We remember the way our kitchen smelled on Christmas fifteen years ago. We can remember the shoes we wore in the first grade and every lyric to theme of Family Matters. So why doesn’t our memory hold up when we need it the most?
That’s a question for the century and one that’s still being worked on by top scientists around the world. To date, no one is 100 percent sure how our memories work. But that’s not to say we don’t know a thing or two about it.
We know that memories involve our neurons, which is just another word for “brain cells”. When we’re introduced to new information, our neurons fire and link together. They interpret the smells, sights, sounds, and feelings of our surroundings with the assistance of at least six parts of our brain. It’s believed that when a thought or experience is encoded, consolidated and retrieved, it becomes a memory.
There are three different types of memories rolling around in your brain. The first is your working memory — commonly known as your “short-term” memory. These thoughts and experiences are stored in a way so they can be quickly called upon. When their use runs out, they’re dropped. Or, if they’re deemed important, they are drilled in and become “long-term” memories.
Long-term memories are the kind that seem to last forever. They’re strengthened by multiple senses and associations and repetition. They can range to memories of skinning your knee when you were a child, to the moment you said “I do” at a wedding.
The third type is “skill memory”. These are memories that are often associated with physical movement. You know the phrase “It’s like riding a bike?” You can thank your skill memory for it. These types of memories usually stick around for quite some time. They help you walk, write, and flail your arms in the air like a madman.
Together, these three types of memories form most of your thoughts and experiences (that you can remember), and they’re principally associated with nearly every part of your brain. And while a lot of the science and details remain a mystery, there is a lot of emerging research on specific things we can do to help get more out of our brains and boost our memories.
Upgrading Your Memory
By a rule of thumb, the average person can only remember seven things at a time. (It’s one of the reasons why phone numbers are only seven digits long.) Anders Ericsson, the same researcher who laid the foundation for the 10,000 hour rule, fought that and said this limit is self-imposed. It’s only there because we don’t practice how to remember things.
Using an undergraduate student with average intelligence and memory span as his test subject, Anders generated random number sequences for the student to recite for one hour a day, three to five days a week. He would give the student one number at a time, and if the student was able to recite the number back to him, he’d add another number to the list and repeat the process. If he made a mistake, they’d start all over again.
Initially, the student was only able to recite a string of 7 random numbers back to Anders. But after 230 hours of practice in the lab, he increased that number to a whopping 79!
Before you get all excited about that prospect, there’s an important thing to note here. The student didn’t exactly increase their memory capacity. That means that before he went into the study, he always had the ability to remember 79 random numbers. The problem was that he didn’t know how to do it. Through practice, he was able to develop a system that allowed him to get full use out of his average memory. And that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s promising evidence that getting the most out of this part of your brain may be as much as a skill as it is raw intelligence. It’s something that we can improve if we get to work.
Below we have a list of several tools that you can leverage to help you not only get better at remembering certain things, but also to you get the most out of your brain.
Leverage Tools and Systems Like…
The system that Anders’ student used to remember so many random numbers was called grouping (also known as “chunking”). Basically, it’s a system for people who love to be lazy. If you’ve ever been asked to do two things, and found a way to only do one with similar results, this might be something you do naturally.
Instead of trying to remember each digit individually, the student tried to group them together. That means when he was presented with a series of numbers like “1, 2, and 3” (one, two, and three), he’d mentally piece them together so that they became “123” (one-hundred and twenty-three).
Go ahead and give it a try for yourself. Look up a phone number you should know by heart but don’t. Group the numbers together like they’re hundreds and thousands and see if you can remember them a few minutes from now.
This simple trick works well because instead of tasking our brain with remember three separate things, we just ask it to remember one thing. It’s an extremely efficient use of head-space. And the best part of all is that it doesn’t only work with numbers, it works for remembering just about anything.
For instance, if you’re trying to remember a group of names, instead of focusing on the whole thing at once, just key in on their initials. A name like Harold Anthony Tiberius in your mind would simply become “HAT”. Remembering the first letters will likely set off a chain reaction that eventually leads to you recalling the full name. Or, even better, combine everything into a fun sentence like “Harold met a cobbler named Anthony while living in Tiberius.” and give yourself a bigger reason for remembering the name.
When we think of intelligent games, it’s easy to point to chess. There are several pieces and squares, and nearly limitless possibilities. In order to be great, you have the ability to see hundreds of moves ahead. But that’s a common misconception. Chess players can’t see the future. They just use tactics that help them shape the game toward a style or situation they’re comfortable with by using what they call “retrograde analysis”.
Like Grand Master Maurice Ashley explains in his TED Talk, that’s just a fancy term for “beginning with the end in mind.” By getting an idea of what you’d like to see happen, you can then start piecing together how to get there.
This is also called “backward induction” or just “walking yourself back to find out where you left your car keys”. When something occurs, you’ve lost an item, or you’re trying to remember something that’s rattling around in your head, start with where you want to be, and line up the steps to getting there. By treating a series of events like a bunch of lined up dominos, you can deconstruct a large problem into solvable chunks.
