It seems like a given that our minds peak in our 40s and everything goes downhill after that. Suddenly, we can’t remember names and places, and we’re Googling “how to improve memory.”
Sometimes, we notice that even by our late 20s and 30s, we’re struggling to recall things as fast as we did before.
And if you’re a student cramming last minute before an exam, or if you have an important presentation due tomorrow, you’ll know just how impossible it is for you to retain information.
If you constantly find yourself forgetting things and repeatedly Googling “how to improve memory,” science has some good news for you.
The science behind how to improve memory
If they stand out, if we can relate to it, or if we use it repeatedly — this is how we remember things.
“The average layperson trying to learn nuclear physics for the first time, for example, will probably find it very difficult to retain that information,” says Sean Kang, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Education at Dartmouth College to CNBC.
His research focuses on the cognitive psychology of learning and memory.
What Kang says about relating information to what we already know is the key to us unlocking the answer to “how to improve memory.”
Sure, we may know nothing about nuclear science, but if we can find a way to link this unrelated information to what we already know, it can help us remember things better.
Another method offered by science is to replay what you read.
A 2014 research study release by Allison Preston, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Texas at Austin, explains it as such:
“We think replaying memories during rest makes those earlier memories stronger, not just impacting the original content, but impacting the memories to come. […] Nothing happens in isolation. When you are learning something new, you bring to mind all of the things you know that are related to that information. In doing so, you embed the new information into your existing knowledge.
Science reassures us that our brain is more resilient than we think, as long as we keep it active.
While that’s great, we shouldn’t forget that there’s a good reason why we forget as well.
Why do we forget
We don’t forget only because our brain failed.
We also forget certain information so that we can retain only the most important part of it, according to a paper by Blake Richards, DPhil, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and Fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.
Our brain isn’t a thumb drive with infinite gigabytes of data. It can only retain what’s relevant to you.
“We found that there’s a variety of mechanisms the brain uses — and actually invests energy in — that undo and override those connections, ultimately cause us to forget information,” Richards said to CNBC.
“Our brains may want us to remember the gist of what we’ve experienced because that will be most adaptive for making decisions in the real world.”
For example, you may have memorised the chapter on “Indian history in the 20th century” but just a day before the test, your professor says he will be testing you on the chapter “Indian history in the 19th century.”
In this situation, what’s best for you is to start remembering the new chapter and make space in your mind by forgetting the other chapter.
Best brain improvement supplements
What if you want to expand this limit of how much your mind can retain memory?
The best brain improvement supplements may sound like they’re the cure for all your problems.
Omega-3 fatty acids (such as those found in fish oil) are said to build cell membranes in the brain and protect brain cells.
The leaves of ginkgo trees are said to enhance memory. Daily multivitamins are said to slow down memory decline in older adults.
Don’t buy into this though, advises Harvard Health Publishing.
For a supplement to be effective, there needs to be evidence from randomised clinical trials. These are the gold standard for research.
Unfortunately, for isolated vitamins or minerals and brain health, there just isn’t much, if any, evidence that these best brain improvement supplements work as they’re marketed.
How to improve your memory: 10 easy ways to remember more
1. Sleep more
We retain memories for facts and skills over a 12-hour period if we slept in between it, compared to staying awake.
A process called “consolidating” takes place during our stage two sleep, which is the light sleep we usually get before waking up.
2. Move more
Being physically active can reduce your risk of cognitive decline, including dementia.
One study found that cognitive decline is almost twice as common among adults who are inactive compared to those who are active.
You don’t have to be an Olympian to reap the benefits of being active. By taking the stairs more, walking the dog or just dancing can bring a whole lot of perks to your mind.
3. Use mnemonics
Mnemonics refers to the use of letters or phrases — and associating them — as a way to aid memory.
Whether remembering the points on the compass with NEWS (north, east, west, and south) or creating your own mnemonic, the key is to strike a balance — make it memorable without making it more complicated than the information you’re trying to retain.
For example, if your prep for exams requires you to remember the first five prime ministers of India, you can try the following. Remember the first alphabet of each of their first and last names (in bold below):
- Jawaharlal Nehru
- Gulzarilal Nanda
- Lal Bahadur Shastri
- Indira Gandhi
You’ll end up with JNGNLSIG — which can be turned to a sentence. The wackier the better. For example: John Needed George’s Nest and Leaves. Sally Irritated George for it.
Now isn’t that so much easier (and more fun!) tor remember?
4. Relate it to your life
When we can’t connect to events that happen 500 years ago, we will most likely forget about it once the history teacher ends class.
But if you can find a way to relate it to your life, this will help. For example, to remember how the British fought in Normandy, you can try to remember how you fought with your family during a beach holiday.
Better still, give each of them a character based on a historical figure.
5. Quiz yourself
Reading over and over again won’t help you remember better. If you want to recall something you learned two weeks ago, try asking yourself questions.
The more, the better. Do it every week and you’ll see how you’ll progress — slowly but surely.
And it’s a whole lot more interesting than just rote reading.
6. Talk more
Picture yourself giving a speech about the topic you’re trying to memorise.
Imagine you’re at your wedding or the United Nations headquarters in front of some of the most important people in the world and your life.
You’ll be jolted to find ways to make the speech memorable to them — and, in turn, to you too.
7. Make a song
8. Draw it
A picture paints a thousand words — and it’s a whole lot more effective than looking at more words on your notes.
Our mind recalls images better than rows and rows of words.
9. Fight about it
Remember that big argument you had with your mum 10 years ago? You probably still know what you wore and said then but you can’t remember what you had for lunch today.
While not the most pleasant technique, you can try fake arguments with someone you love to retain some desperately boring materials.
10. Do one thing at a time
When you multitask, you think you’re doing more — but you’re doing more at a fraction of the quality. When we switch tasks, we respond to it 20% slower.
Worse, too much multitasking and you stand to affect your working memory and long-term memory, including attention lapses and forgetfulness.
Think about that the next time you open 50 tabs on your browser thinking you’ll be more productive and do more.