I'm Sam. I enjoy writing about sleep and mental health-related topics as well as ways to prevent stress and relax.
We’ve all done it: You’re at a gathering, someone calls out your name, and then runs over. She begins chatting about how good it is to see you. As you talk, you just stand there with a slack-jawed grin, while still trying to figure out who this excited stranger is.
What about the times where you’re in a rush to get somewhere and your cell phone vanishes, or your keys disappear from the place you knew they were. What about the myriad times you headed back to the car after shopping, only to discover you have no clue where you parked. All of these issues are the ordinary results of memory lapses and deficiencies in recall. Don’t worry, this really is a common occurrence, but you definitely can use some tips to improve your memory.
Fortunately, there are very helpful actions that can be taken to improve working memory, in turn curbing those awful moments where your brain just seems to fail you entirely. Before committing to these techniques it’s beneficial that you understand a small bit of basic brain 101. This not only may curb your concerns, but it can help you to realize that you aren’t alone in the experience.
- Brain and Memory Function
- Stress Impacts Memory and Brain Health
- Dietary Effects on the Brain
- Grain-free and Paleo Diets
- Exercise Is Important for Your Brain Health
- Visualization Techniques for Memory
- Method of Loci Dates Back Millennia
- Study and General Memory Use
- Be Curious and Don't Be Scared to Fail
- Sleep and Memory
- Three More Mnemonic Techniques
1. Brain and Memory Function
Picture your brain like an organic hard drive. It places memories as files in differing folders that make storage less cluttered and easier to access. The hippocampus is the largest part of the brain that accumulates these memories, placing each one in its proper place.
The hippocampus allows you to recall everything from typing on your keyboard to your first-grade music recital. Even though the complex capabilities of the brain are astounding, lack of conscious recall, no matter our age, is a widespread occurrence.
Some researchers note that the influx of modern technology over the past 50 years has slowly eroded the need for mental storage. The utilization of laptops and smartphones have usurped the necessity for your memory to keep specific dates, times, and names on file and readily accessible.
In other words, just a couple of generations ago people used only their memory to call to mind birthdays, names, phone numbers, addresses, and important dates. Because the brain was the primary tool, it was at the forefront of recall activity and the exercise and entrainment involved kept it working optimally. This showed that the best way to improve your memory was to solely utilize your brain for storage of common information.
Many people blame the fast-paced speeds of contemporary living. This could seem a possible culprit but a prominent researcher in the field of memory and aging says this:
“Our lives may be more frenetic, but we actually have the capacity to remember much more
than we do. We simply need to work on improving our attention.”
—Gary Smalls M.D., Memory and Aging Institute, UCLA
So, if we have the capacity to improve working memory and wish to commit to achieving it, what are some of the things that we can do? Because of the fact that our general memory retention ability naturally slows down over the years, we should keep our brain primed and well-suited for almost any situation by using some well-researched techniques.
2. Stress Impacts Memory and Brain Health
One of the first actions you should carry out is to find a means to lower the stress in your life. At first this seems like an impractical tip on how to improve your memory but there is a noteworthy reason for it. Remember the hippocampus that we discussed? When you stress, research has shown that there is an increased release of cortisol, a hormone that affects your brain.
Stress-induced cortisol interferes with memory retention and retrieval. Also, as you get older, elevated cortisol levels link to memory impairment and a smaller hippocampus. Due to this discovery, it is pertinent that you learn to control stress and maintain a more moderated emotional balance. Doing so will improve your memory in the long-term and keep the brain’s recall abilities from eroding.
3. Dietary Effects on the Brain
In tandem with stress, control is a requirement that a troubling majority of the population neglect: Diet. This is also a subject that many detractors would simply rather not discuss. So many of us love our diets and don’t want to restrict our feeding habits for the sake of an increase in memory. In contention with that wish though, is the fact that the wrong diet not only affects the brain, but will slowly rob your general health throughout your entire body.
It’s a sad reality that so many people attempt to correct their diet too late or after problems have occurred. You need to take action now. This will not only improve working memory, but your entire physical system.
4. Grain-free and Paleo Diets
Two well-researched, and similar, diets for the brain have been quite controversial in recent time. The grain-free and paleo diets have their share of detractors, but on their side are some of the most capable researchers and physicians in the medical industry. These professionals have found that all grains cause inflammation in the body and brain, hindering the ability to increase your memory.
One doctor has even claimed that inflammation is the cornerstone of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis — all of the neurodegenerative diseases are really predicated on inflammation. Dr. David Perlmutter and many others say that if you cut out all grains and consume whole foods including grass-fed meats, fish, non-GMO vegetables, and fruits, you will immediately increase your brain's ability to sustain itself, reduce inflammation, and improve your memory.
Those in contention claim we’ve eaten grains for thousands of years and our bodies adapt to the required changes in consumption. These researchers state that grains are not a culprit in brain inflammation and problems with memory. Despite these statements by opponents of a grain-free diet, there is little research that disproves the relinquishment of grains. Overall, the use of a grain-free paleo style diet is becoming more and more accepted and supported by physicians across the world.
