Memory is a complicated process that’s made up of a few different brain activities. Before we look at ways to improve retention, here is a simplified version to show how memory takes place:
Step 1. Create a memory. Our brain sends signals in a particular pattern associated with the event we’re experiencing and creates connections between our neurons, called synapses.
Step 2. Consolidate that memory. Do nothing else and that memory could soon fade away. Consolidation is the process of committing something to long-term memory so we can recall it later. Much of this process happens while we’re sleeping as our brains recreate that same pattern of brain activity and strengthen the synapses created earlier.
3. Recall that memory. Recall is what most of us think of when we talk about memory or memory loss. Recalling a memory is easier if it has been strengthened over time, and each time we do we cycle through that same pattern of brain activity and make the connection a little stronger.
While memory loss is a normal part of aging that doesn’t mean we can’t take action to slow it down. Now let’s look at some of the ways research has shown we can keep memories around as long as possible:
1. Meditate to improve working memory.
Working memory, which is a little like your brain’s notepad, is where new information is temporarily held. When you learn someone’s name or hear an address of a place you’re going to, you hang on to those details in working memory until you’re done with them. If they’re no longer useful you let them go entirely. If they are useful, you commit them to long-term memory where they can be strengthened and recalled later.
Working memory is something we use every day, so it makes our lives a lot easier when it’s stronger. While for most adults the maximum we can hold in our working memory is about seven items, if you’re not quite using your working memory to its maximum capacity meditation can strengthen it.
Research has shown that participants with no experience in mindfulness meditation can improve their memory recall in just eight weeks. Meditation, with its power to help usconcentrate, has also been shown to improve improve standardized test scores and working memory after just two weeks.
Why does meditation benefit memory? It’s somewhat counterintuitive: during meditation your brain stops processing information as actively as it normally would.
So occasionally take a break to empty your mind. Not only will you feel a little less stressed, you may also remember a little more.
2. Drink coffee to improve memory consolidation.
Whether caffeine can improve memory if taken before learning something new is debatable. Most research has found little to no effect from ingesting caffeine prior to creating new memories.
One recent study, though, found that taking a caffeine pill after a learning task actually improved memory recall up to 24 hours later. Participants memorized a set of images and were later tested by viewing the same images (targets), similar images (lures), and completely different images (foils).
The task was to pick out which were the exact pictures they had memorized without being tricked by the lures (which were very similar.) This is a process called pattern separation, which according to the researchers reflects a “deeper level of memory retention.”
The researchers in this study focused on the effects of caffeine on memory consolidation: the process of strengthening the memories we’ve created. That is why they believe the effects occurred when caffeine was ingested after the learning task rather than before.
So don’t just drink a little coffee to get started in the morning–drink a little coffee to hold on to more of what you learn throughout the day.
3. Eat berries for better long-term memory.
Research shows that eating berries can help stave off memory decline. A study from the University of Reading and the Peninsula Medical School found that supplementing a normal diet with blueberries for twelve weeks improved performance on spatial working memory tasks. The effects began after just three weeks and continued for the length of the study.
A long-term berry study that tested the memory of female nurses who were over 70 years old found those who regularly ate at least two servings of strawberries or blueberries each week had a moderate reduction in memory decline. (The effects of strawberries might be debatable, though, since that study was partly funded by the California Strawberry Commission… and another study focusing on strawberries suggested that you’d need to eat roughly 10 pounds of strawberries per day to see any effect).
More research is needed in this area, but scientists are getting closer to understanding how berries might affect our brains. In particular, blueberries are known for being high inflavanoids, which appear to strengthen existing connections in the brain. That could explain their benefit on long-term memory.
And even if it turns out they don’t help your memory much, berries are still really good for you.
4. Exercise to improve memory recall.
Studies in both rat and human brains have shown that regular exercise can improve memory recall. Fitness in older adults has even been proven to slow the decline of memorywithout the aid of continued regular exercise. In particular, studies shown that regular exercise can improve spatial memory, so exercise may not necessarily be a way to improveall types of memory recall.
Of course the benefits of exercise are numerous, but for the brain in particular regular exercise is shown to improve cognitive abilities besides memory. So if you’re looking for a way to stay mentally sharp, taking a walk could be the answer.
5. Chew gum to make stronger memories.
Another easy method that could improve your memory is to chew gum while you learn something new. Contradictory research exists so it’s not a solid bet, but one study published last year showed that participants who completed a memory recall task were more accurate and had higher reaction times if they chewed gum during the study.
A reason that chewing gum might affect our memory recall is that it increases activity in the hippocampus, an important area of the brain for memory. (It’s still unclear why this happens, though.)
Another theory focuses on the increase of oxygen from chewing gum and how that can improve focus and attention, helping us create stronger connections in the brain as we learn new things. One study found that participants who chewed gum during learning and memory tests had higher heart rate levels, a factor that can cause more oxygen to flow to the brain.
6. Sleep more to consolidate memories.
Sleep is proven to be one of the most important elements in having a good memory. Since sleep is when most of our memory consolidation process occurs it makes sense that without enough sleep we will struggle to remember things we’ve learned.
Even a short nap can improve your memory recall. In one study participants memorized illustrated cards to test their memory strength. After memorizing a set of cards they took a 40-minute break and one group napped while the other group stayed awake. After the break both groups were tested on their memory of the cards.
To the surprise of the researchers the sleep group performed significantly better, retaining on average 85% of the patterns compared to 60% for those who had remained awake.
Research indicates that when memory is first recorded in the brain (specifically in the hippocampus) it’s still “fragile” and easily forgotten, especially if the brain is asked to memorize more things. Napping seems to push memories to the neocortex, the brain’s “more permanent storage,” which prevents them from being “overwritten.”
Not only is sleep after learning a critical part of the memory creation process, but sleep before learning something new is important as well. Research has found that sleep deprivation can affect our ability to commit new things to memory and consolidate any new memories we create.
Now you don’t need an excuse to nap–or to get a little more sleep.