Improving your memory is easier than it sounds. Most of think of our memory as something static and unchanging. But it’s not — you can improve your memory just as you can improve your math or foreign language skills, simply by practicing a few tried and true memory building exercises.
There are two kinds of memory — short-term and long-term. Short-term memory is the kind of memory our brain uses to store small pieces of information needed right away, like someone’s name when you meet for the first time. Research has demonstrated that short-term memory’s capacity is about seven pieces of information. After that, something has to go.
Long-term memory is for things you don’t need to remember this instant. When you study for a test or exam, that’s long-term memory at work. A memorably moment in your life, events with family or friends, and other similar kinds of situations also get stored in long-term memory.
So how do you go about improving your memory? Read on to find out.
Your Memory is in Your Brain
Although it may seem obvious, memory is formed within your brain. So anything that generally improves your brain health may also have a positive impact on your memory. Physical exercise and engaging in novel brain-stimulating activities — such as the crossword puzzle or Sudoku — are two proven methods for helping keep your brain healthy.
Remember, a healthy body is a healthy brain. Eating right and keeping stress at bay helps not only your mind focus on new information, but also is good for your body too. Getting a good night’s sleep every night is important as well. Vitamin supplements and herbal extracts aren’t the same thing as getting vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids naturally, through the food you eat.
Improve Your Memory
So you want to improve your memory? You need to focus on what you’re doing and the information you’re looking to encode more strongly in your brain. These tips will help you do just that:
- Focus on it. So many people get caught up in multi-tasking, that we often fail to do the one thing that will almost always improve your memory — paying attention to the task at hand. This is important, because your brain needs time to encode the information properly. If it never makes it into your memory, you won’t be able to recall it later. If you need to memorize something, quit multitasking.
- Smell, touch, taste, hear and see it. The more senses you involve when you need to encode memory, usually the more strong a memory it becomes. That’s why the smell of mom’s home-baked cookies can still be recalled as fresh as though she were downstairs making them just now. Need to remember someone’s name you met for the first time? It may help to look them in the eye when you repeat their name, and offer a handshake. By doing so, you’ve engaged 4 out of your 5 senses.
- Repeat it. One reason people who want to memorize something repeat it over and over again is because repetition (what psychologists sometimes refer to as “over learning”) seems to work for most people. It helps not to cram, though. Instead, repeat the information spaced out over a longer period of time.
- Chunk it. Americans remember their long 10-digit telephone numbers despite being able to hold only 7 pieces of information in their brain at one time. They do because we’ve taught ourselves to chunk the information. Instead of seeing 10 separate pieces of information, we see 3 pieces of information — a 3 digit area code, a 3 digit prefix, and a 4 digit number. Because we’ve been taught since birth to “chunk” the telephone number in this way, most people don’t have a problem remembering a telephone number. This technique works for virtually any piece of information. Divide the large amount of information into smaller chunks, and then focus on memorizing those chunks as individual pieces.
- Organize it. Our brains like organization of information. That’s why books have chapters, and outlines are recommended as a studying method in school. By carefully organizing what it is you have to memorize, you’re helping your brain better encode the information in the first place.
- Use mnemonic devices. There are a lot of these, but they all share one thing in common — they help us remember more complicated pieces of information through imagery, acronyms, rhyme or song. For instance, in medical school, students will often turn memorization of the bones in the body or symptoms of specific illnesses into sentences, where the first letter of each word corresponds with a specific bone or symptom. Learn about more mnemonic devices and memory here.
- Learn it the way that works for you. People often get caught up in thinking there’s a “one size fits all” learning style for memorizing new material. That’s simply not the case — different people prefer different methods for taking in new information. Use the style that works for you, even if it’s not the way most people study or try and learn new information. For instance, some people like to write things down when they’re learning something new. Others may benefit more from recording what they’re hearing, and going back to take more detailed notes later on at their own leisure.
- Connect the dots. When we learn, we often forget to try and make associations until later on. However, research has shown that memory can be stronger when you try and make the associations when you first take in the information. For instance, think about how two things are related, and the memory for both will be enhanced. Connect new information to existing information or experiences in your mind.
As we age, our memory sometimes seems to get worse. But it doesn’t have to. By following these eight tips, you can keep your memory sharp at any age, and improve it any time.