7. Excercise Is Important for Your Brain Health
Finally, in tandem with the methods prescribed above, memory specialists say it is crucial for exercise to be a part of your daily routine. A good workout program is an excellent way to improve memory naturally and without any conscious thought. Exercise provides a much-needed influx of oxygen and nutrients to the brain from your bloodstream.
When you don’t exercise often enough, your brain can become nutrient-starved. This, in turn, affects your brain’s ability to perform optimally. You might find that even a quick 20-minute daily walk or a dip in the pool increases your cognitive abilities and improves your memory.
5. Visualization Techniques for Memory
If you feel that stress levels and eating habits are under control, a less clinical suggestion that is popular when looking for strategies to improve memory is visualization. Visualization can be an effortless lifestyle change if you incorporate it into your daily routine. The practice involves placing pictures with thoughts in order to anchor the necessary memory appropriately. The technique is simple and can even be fun.
For example, if you have an appointment at seven o’clock, you can picture a game show where a nervous person is attempting to choose what number holds the prize behind it. You hear the crowd chanting in the background. The player finally decides on the number seven. When the attractive assistant grabs the big bright number seven from the display a chime sounds and two big words appear saying “YOU WIN!”
The claim states that because you visualized what you intend to remember, your memory will consider it of greater necessity. This leads to a higher percentage of recall and a valid means of improving working memory.
6. Method of Loci Dates Back Millennia
Did you know that memory retention techniques go back as far as 450 BC? What is considered the first evidence referencing how to improve memory was discovered by the Greek poet Simonides. It is called the Method of Loci, or Method of Place. Similar to the visualization methods discussed above, it requires the utilization of pictures in your mind. What makes it unique is that you tether your needed memories to things you are already familiar with on a common route that you take. This method has been in use for thousands of years and is still considered to be a highly effective tool for improving your memory by researchers.
If you are going to the market and need milk and bread, for example, you can use the Method of Loci to improve your memory. When, on the way to the store, you pass a large tree that’s well established in your mind, you picture milk being poured all over the tree as you go by it.
Further down the road, you visualize throwing bread at that old church step on the corner, taking time to picture it well in your mind. This effective method piggybacks your items to well-established memories and utilizes these already recognized landmarks to hold on to what is necessary. It’s a valuable and worthwhile technique that has a long history of improving memory for the user.
8. Study and General Memory Use
In my experience, I feel there is a big difference between using our memory for study in the classical sense and wider use. With classical sense I mean the kind of study you need to do for school or certifications and tests. The memory we need to pass the necessary tests to advance a little in our careers do benefit from tips and tricks. The same is true for remembering our shopping list or cards that have been played in a game etc.
But to gain a wider range of capabilities that will benefit you for the rest of your life. You need a steady flow of learning combined with critical thinking and asking yourself the right questions during study. You also need to spread repetition over longer periods of time to really create a knowledge foundation for understanding.
I'm not a native speaker for instance, English is my 3rd language. I'm still learning and still improving, still not noticing a lot of basic mistakes I make. With language it is easy to see you don't have a full understanding yet. With things like history, politics, humanities, and economics the fallacy to believe you know all is more easy to make. Things that seem similar are to easily classified as the same. This will block your learning, because you'll integrate or discard most new knowledge based on the framework you already have.
9. Be Curious and Don't Be Scared to Fail
I meet a lot of people who block their learning, because they made mistakes in the past. Stress levels rise, the mind gets foggy or is all over the place. Being in a relaxed state is most beneficial for deep learning. Drinking a lot of coffee or using stimulants can help during very short bursts, but it's on the whole very superficial. Not being prepared for your exam and doing some all-nighters can get you a passing score sometimes. But if you see your education as a continuous process you'll set yourself with a deficit in a real understanding of the material. This will make future learning more of the same tricks instead of building on a strong foundation.
Don't be scared to fail, be curious, be open, never believe that not knowing and understanding something very fast is your fault. Don't block yourself from true learning by believing any of those thoughts or sometimes even remarks. Even when you believe you understand stay open to changes or different ways of looking at what you are learning.
10. Sleep and Memory
You’ll find that the best way to enhance your memory is to not only use quick techniques for improving memory, but to do things that affect your brain as a whole. For example, many people don't sleep enough. During sleep, the brain processes what it has learned and experienced during the day. Sleep helps a lot in integrating all those ideas and memories. The funny thing is that during exam periods or other stressful situations people sacrifice sleep to have more time to study. I would argue that you need your sleep most during these periods and it will help you process and memorize. Start early, repeat over longer periods of time and sleep normal hours
As a whole I would approach study as a joyful thing, the problem is that our competitive environment makes it more difficult and stressful than it should be. Between these methods and other lifestyle changes, you will be well on your way to improved working memory and a much less stressful life.
