Understanding Memory & How To Improve It
There seem to be two types of people in the world. Those who remember almost everything with little to no effort. And those who can’t even remember the name of the person they were talking to moments ago. Memory gets a reputation of being a finicky thing, or a genetic trait that some people get and others don’t. But just like any other muscle in the body, the brain can be strengthened and trained to not only learn faster, but to remember more.
How memory works
Understanding how memory works is an endeavor philosophers and scientists have been studying for years. Even today, new discoveries are making exciting new breakthroughs in scientific communities around the world. In 2016, a British scientist discovered a protein that played an important part in the formation and loss of memory. And while there is still so much we don’t know, we understand the core steps of memory processing.
When we interact with the world, the brain perceives the images, sounds, and feelings involved. This is known as sensory input. But when these sensory inputs come into our memory system, it needs to be attached to something in order to be stored. And there are three types of encoding our brain uses: visual, auditory, or semantic.
Auditory encoding is used frequently when it comes to short term memory. When we need to remember a phone number or a name, frequently we repeat it back to ourselves. Visual encoding is also mostly associated with short term memory, as our brain filters these images frequently. But that’s not to say visual encoding doesn’t work long-term. Most of us can recognize a company logo such as the Amazon smile on the side of boxes. This is visual encoding at work.
However, the real powerhouse of memory encoding is semantic. This is when we take a piece of information and connect it to something with meaning. Using the mind palace technique, or studying using mnemonics are both examples of this type of encoding. Semantic encoding has been shown to be the most effective in retaining and recalling information for long periods of time.
Once we’ve encoded new information, our brain needs somewhere to store it. There are two types of storage in the brain: short-term and long-term.
As we mentioned, short-term memory is mostly related to auditory encoding, but the two key features of short-term memory are that they are limited in both duration and capacity. Studies suggest we retain information in our short-term memory stores anywhere from 15-30 seconds and can only retain an average of 7 items at a time.
Long-term memory is thought to be unlimited in the amount of information we can retain, and these memories can last an entire lifetime. In fact, memory experts believe it isn’t availability that’s an obstacle to long-term memory, but accessibility.
Because long-term memory is more complex, there are three types of long-term memory storage. Procedural memory is generally muscle memory. It’s how we remember to ride a bike or play an instrument, and it’s largely automatic. Semantic memory is our general knowledge. This is where we store facts and pieces of information about the world around us. Episodic memory is our experiences. These are the events that have happened to us.
Having a memory in storage does us little good if we can’t retrieve it. And when it comes to long-term memory, if we have trouble remembering it, it’s usually a retrieval problem. Understanding how the information is stored can help with memory techniques to ensure we increase our ability to recall memory in both long-term and short-term memory.
Short-term memory is generally stored as sequential. If we’re given a list of ten items and asked about the sixth item on a list, we will run through the list in our mind to recall number six. On the other hand, long-term memory is generally recalled via association. Anyone who’s ever lost their keys and had to retrace their steps to find them is experiencing association recall.
We also tend to recall information based on sensory information such as language, state of mind, location, and more. Which means recreating the conditions we learned the information in is helpful.
How to improve memory
Like anything in our brain, if we don’t use it, we lose it. The pathways and neural networks that allow our short-term memory to retain the most information for longer durations needs to be exercised in order to operate efficiently. And to recall our long-term memories, we have to continue to strengthen the pathways allowing for maximum retrieval.
It’s even more important to train our brains because connections becoming weaker is a normal part of aging. But, there are certain actions that can slow down the process. Research has suggested that the following techniques can be used for memory improvement:
Meditation is good for our memory for several reasons. The first is stress relief. Stress produces high amounts of the hormone cortisol, and while it’s a necessary part of many brain processes, too much is bad for our brain. Stress kills brain cells and weakens neural connections, all of which hurts our memory.
But stress management is only one benefit to meditation. Studies have shown meditation is beneficial to our physical health, lowering blood pressure, anxiety, and even reducing chronic pain. People who meditate have better focus and concentration, two key ingredients in both encoding to long-term memory and being able to recall those memories.
Most impressively, meditation has shown to physically change the brain. Brain scans on individuals who meditate regularly show higher levels of activity in the left prefrontal cortex, where positive emotions are associated. It also strengthens neural connections and thickens the cerebral cortex. All combined this leads to sharper memory and faster recall.
2- Memory Tricks & Brain Workouts
Our brain has millions of neural connections and pathways established to help us do things like solve problems, process information, and function through habitual routines with ease. But our brain also does what’s called synaptic pruning, where it cuts away unused pathways. This process was once thought to end with adolescence, but recent studies show our brain is constantly growing new neural connections and pruning unused ones.
In order to ensure we don’t lose our ability to learn faster and recall more, using these pathways while growing new ones is the best approach. And there’s any number of ways to do this.
Learning something new, whether it’s a language for a trip or playing an instrument as a hobby, is always a good brain workout. Just make sure it’s actually new, not something we’re simply practicing. Use memory tricks while we’re learning, employing mnemonics, flash cards, memory palace, or association exercises to help solidify the learning and improve our memory.
Engaging in learning for fun is great, but in order to reap the full brain benefits make sure it’s something that we can build on. Music for example can always be expanded on, learning more difficult pieces or different genres of music, keeping the brain flexible and fit.
This is one of the most important aspects of having a good memory. When we sleep, memory consolidation takes place in our brains. For anything to become a memory, three things have to take place: acquisition, consolidation, recall. We acquire and encode memories while we’re awake, but if we don’t consolidate that information during our normal sleep cycles, we will fail to be able to recall information, both in part and entirely.
Sleep is also important because it impacts how we perform when awake. If we’re sleep deprived our focus, concentration, and ability to comprehend information are severely limited. This all hinders our ability to form memories properly.
Make quality sleep a priority by eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise, and establishing a consistent nighttime routine to help your brain and body relax and prepare for a good night’s sleep.
4- Physical Exercise
Physical exercise is essential for the well-being of our brains. Not only does it get our blood moving, which is vital for the brain, but it prevents other diseases and disorders that can negatively affect our brain. In addition, when we exercise regularly, we boost the happy chemicals in our brain and reduce the negative, stress-inducing chemicals.
Regular exercise reduces the risk of cognitive decline and protects degeneration of the brain. Aerobic exercise is particularly beneficial because it improves blood flow and boosts our heart rate. In fact, studies have indicated that Alzheimer’s patients can show symptom improvement with memory with aerobics. Engaging in crossfit, or some other type of exercise that requires hand-eye coordination is not just a good physical workout, but a good brain workout as well.
Combining exercise with friends or loved ones has even more benefits, as laughter and companionship utilizes multiple areas of our brain. Going on a walk, hiking, or dancing are all fun, healthy activities, and the emotional response will activate key areas for learning and memory.
5- Eat A Good Diet
Eating a diet rich in brain-friendly foods is one of the best things we can do for our overall health. Our body needs fuel and the same is true for our brain. If we want to remember more, we need to give our brain the vitamins and nutrients it needs to perform at its best.
Dark leafy greens, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and a hefty helping of omega 3 essential fatty acids are all the solid foundations of a brain-healthy diet. Limit calories and avoid foods high in saturated fats. And always remember to drink plenty of water. Knowing how to feed our body in order to fuel our brain will not only lead to excellent physical health but a younger, more agile brain.
There are numerous tricks we can learn to actively improve our short-term memory capacity and long-term memory recall. However, eating right, getting plenty of exercise––both mental and physical, managing our stress, and prioritizing a good night’s sleep will ensure we keep our mind and body fit. And a healthy mind is limitless.