Repetition is how we learn. When we’re presented with something new, whether it be a piece of information or a skill, the more we use it, the more likely we are to remember it. But despite what some kid pulling an all-nighter in a coffee shop might tell you, it’s a good idea to avoid cramming. As it turns out, it actually isn’t a good way to learn anything—at all.
When we cram for a test or a presentation, we aren’t actually learning the content and committing it to our memory. Rather, we’re getting familiar with what we’re looking at because we are looking at it again and again over a short period of time. We’re using a different part of our brain when we keep looking over our notes while cramming than we do when we are trying to revisit a memory of what we’ve read. And as the BBC reports, “being able to recognize something isn’t the same as being able to recall it.”
Clearly, shoving new information down without taking any moments to rest can be worse than not doing anything at all. The best way to learn new information in both the short-term and long is to space it out. One study at Dartmouth College found that people who used spaced repetition as opposed to continuous repetition were able to retain information better and longer.
If you’re trying to learn something new, try the “45 minutes on, 15 minutes off” technique. At the end of each hour, give yourself a chance to decompress and internalize what you’ve been working on. Eat a snack and refuel your brain so that it can continue operating at peak performance. And then, when all is said and done, take a nap or go to sleep so your brain can get to work forming long-term memories. (There’s more on why that works below.)
Our senses are tied to our memories. When we try to conjure up a thought, there are multiple feelings we can associate with it. What we’ve seen, what we smelled, what we felt physically, and even what we felt emotionally. They all play into our experiences and form what we consider to be our “memory”.
If you want to remember a moment, take minute to acknowledge everything surrounding it. Make a special note of the sights, sounds, sensations and emotions at play. The more sensations you can pull, the more synapses that will be linked together and the better memory that will be formed.
Then, if you want to make the memory even stronger, try to conjure up some cognitive associations. Metaphors and similes aren’t just good for poetry, they’re also good tools for making memories. When something happens, try to figure out what it reminds you of. Combining past experiences with new ones will help you cement your new thought as well reinforce a pre-existing one.
If you’ve ever walked into a grocery store only to forget why you went there in the first place, you probably experienced something called the “doorway effect”. This is the phenomenon where walking through doorways causes our brains to drop the ball. As it turns out, our brains may hold certain memories only until they’re useful. And once we’re introduced to something new, our brains will consider the new setting a priority and the old one secondary. Taking a step back and retracing your steps is pretty useful when this happens, but it isn’t always sure to work.
Like this article in Scientific American points out, scientists have understood for quite some time that it’s easier to remember certain things if we’re in the same environment where we learned them in the first place. However, in the case of one study at the University of Notre Dame, returning to the same room didn’t really help at all.
When all else fails, understanding that you’re prone to forgetting in certain environments requires us to take precautionary measures. The best tool for assisting your memory in this case is to make a list or in the case of important meetings, taking notes.
Note taking is a proven tool for helping us remember important information. We all know that. The act of receiving information, writing it down, and revisiting is a form of repetition that engrains just about any piece of data in our minds. What you may not know is that the way you take notes is of some importance.
As NPR reported, a recent study found that those who take notes by hand, as opposed to taking notes electronically, fair better when recalling conceptual information. This means that while electronic note takers were just as good at spitting out facts, hand-written note takers were better at actually doing something with them.
Get Your Brain Healthy By…
Getting Some Sleep
We’ve covered the benefits of sleeping extensively over the years. When it comes to figuring out the ONE Thing for your health, this should be your first stop. A good night of sleep does wonders for your body—and that definitely includes your brain power.
While we rest, our brain strengthens its bonds with what we’ve learned through a process called memory consolidation. In this process, our brains take a minute to transfer all of the little tidbits of data running around in our head from a surface level, to a deeper level.
In the past, scientists attributed this process to a function of deep sleep where rapid eye movement occurs. But recent research counters this, saying the brain does most of that work during lighter phases of sleep. So if you want to improve your memory, consider working in some regular naps throughout the day. Not only will naps help you think better, but they’ll also contribute to a higher quality of life and a healthier you.
Different vitamins have different impacts on a person’s working memory. While there’s some debate about the specifics, different studies have shown varying relationships between Vitamin B and a healthier memory.
One double-blind study observed that cognitively impaired individuals over the age of 70 who were given a regular dose of vitamins B6 and B12 experienced a slower rate of atrophy than those who were given a placebo. While the verdict is still out there on whether or not a regular dose of these vitamins will prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, there is little doubt that these vitamins play a vital role for our brains.
If you don’t think this applies to you, you might want to think again. Some figures (while older) have shown that 39 percent of men and women may have low or deficient levels of B vitamins in their systems.
There are plenty of foods out there that are rich in brain-boosting vitamins. Pork, poultry, fish, eggs, wholegrain cereals and milk have all contain B6, and meat, salmon, cod, milk, cheese and eggs are all good sources of B12.
