications and alcohol can increase the sedation or confusion, and further the memory loss.
- Underactive Thyroid– This is the only physiological-related item on this list, but nevertheless just as important. Studies show that overt hypothyroidism (abnormally low activity of the thyroid gland) can affect a range of cognitive domains, including attention/concentration and memory.
Now, let’s look at ways to boost memory!
12 Tips on Improving Memory
- Get Organized–The chances of forgetting things can increase if your home or workspace is cluttered and your notes are unclear and in shambles. Get organized by clearly jotting down tasks and appointments where they can be easily retrieved and understood.
- Repeat it – Repetition helps the brain solidify connections to recall memories. When you learn something new, your brain attempts to associate it with something that you already know through a process of assimilation. Some people use what is called mega-drilling.This technique requires a person to repeat, repeat, repeat – literally. For example, if they meet someone new at a business function, they might repeat the name of the person they just met 20, 30, or even 40 times to drill the memory firmly into their brain; and when they meet that person an hour later as the party is raging – Bingo! – they remember their name.
- Attach Meaning to it – Something that has meaning will more likely be retained versus something that has little or no value. Let’s say you just met a guy named Frank at an important business party. You feel it’s equally important to remember his name so you can strike up a conversation later in the night to propose a new marketing idea you have. Well, in order to attach meaning to his name, you might attach what he looks like to another “Frank” you actually know. That will help you remember his name when you’re ready to discuss your proposal. This can be helpful for age-related memory loss.
- Try Brain Games–Brain games are activities that stimulate your thinking. That includes word puzzles like crosswords and traditional games like chess and bridge. Brain games may also help with memory by building up the brain’s cognitive reserve – a memory reserve in the brain that can be stored away and used when quick thinking is required.
- Mnemonics– “What?! This is supposed to help me remember?” Yes, a strange spelling for a word, but nonetheless effective for some people. Mnemonics [ni-mon-iks] is a tool that helps you remember certain facts or large amounts of information. They can come in the form of a song, rhyme, acronym, image, phrase, or sentence. For example, let’s say you’re preparing for a Spelling Bee and you can’t seem to remember how to spell the word “Mnemonic”. Well, using the mnemonic method, you might use the following or similar sentence and, by combining the first letter of each word, you’d remember how to spell “Mnemonic” – “My Niece Emily Makes Orange Neapolitan Ice Cream”.
- Group it–This can be an effective memory tool by grouping items that can be placed into categories. For example, going back to the person forgetting what items to purchase at the supermarket, let’s say you were driving home and you received a call from your significant other who gave you a verbal list of 10 items to buy. Not having a pen handy (and wanting to concentrate on your driving), you group the items into categories. Meats in one category, liquids in another, desserts in a third, and maybe fruits in a fourth. By grouping the items, it can benefit you to remember them. If you’re experiencing age-related memory loss, this tip might help you. In addition, this can be helpful to develop the needed time to consolidate your memories.
- Give your brain a workout– Memory, like muscular strength, requires you to “use it or lose it.”The more you work out your brain, the better you’ll be able to process and remember information.
- Get Enough Sleep –Studies reveal the critical role sleep plays in retaining memory. Sleep is a vital piece with consolidating memories (making them stick) so that they can be recalled in the future.
- Practice Mindfulness –Moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness is a mindfulness practice that guides us to be “grounded in the present” and experience thoughts “without clinging to them.” As a result, our minds become more present to what is happening around us moment-to-moment, and, because our minds are not wandering or distracted, our memories can become longer-lasting.
- Alcohol and Medication – Reducing the intake of alcohol and becoming educated on the effects that the medication you’re taking might have on your memory is a great step toward improving your memory. The interactions of alcohol with certain medications can increase the effect of memory loss or forgetfulness.
- Manage Stress – Lowering your stress can allow your body and mind to relax, thereby fostering the environment of your brain to take in, and retain, information better than if your brain is already filled with stressors.
- Exercise –Physical exercise helps keep your memory sharp because it increases oxygen to your brain, and regular exercise over time can increase the volume of the hippocampus, a key part of the brain’s memory network.
If you find yourself struggling with memory loss or forgetfulness and want to explore steps to improve your memory, the licensed professionals at BetterHelp can assist you. They have a knowledgeable and caring staff who are standing by eager to help out. You can speak with a therapist 24/7, seven days a week in a way that is most convenient for you. Furthermore, you can call on your own time when it’s best for you. You can contact BetterHelp here.
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