Forgetting things is a common experience, but it can be frustrating and even frightening. Yet, it doesn’t have to mean all hope is lost. Whatever your age, there are ways to improve your cognitive skills. Although our brains reach their maximum size when we’re in our early twenties and then slowly decline in volume over time, the good news is that studies have shown the brain to be capable of regrowth.
In fact, the brain can learn and acquire new skills and facts all throughout life especially if you regularly exercise both your body and your brain (which is a muscle, after all). Sure, age may make learning new information tougher for some, but what’s good is that many parts of the brain remain untouched, according to the Mayo Clinic, who says these include your habit-based memory, the one that stores skills established by repetition and practice (like riding a bicycle).
One of the biggest myths about memory is that “You can’t increase your memory by training it.” WRONG! I can sort of appreciate why this myth might be accepted (‘If I can’t do anything about it, there is no point trying. Sweet, less effort for me’). The inconvenient truth is that there are *plenty* of ways to improve your memory, or to simply get the most out of what is already there.
Researchers have found that some of the most common study techniques are highlighting or reading and rereading text/notes. It doesn’t take a whole lot of (cognitive) effort to read a passage or highlight a phrase. The same thing that makes them popular also makes them rather ineffective (requiring relatively little cognitively effort). Neither of these is entirely useless, but there are better options.
Sure, forgetting when your children’s birthdays are, when trash day is and when your anniversary rolls around are good reasons to start improving your cognitive function skills — but having a good memory at work is also important.
Remembering deadlines, tasks, memorizing presentations and even knowing names will set you ahead at the office. Studies show that when someone hears their name, it stimulates brain activity, so your clients will feel like you’re invested.
Some of the best ways to improve memory are to exercise and eat properly, activities that can also help with stress, depression, concentration and mood, but those aren’t the only ways to make sure you’re on top of the memory game.
Here are More Ways to keep your memory in fighting shape.
1.Sleep after learning (consolidate)
Right after you learn or do something it’s fresh in your memory and you can remember it fairly vividly. With the passage of time, as you do/read/learn more things, memories slowly decay, and become less and less accurate approximations. In addition, new memories are fragile and can easily be forgotten.
So how do you strengthen memories for recently learnt things and protect new memories? We know that consolidation (both system and synaptic) takes place on a neural level without us doing anything (or at least being aware of it), and this does strengthen our memories. However, there are things we can do to considerably improve the consolidation process. You might be surprised to learn that one of them is sleep.
Recent research supports the idea that consolidation is particularly strong during sleep. A 2006 study appearing in Learning and Memory found that students who went to sleep within three hours of learning material remembered nearly 16% more content than a group that waited 10 hours and then slept. Going to sleep probably eliminates a lot of environmental stimuli that might interfere with the learnt content. While sleeping instead of studying may not be that helpful, it might be worthwhile going to bed shortly after a study session.
2.Focus on Attending
If you are listening to someone, repeat or paraphrase what they have said along with writing it down, if possible. Try different ways of attending, this helps make new neural connections. In a Dale Carnegie course, the manual suggests that you shake a person’s hand and repeat their name upon meeting. Now with Skype and other digital media this can be impossible, but you can still repeat information out loud and take notes.
There is research on whether typing information into a computer or the actual act of writing on a piece of paper helps the attention process along with proper storage. It is important to have undivided attention when you are focused on the new information.
The Chinese Ideogram for “To Listen” is eyes, ears, undivided attention and a heart. If you are thinking, when someone is presenting information, you often are not listening to what is presented. Also, it is important to keep the task within your ability or understanding. It is extremely hard to properly process and store information when you don’t have a good understanding of that information or meaning of what is being said.
Sometimes our brains can’t really tell the difference between what is real and what we imagine. We know that mental imagery can activate some brain regions; and that mental rehearsal can lead to measurable improvement for some tasks. Mentally ‘visualizing’ information can also help tremendously.
If you haven’t heard of the Method of Loci (aka The Memory Palace), I would definitely recommend googling it and/or reading about it extensively. You know those people that perform astonishing memory feats like remembering decks of cards, pi to 1,000 places, or the names and faces of hundreds of people, all in a single sitting, well with the exception of savants like Kim Peek and Daniel Tammet, most of them are just average people with inherently average memories.
