How Can I Improve Memory?

Goal: To answer the question: How can we improve our memory?

Motivation: It would be great to have some nifty brain tips and tricks to help us get through our daily lives without having to enter a room, look at the people in the that room, and have to exit because you forgot what you came in there for. Maybe that’s just me, but I was motivated to look into the tips, tricks, rules, and way to utilize our brains for improving our working memory. I figure I’d share what I found by writing a helpful little article.

So, how do you improve our memory?

Aerobic Exercise
The number one tip that I think goes under most peoples’ radar. This is most likely going to be more effective than any herb, vitamin, or supplement you can take. Aerobic exercise can be anything that gets your blood pumping and breathing up. Let me stress that strength training and toning exercises will NOT have the same benefit. The reason is works is because there is a response in our bodies to higher oxygen concentrations, like when you’re breathing harder during exercise. That response triggers the production of BDNF (Brain derived neurotrophic factor)(1)(2)(3). BDNF is an amazing protein that acts on neurons and basically does all sorts of good stuff for them. It stimulates neurogenesis (makes more neurons), helps prevent stroke, even helps you prevent lots of brain disorders like depression, OCD, and alzheimers (among many). It is especially active in the hippocampus, which is involved in learning and memory. Aerobic exercise is by far the most effective way to improve your working memory (as well as prevent the onset of many diseases), so it’s basically an all-around great thing. Exercising will most likely aid in improving all types of memory (as well as your overall health).

It may also be important to note that the BDNF concentration peaks around a half hour after you’re done exercising. Using this knowledge, you can time your memory tasks or studying for directly after you’ve finished exercising. Think about that hard problem at work after you’ve gone for a jog, or take a brisk walk around the block if you’re having writer’s block. Since BDNF is involved in neural plasticity, learning and memory, it makes sense that you may have an increased effectiveness in learning and mental processing if you studied during this post-exercise period of time. (So hold off on that shower and hit the books!)

Another important thing for improving your memory is REPETITION, at the optimal intervals. I repeat: Another important thing for improving your memory is REPETITION, at the optimal intervals. This technique is also known as “spaced repetition”(4)(5) or the “Leitner system”. It is accepted as a very effective learning technique and will help you retain facts effectively. There have been many modifications on this system as well. (6) (7) The basic principle behind this type of system is that you need to space out your repetitions if you want to memorize a certain fact effectively. Some of these techniques are applied on electronic systems, since there is a lot of record keeping going on behind the scenes. But basically, if you have a flashcard program, for example, it would give you something to memorize (say, a vocabulary word). If you identify the vocabulary word correctly, it will put that card aside and question you again on it at a pre-determined time interval. If you get it correct again at the next time interval, then it will give it to you again later at an increasing time interval. Examples of what effective repetition times would be are ~5 seconds, ~25 seconds, ~2 minutes, ~10 minutes, ~1 hour, ~6 hours, ~1 day, etc… However, if you get a vocabulary word incorrect, it will cause that word to appear more often and will only increase the time till the next repetition if you get it correct consistently. These techniques are good for improving recall of short and long term memories. It can also be applied to muscle memory as well. (Practicing a piano piece over and over again, for example.) Don’t believe me? Then let me just say, another important thing for improving your memory is REPETITION, at the optimal intervals.

Multisensory and State Specific Learning
Timed repetition techniques mentioned previously may be effective for certain situations where brute fact memorization needs to take place in a very one dimensional setting. However, one of the most effective methods to help you remember things is to engage many senses during the learning phase. This makes sense because our memories are largely stored as the neuron patterns of all the sensory inputs that occur when we are exposed to the item to memorize. (8) (9) (10) That’s a bit of a hard concept to digest, so let me describe it in another way. Say you are listening to the national anthem for a country you haven’t heard before and you are trying to commit the tune to memory. When you are listening to the song, you are also looking at a picture of the country on a map, perhaps while also smelling a famous dish from that same country. All of the senses, hearing, sight, and smell are all going into your brain at the same time. The memory that is forming is stored in the neurons that are being stimulated by all of these inputs. After you’re done listening to the anthem and leave the area, you may smell that famous dish again a week later. That smell triggers the memory of that country and you see the image of the map in your mind. You may also remember the tune of the anthem. All of the senses together helped to make that memory and are therefore wired together more or less as one memory. It may not be perfect, but the memory of one sense (ie. smell) helps to recall the other memories of the other senses that formed together with it. This is why state specific learning says that you should study for tests in the same situation or condition as you will be under when you are taking the test. (ie. caffeinated, hungry, etc…) The firing patterns of the neurons used to recall the memory are going to be the same ones that fired when you experienced the memory the first time, so if you can stimulate one, it will effectively “link” it to the other.

This idea also carries over into another dimension that involves engagement. If you are thinking about a concept or idea from many different angles (imaging it from someone else’s perspective, discussing it with others, questioning its merits, benefits, and good points) then that also acts as different “entry points” into the concept that you want to memorize. Basically, the more you link together memories to the one you want to remember, the easier it will be to recall it.

The practical implications of these ideas are straightforward. Use as many relevant inputs as possible when learning something you need to memorize. Engage as many senses as possible with stimulation that would be present when you need to recall the memory. Look at the concept or fact from many different points of view. The more senses you engage and the more you think about something in different ways, the more chance you will have to recall the memory when you need to. This technique can greatly affect your declarative memory ability and make it easier to retain information in short or long term memory.)