If you’re looking for a natural boost, try mixing these foods into your diet a little more often. And if you think you might be deficient, please, go see a doctor!
If you’re looking to get more out of your brain, and you don’t have a regular exercise routine, think again!
The relationship between exercise and cognitive performance has become somewhat of a no-brainer. Study after study has shown that when we exercise, our brains are given a boost.
In particular, hitting the treadmill has not only been shown to improve memory formation, but it has also been shown to increase the neural tissue in the hippocampus. This is extremely important because the hippocampus is thought to be the stop-gap between your short-term and long-term memories. Whenever you have a short-term memory, it stakes out in the hippocampus before transitioning on to wherever your long-term memories are stored.
And while exercising is good for your memories, exercising while thinking may be even better. In a study of preadolescents, researchers found that exercising while engaging in some type of interactive, team based exercise like basketball, squash, or tennis does improves your cognitive performance. Heck, researchers in Japan even found that ping-pong can increase your attention span even while you’re not playing.
When it comes to boosting your brain power, you can’t lose when it comes to good old fashioned exercise.
Engaging in Mindfulness Meditation (If it Works for You)
While there’s a ton of information out there about mediation and its benefits, one aspect of meditation that has come under fire recently is its relationship with our memories.
In a 2015 study conducted by academic researchers in California, researchers found that participants who meditated on whatever came to their mind were more susceptible to reporting false-memories. The reason was that the more inward your focus is, the more likely you were to mix up fact and fiction.
Still, like most things, there’s some conflicting research out there. As this article from Vox points out, some studies show that mindfulness training improves working memory capacity. And other studies show that mindfulness practices increase a person’s grey matter density in certain parts of the brain involved in memory processes, emotion regulation, processing, and perspective taking.
The takeaway here is that we should be conscious of how meditation is impacting our minds when we engage in it. If you find that it’s nothing but beneficial to you, continue to do it until you feel like it might be detrimental. If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet, be cautious and keep track of your results in a meditation journal.
Try Some Other Tricks of the Trade Like…
This is another topic that we’ve written about before, but it’s also highly relevant. When it comes to your brain, there are few things more important for its health than engaging it with a good book every now and again.
In 2014, researchers at Emory University found that reading a novel not only improves brain function, but also connectivity. In addition, when you’re reading about a sword-fighting, swash-buckling pirate, your brain brings the adventure to life in some interesting ways. Flexing your imagination and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes was shown to engage a person’s muscle memory. That means if you’re reading about someone running, your imagination engages your brain the same way it would if you were actually running.
All of this is good mental exercise. If you haven’t picked up a piece of fiction in a while, make a point to check out our recent list of 9 Novels That Will Make You a Better Human.
Playing Video Games
If you’re looking to get a boost out of your brain, you might consider playing a videogame or two. While they’ve been shown to increase a person’s spatial reasoning, they’ve also been shown to teach people the most valuable skill of all: learning.
When we play a videogame or other type of puzzle, we are faced with the task of learning a new set of skills, often in a completely new environment with new rules. In order to get better at that game, you have to learn through failure. Every time you die and have to start over is a learning experience on how not to do something. This process of starting and stopping spills over into other parts of our lives. The world is ever-changing and the rules don’t stop changing. In order to face it head-on, we have to “git gud” at picking up on the changes and adapting or risk being left in the dust!
Learning a New Language
The relationship between language and our brain is pretty solid. Like we covered a few weeks ago, the relationship is so powerful that it can even determine what we’re able to remember. But more than that, when we commit ourselves to investing in our language or learning an entirely new one, our brain rewards us with more efficiency.
Like this Cornell University article covers, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain when you commit to learning a second language. Contrary to popular opinion, those benefits don’t only extend to children—they extend to everyone. As it turns out, proficiency in another language leads to higher mental processing skills. If you don’t know where to start in learning a new language, you’re in luck. Between recorded lessons from seasoned professionals on YouTube, to whole communities and programs like Duolingo, which are designed to teach you fluency in 15 minute intervals, learning a new language is now easier than ever before.
Make It a Habit!
Nothing is set in stone, and that includes your brain power. We’ve given you a big list of things to try out, and now all you have to do is commit to improving your life through them.
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, everything we do on a daily basis is a habit. From brushing our teeth, to hitting the snooze button. When it comes to accomplishing our ONE Thing, each habit we have does one of two things: it either puts us in the right direction or steers us away from it. The best way to change your brain for the better is to replace a bad habit with a good one.
That’s why we want to challenge you to take one of the strategies above and make it a lasting habit that will impact your life for the better.
On average it takes 66 days to break and form a new habit. So if you’re serious about taking up our challenge, we’d like for you to keep track of your progress by downloading our 66 Day Challenge Calendar. Whether you’ll commit to waking up in the morning to run or take a nap every afternoon, for the next 66 days, you’ll mark off each time you complete your life-changing habit.
If you’re taking up the challenge, we’d love for you to engage our community on Facebook so we can help support you along the way!