A group study appearing in the New Year 2003 edition of Nature Neuroscience investigated the reasons for memory champions’ superior performance. Their conclusion was that they employed “strategies for encoding information with the sole purpose of making it more memorable,” but that superior memory was NOT driven by exceptional cognitive ability or structural differences in the brain. Essentially, those that are highly adept at memorization tasks ‘encode’ information (store it in their mind) very effectively. The most common way of encoding large amounts of information effectively is with visualization. This basically involves using mental imagery to represent the information you are trying to remember.
4. Learn Novel ways of Thinking
Use it or lose it. Do crossword puzzles help? Yes. Does Luminosity and similar websites help? Yes. However, if all you ever do is crossword puzzles eventually other areas of the brain and brain connections will die off. It’s important to have a balanced life of conversations with new friends, new routines, and taking different routes when doing your morning run or bicycle ride.
As mentioned above, those connections you do use will get stronger, however if you aren’t doing something novel, the connections you’re not using will die off. This is especially true if your brain injury is from disease and/or trauma. If you had a sport-related concussion and you continue on the same path of recovery, the areas that are damaged due to the TBI may never recover. You need to use your brain as much as possible in a variety of ways.
Most people probably know that we can theoretically store 7 (+/- 2) pieces of information in our short-term memory at any given time. So we can remember the seven dwarves, but we’d be in trouble if there were 10 of them. And phone numbers are usually between five and nine digits long.
Sometimes (often) it can be beneficial to be able to remember more than seven or so bits of information. One technique that can help is chunking. Chunking is essentially just breaking up a long stream of information into manageable ‘chunks’.
Let’s consider the 14-digit number string 1-9-6-9-4-8-1-2-1-6-1-0-6-6. At first sight this might seem fairly meaningless, but if I rewrite it as 1969 – 4,8,12,16 – 1066 suddenly it becomes pretty easy to remember. Instead of remembering 14 separate pieces of information all you have to remember now is: 1) moon landing; 2) multiples of 4; and 3) the Battle of Hastings. Most information strings will not be this easy to reduce, but you get the idea.
6. Stress Reduction
For many, this is one of the hardest things to do. There is extensive research on how stress affects your ability to attend, concentrate, store and retrieve information. Add to this a disease and/or trauma and your brain just shuts down. Heart rate breathing is extremely important. The heart to brain communication system is through the vagus nerve and the sympathetic afferents.
Through controlling your breath, you are able to have control of your brain and higher brain centers that influence registration, storage and retrieval. The emWave2 is a method to help you learn heart rate breathing. This method is not going to make the baby stop crying or make the leaky roof go away. Rather, it is going to give you a tool to help you cope better, which reduces the stress, thus allowing you to attend, concentrate, store and retrieve information more effectively.
7. Take breaks
This sort of relates to both points 1 and 5. Study for X minutes then take a break. ‘Taking a break,’ however, doesn’t mean giving up entirely. What you ideally want to do is study in a number of short bursts, mixed up by breaks, rather than doing all of your study at once (cramming). As well as leading to a significant decrease in academic performance, all-night cram may be causing serious health problems (anxiety, depression, insomnia).
You can really only concentrate effectively on one thing for a certain stretch of time. The advantage that short intermittent ‘bursts’ of study have over one continuous session (assuming the total amount of time spent studying is the same) is referred to as the spacing effect.
What you eat affects your brain. Eating an anti-inflammatory diet that is high in protein and Omega 3 really makes a difference. I go into great details about the foods to eat and the foods to avoid my book, Coping with Concussion and Mild Traumatic Brain Injury. Also, in the Brain Health Recipes portion of my blog there is a wide variety of recipes specifically to help your brain health and your memory. Lastly, as part of our integrative team, we have an amazing nutritional educator.
9. Don’t cram (break study up, study regularly rather than all at once)
The root of the problem is that people procrastinate. Some people do it more than others but regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or IQ – people procrastinate. The catch-cry of the procrastinator may as well be “Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow.” Sometimes this makes sense, but the bottom line here is that, despite its immense popularity, cramming just does not work.
There is plenty of research showing that studying in small sections (broken up by ‘downtime’) leads to better memory retention than when all of these smaller sessions are crammed into one long session (refer to point 5 above).