Don’t stress out
Stress acts as the “Anti-Exercise” for your brain. It does all the bad things to your brain that BDNF acts to repair. Stress stimulates cortisol production, and cortisol essentially causes brain damage to the hippocampus. (The part of the brain involved with short term memory). The mechanism is quite complicated, so I won’t go over it here, but suffice it to say that stress = brain damage = bad memory. (11, 12, 13, 14, 15) Not only does it hurt your ability to remember things, but it also makes you more prone to mental illness. (16, 17, 18). Stress is why you may struggle to recall things when under high pressure situations or tests. Stress decreases your ability to recall in the short term and damages your brain so that you have a harder time recalling in the long term. Bottom line is, don’t stress.

Of course, it may be difficult not to stress. There is a large genetic component to how we can handle stress that we may not be able to control. However, we can try to manipulate the way we think about things, such as making sure you recognize the big picture to avoid stressing about the little things. And if all else fails, aerobic exercise will help to undo the damage caused by stress.

It may also be interesting to note that small amounts of stress can actually be beneficial to memory formation. Short durations of stress (less than 5 minutes) and the accompanying short cortisol spike can aid in memory formation. For example, if you are scared, or witness something slightly disgusting and then try to learn something, you will have a better chance of recalling it later. However, prolonged stress that lasts for hours, days, or weeks just eats away at your brain. We weren’t evolved to handle such long term stress. (Generally, during our evolution, if we sense something stressful, like a predator, we either got away from it within a short period of time, or it ate us. We never had to experience the long term stresses like we do in modern times during our evolution.)

Stress basically hurts all types of memory, and your overall health. Try not to do it.

Emotion is very powerful. I’m sure we can all recall, with great clarity, an instance in our lives where we had a heated argument with someone, “lost sleep” over a guy or a girl, or did something really embarrassing in public. Those are emotionally charged events and our minds often pre-occupy our thoughts with them. It may not be agreed upon as to what emotions technically are, or what their purpose is exactly, but it is undeniable that they are important to our minds. It’s also interesting to note that our minds pre-occupy our thoughts with these emotional events especially while we are asleep. (Nightmares after watching a horror movie, anyone?) We can use this to our advantage though! If you are able to link something that you are trying to remember to some kind of emotional event, our minds will “think about” that emotional event while we sleep, helping to reinforce it as a memory. This can be something as simple as trying to remember the major city in Washington, for example. If you think about Seattle, which is the name of an Indian chief who lived in the Pacific Northwest area, and then you think about the wars and massacres the Native Americans suffered in our early history, you can effectively link the name Seattle to those emotional events. This may not be a career critical fact to memorize, but it gives an example of how you can link a desired memory to an emotional situation. You’ll have to be creative when it comes to the specific facts that you need to memorize, as they will most likely be case dependent and we all may not see the same kinds of events as “emotional”.

Take a nap
Taking a nap at the right time of day for the right amount of time can do wonders. The rule of thumb is to take a 30-40 minute nap around that time of mid day when you generally start to get tired anyways. This “dip” in energy is natural and is a result of different biological mechanisms meeting a cross over point. One system is trying to keep you awake and another is trying to put you to sleep. It’s been shown in some studies that taking a short 30-40 minute nap during this time can increase both your reaction time and cognitive abilities during the rest of the day. Even better, it also helps to improve the quality of sleep at night. However, don’t overnap, that just makes you drowsy the rest of the day.

Lots of these tips I got from doing online research (through scholarly articles, not through unreferenced websites), as well as books I’ve read. One book, that I highly recommend, is John Medina’s Brain Rules It basically looks at the human brain and analyzes how it learns in an evolutionary context, and provides tips on how to apply those evolutionary “brain rules” towards improving your school or career life.

I hope these tips were helpful!!

1. Sandra Rojas Vega et al., “Acute BDNF and cortisol response to low intensity exercise and foillowing ramp incremental exercise to exhaustion in humans”, Brain Research, 2006
2. Michael A. Kiraly et al., “The effect of exercise on hippocampal integrity: Review of Recent Research”, The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, Vol 35, 2005
3. F Cechetti et al., “Effect of a neuroprotective exercise protocol on oxidative state and BDNF levels in the rat hippocampus”, Brain Research, 2008.
4. C. A. Mace, “Psychology of Study”, 1932.
5. David P. Ausubel et al., “The Effect of Spaced Reptition on Meaningful Retention”, The Journal of General Psychology, 1965.
6. Jan-Arjen et al., “Efficiently memorizing words with the help of word cards and “hand computer”: Theory and application”, Vol 22, System, 1994
7. Fordana Dokic et al., “An Intelligent E-Learning System Based on the Interactivity Effect”, Euroinvent, 2010.
8. Joaquin M Fuster, “Network memory”, Brain Research Institute, 1998.
9. Joaquin M. Fuster “Memory networks in the prefrontal cortex”, Progress in Brain Research, Vol 122, 1999.
10. John Jonides et al., “Processes of Working Memory in Mind and Brain”, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2005
11. J. Douglas Cremner, “Does Stress damage the brain?”, Biological Psychiatry, 1999
12. E. Ronald de Kloet et ali., “Stress in the brain”, European Journal of Pharmacology, 2000.
13. NM Porter et al., “Stress hormones and brain aging: adding injury to insult?”, Nature Neuroscience, 1998.
14. RM Sapolsky et al., “Why stress is bad for your brain”, Science, 1996
15. ER de Kloet et al., “Hormones, brain and stress”, Endocrine Regulations, 2003.
16. J Herbert et al., “Fortnightly review: Strress, the brain, and mental illness”, BMJ, 1997
17. Isabella Heuser et al., “Stress and the brain”, Neurobiology of Aging, Vol 24, 2003
18. Robert M. Sapolsky, “Stress, the aging brain, and the mechanisms of neuron death”, 1992