11. Three Techniques for Improving Memory Quickly
In our modern and hectic world, it seems like there is always too many things to keep up with. From family birthdays to conflicting office events, there never seems to be a time where you don’t have to remember something. Unfortunately for many, the ability to recall the memories that we need can evade us. That lack of recall, especially in a pressing situation, can cause a lot of hardship, and all too many times it makes our life more difficult than it could be. If this is the case for you, there are some excellent techniques for improving memory available that can prove invaluable in moments where memory is of the utmost importance.
The tips for improving memory below are indispensable techniques (mnemonics) because of their lack of complication. Many techniques require long-term changes and you don’t see the results for some time. Others require heavy visualization which, although very useful, sometimes aren’t quick enough in moments where you need to remember something quickly.
If you need a powerful way to remember something, keep the following memory improving techniques at your disposal:
The Acronym Method
An easy tip to improve memory is the “Acronym Method”. You will be surprised at how simple and yet efficient it is. If you’re required to remember multiple items, for example, just place the letters in an order that can create other sentences. As children, this method was often used in schools for teaching memory. The acronym for north, east, south, and west, was Never Eat Sour Watermelon. The acronym NESW was converted into an easy to remember statement that increased the odds of retention.
Also, if the beginning letters of your items can be made into its own word, even better. Do you remember how to retain the names of the great lakes? You just say the word HOMES. Each letter represents a lake: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Eerie, and Superior. The acronym method is very easy and often works in situations that leave little time for other methods.
The Body Method
Here is another fast way to improve your memory and swiftly recall information. The trick to this technique is to ground your required memories to a body part. Say that you want to remember the name of an important person you are meeting later that day. Take your right index finger, for instance, and project the name onto it. Create in your mind an image of the name and associate it with your index finger, focusing on the body part as the name is made to correspond with it.
The body method uses the transference of a memory to an anchor point; a form of association that utilizes the brains already existing familiarity. To some, the body method may seem peculiar, but once you try it out you will recognize its usefulness right away.
For those of you that just can’t visualize well, the rhyme link method will be a godsend in situations that demand improved memory. With this method, all you have to do is focus on what you want to remember and link it to a rhyming word. This technique for improving memory is used by playing the rhyme in your head multiple times until the melody gets snared. Do you need to remember to buy water and butter? Try rhymes like this: “Close the shutter and buy some butter”, and “Welcome back Cotter did you bring me the water?”
The rhyme linking method can be a fun technique for improving memory because of the necessity for finding a witty rhyme in order to maintain retention. In doing so, the repetitive and melodic nature of the statement secures it to memory for later recall.
If you have trouble remembering important events or would just like to stop misplacing your glasses, procedures for improving memory can be invaluable.
Along with the lifestyle techniques above, there are also other straightforward tricks and methods that can be used while being entertained or when in those dreaded moments where time is not on your side.
As we grow older, the decline of our physical and mental resources naturally occurs. Despite this, these tips to improve memory make the decline less impactful, assuring a more enjoyable experience in our twilight years. Overall the best way to improve your memory is to commit to a well-rounded and healthy lifestyle that includes the techniques you’ve just learned about. This will secure you the finest chance possible of never having to contend with a bad memory again.
- Kim E.J., Pellman B., and Kim J.J. (2015). Stress effects on the hippocampus: a critical review. Learning & Memory, 2015, Sep; 22(9), 411–416.
- Mandolesi L., Polverino A., et al. (2018). Effects of Physical Exercise on Cognitive Functioning and Wellbeing: Biological and Psychological Benefits. Frontiers in Psychology, 2018, 9, 509.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2019 Sam Shepards
Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on August 03, 2019:
Thanks Eric, nice to know what works for you. I understand the head in the clouds part. I can get lost for hours that way.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on July 29, 2019:
Much like Liz's comment about multi-tasking mine is more with my head in the clouds. I have to be conscious about staying in a moment. I use the visualization deal.
But I make notes. I can write it down and forget about it. And then even if I forget my list I can visualize what was on it. I like to use the same concepts we did in learning a sport skill. Visual. Auditory. Reading/Writing. Kinesthetic.
Once again great stuff written really well.
Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on July 29, 2019:
A light form of exercise and good sleep are probably the most important. Blood flow and oxygen supply in the brain are crucial. I was reading a book that stated a study that found 10-15 minutes of aerobics 4 times a week for older people reduced memory problems by more than half. Longer exercise saw diminishing returns. I brisk walk is ok I think.
Distraction is indeed a big problem. It is getting worse, our attention spans are getting shorter.
Liz Westwood from UK on July 29, 2019:
This is a useful and very relevant article. In our fast-paced 24/7 world our brains are in constant use through our waking hours. You give some great tips. I have heard of older people doing daily crosswords and sudoku puzzles to keep their brains active. Distraction is my problem. If I am focussed that's fine, but once I start to multi task with my brain I start to forget and lose things.