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Keeping Your Mind Sharp: How to Improve Memory

Annmarie Rodriguez

By Annmarie Rodriguez |

Is it possible that our busy and technologically innovative generation is having trouble keeping track of all the moving pieces? With so much going on, is it more difficult for us to remember? Gary Small, M.D., director of the Memory & Aging Research Center at UCLA, offers an answer. "Our lives may be more frenetic, but we actually have the capacity to remember much more than we do," said Dr. Small. "We simply need to work on improving our attention." 

Staying focused and paying attention are increasingly important factors to cultivating a strong memory as we grow older. We can do this by focusing and adjusting how we listen, process, and remember information. 

Here are some tips to strengthen your memory:  

Repetition + Association 

Repetition helps you remember everything from someone's name to the details of a software program your company has recently installed. For the best retrieval and in-depth understanding, pair repetition with distinct associations. A recent study in Learning & Memory explained that plain repetition - for example, meeting someone named Dan and repeating 'Dan, Dan, Dan,' again & again - strengthens memory. However, this also makes retrieval 'less precise.' Plain repetition makes it easier for us to get confused when faced with similar choices later on. Imagine seeing him again after a week or two: was it Dan or Don? 

Association is necessary for a strong and precise memory. You can come up with clever expressions related to someone's name; for example, 'Dan the Man.' Or for more complex recollections, acronyms are helpful. Also, do not be afraid to make creative connections - things that may seem odd to others may be helpful to you.

For example, I color-code events in my planner based on my personal associations with that color. Soccer-related events are written in green because grass is green. Events I'm excited for are in light blue since it's my favorite color, and I use dark blue for work-related tasks (because I think it's a more serious color). Serious is an odd way to describe a color, but this technique helps me remember what is happening and when. 

Rest To Remember 

Sleep helps sew our memories together and solidifies long-lasting memories. Harvard Medical School conducted an experiment to study the connection between memory and sleep. They found that people who slept were able to memorize more random words from a list than those who did not have the opportunity to sleep after being shown the words.

Also, make sure to sleep a sufficient number of hours. 

For every hour we’re awake, it takes about a half hour of sleep to process that information.
— Dr. Stickgold

Dr. Robert Stickgold, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and Director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition, stated the following: "One of the big functions of sleep is to take the information that we have learned throughout the day and do [a couple of] things with it: first, [sleep] stabilizes it so we won't lose it...second, it actually takes that information and tries to integrate it with older information...it's one thing to memorize something new, it's another thing to figure out what it really means. What does this mean to me? How does this fit in with the rest of my life? We're doing that while we sleep." 

Relax + Recall 

Imagine this: You're in your office or home intently listening to someone speak. You've thought of a valuable response, but right when you open your month to speak, nothing comes out. It's not stage fright; you genuinely forget. 'What in the world was I going to say?' One of the best ways to fight the frustration of forgetting is to give yourself grace and stay calm. "Anxiety distracts us, making it even harder to remember," stated Dr. Small. 

Relax, take a deep breath, and (if needed) tell the person that you need a moment to think, or that you will get back to them later. 

Deal With Stress 

It's important to not just endure the stress you feel. We experience stress for a reason. Try not to ignore it. Stress has physiological repercussions, especially in regards to one's memory due to the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol interferes with the hippocampus, which is the area in the brain that controls our learning and memory.

When we are stressed, the cortisol levels in our hippocampus rise and obstruct our ability to remember. This inability to remember often leads to frustration and an even higher level of stress. "As you get older, chronically elevated cortisol levels are linked to memory impairment and a smaller hippocampus," explained Shireen Sindi, a researcher at McGill University in their Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery. 

Learn what causes you stress and seek healthy ways to adjust your lifestyle. 

Take a Walk

Fun fact: you can expand your hippocampus by staying active! "Fitness improvement...leads to an increase in volume of this brain region [the hippocampus]," stated Dr. Art Kramer, a Univeristy of Illinois professor of Psychology and Neuroscience. 

It does not have to be anything extensive. "Just get out and walk for an hour a few days a week," stated Dr. Kramer. 

So, Remember 

  • Repetition combined with association strengthens your memory. 
  • Sleeping helps us process information. 
  • Don't stress. Staying calm makes it easier to retrieve memories. 
  • Exercise your hippocampus! Staying active improves memory.