A study by UCLA researchers appearing in the Journal of Child Development suggests that trading sleep for study time (a common by-product of cramming) is likely to lead to more academic problems, not less, the next day. The authors stress that sleep is critical for academic success, and that sleep deprivation dramatically impedes the learning process.
10. Restorative Sleep
This area is extremely important, which is why I wrote a previous blog on sleep and devoted an entire chapter to sleep in my book. It is essential that you go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time, if possible. Do not have sound machines or the radio or TV going during the night. Sleep is the first area that is most effected by disease, trauma and/or neglect related memory problems. Rescue Remedy sleep is very effective, as is taking a soothing bath along with the heart rate breathing that helps reduce the stress in your life so you can attain restorative sleep.
11. Generate yourself and test yourself
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that taking an active role in the creation of revision material is an effective way to achieve strong encoding and promote good long-term retrieval of memories.
Making up questions yourself and then testing yourself on them (not immediately) involves active involvement with the material and actually strengthens the encoding of material to be learnt. Even just reading text with the idea of making up questions based on what you have read is beneficial. What a lot of students don’t realize is that self-testing is possibly even more important than simply reviewing information. Self-testing gives you an idea of what you know and increases your ability to remember it.
To really improve your understanding and recall of a concept, you can always try and explain it to someone else (or yourself). Educators have known about the benefits of self-explanation (essentially, thinking out loud) for some time. When you ask yourself questions/work on answers/try different solutions/comment on mistakes/identify changes in approach you force a conscious awareness of the processes the mind is going through. When attempting to learn new material try asking (and answering) yourself things like:
- Am I doing this right?
- How can I understand this better?
- What is an example of this?
- Why didn’t/wouldn’t this work?
This is a lot easier than you think. Park a block away from your office. Walk up the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Buy a big medicine ball and bounce on it while watching TV or a movie. Try isometric exercise. Try Tai Chi exercises. Move for a least 20 minutes a day!
13. Elaborate on material
Thinking about something (a concept/idea/proposition etc.) and add meaning to it by relating it to other things you know about, helps you remember it better. But not only that, the material is much more likely to be transferred into your long-term memory. (example of elaboration)
This process is known as elaboration and is the reason why…
This association tool partly accounts for why techniques such as The Method of Loci (possibly the most effective memorization technique you will ever learn) and similar image-creation/linking techniques are so powerful. These are used to some extent by pretty much all of the top memory ‘experts’ around the world.
These techniques are just some of the more effective ways to enhance your memory, but there are plenty more. The bottom line is, you can definitely improve your memory, but often it takes a bit of effort.
14. Be Careful with Prescription Medication
If you had a brain injury, do NOT take any medication that will affect your central nervous system (CNS) unless it is LIFE or DEATH. Every medication has some side-effects. Only use the medication, if and only if, the positive effects outweigh the negative. If you are in severe pain and need to take a medication for your pain, be aware it will affect your memory. There are major drug categories that will affect your memory including sleep aides, steroids, antiepileptic drugs, tranquilizers, anti-anxiety drugs, and muscle relaxants to name a few. Again, be sure to use prescription medication and even some herbal remedies with caution.
15. Alcohol, Wine, Beer and Drugs
This is a no brainer Use any of these, especially together, and lose your memory. Period. This is especially true if you have had a form of disease or trauma to the brain. So, this is your choice. Now I’m not saying I never have a drink of wine on a Saturday night, but if I do, I understand the consequences and do not plan to have a consultation or see a patient on Sunday.
16. Stop Smoking
With a brain injury there is a decrease of oxygen to the brain. When you smoke there is even less.
17. Reduce your Caffeine
This is a mixed area, because for some people with memory problems caffeine can actually help in the short term to attend or focus, yet in the long run it can cause adrenal exhaustion, which effects retrieval of information.
Now you have a choice. You can continue to neglect yourself, which will definitely cause you some form of memory loss. This is especially true if you have a disease or trauma to the brain. Or, you can take the 10 suggestions presented above and make changes to improve your life and memory.
The next blog will present methods and treatments using conventional, complementary and alternative approaches for improving your memory as a result of diseases and/or trauma. What is important to know is that there is a way.
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