How to Improve Memory
It doesn’t take an extraordinary brain to get smarter about remembering. From techniques used by memory champions to fundamentals like securing enough sleep and maintaining healthy behaviors, just about anyone who wants to learn more efficiently has a variety of tools at their disposal—some of which they have likely already used.
While simply revisiting a newly learned fact, the definition of a word, or some other information can help reinforce someone’s memory for it, additional tools and processes can help make the effort to retain those details more powerful.
- Mnemonic devices are ways of enhancing memory that can involve elaboration—connecting what one is trying to remember to other information in memory—organizing to-be-remembered details more efficiently in memory, and making use of mental visualization. Examples of mnemonics include:
• forming a series of word s into an acronym (such as ROY G BIV, for the colors of the rainbow) or a series of letters into an acrostic (Elephants And Donkeys Got Big Ears, for the notes of each string on a guitar, E-A-D-G-B)
• grouping to-be-remembered items together into categories (such as several types of food, when remembering what to buy at the grocery store)
• creating a memory palace: visualizing a series of objects, events, or other things appearing in a familiar physical space (such as a room at home), where each one represents something to be remembered; also called the method of loci
- Paying closer attention to details in the moment can make it easier to remember them later. People can learn to focus better; mindfulness techniques may help. Minimizing distractions and avoiding multitasking while learning information could also help with remembering.
- Spacing apart the time spent studying, rather than massing it together, tends to lead to better learning, according to research on the spacing effect. An example of spaced practice would be studying a topic once every day for relatively small blocks of time rather than spending a longer block of time studying on Friday. Accordingly, “cramming”—studying in one long, continuous period—can be an unhelpful study habit.
- Testing memory of learned material, such as a passage of text, can enhance memory for that material—above and beyond re-reading, research indicates. The findings suggest that self-testing can help with learning, whether a person responds to self-generated questions or flashcards related to that information or questions provided by someone else (such as sample test questions in textbooks). Explaining a newly learned concept to oneself or someone else may also help reinforce memory for it.
- Chunking is the combination of to-be-remembered pieces of information, such as numbers or letters, into a smaller number of units (or “chunks”), making them easier to remember. A simple example is the reduction of a phone number into three parts (which one might repeat to oneself in three bursts), though more complex forms of chunking are thought to help account for experts’ superior memory for certain kinds of information (such as chess positions).
Can someone deliberately improve their ability to remember over the long-term? While factors such as well-timed and sufficient sleep and physical activity can aid a neurologically healthy person’s memory ability, the evidence for approaches such as supplements or brain games is often mixed.
In addition to a variety of strategies (such mnemonic devices and others mentioned above) to enhance your memory in the short term, striving to live a healthy and active lifestyle can help preserve memory ability over time. That means engaging in regular mental challenges, exercising routinely, getting enough sleep, and eating well. Reducing stress in daily life may also help to boost memory.
Sleep is thought to play an important role in the consolidation of memories. There is evidence that people who sleep soon after studying new information are more likely to recall it later than those who study it and remain awake. Procedural memories (memory for physical skills, for example) as well as memories for experiences and for new knowledge, seem to benefit from sleep. Consequently, failing to prioritize sleep (or struggling with sleep for other reasons) may mean a missed chance for optimal memory consolidation.
In addition to having longer-term benefits for memory ability, well-timed exercise may immediately boost memory for new information under some conditions. Research has found that moderate-to-high-intensity cardiovascular workout just before or after a learning period enhanced recall for the information learned.
Vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, olive oil, whole grains, fish, and other nutritious foods are elements of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet, which have been studied for their potential positive long-term effects on brain health. People who, over the course of several years, followed a diet blending elements of both showed reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, of which memory loss is one component. The same diet advises limiting consumption of red meat, butter and margarine, cheese, sweets, and fried or fast food.
There is reason to be skeptical about “brain training” programs based on inconsistent evidence of their effectiveness at improving memory or other cognitive abilities. Apps that purport to train the brain often feature tasks used to exercise working memory, with the aim of increasing working memory capacity (which has been linked to intelligence) in order to produce broader cognitive improvements. While working memory training may at least temporarily enhance performance on working memory-related tasks, however, that does not mean the improvement carries over to other mental abilities.
A range of substances, both synthetic and naturally occurring, have been studied for their potential to improve cognitive function, including memory ability. There are certain kinds of medications that can be prescribed to help treat memory loss due to a disease. Supplements proposed to enhance memory in healthy people, however, which have varying degrees of evidence in their favor—often based on small studies—may have a modest impact, if any, on memory.