There are those people that can be introduced to 30 people at once and successfully remember their names without effort. Then, there are those who cannot recall the name of the coworker who has sat in the cubical next to them for six months. There are people who can rattle off exit numbers, short cuts, backroads and ways to bypass traffic jams for a six hour trip across state lines. Then, there are those that struggle to remember if they take the left or right fork at that detour when they go to the grocery store. Some people have memories that make you think they should be wearing a deerstalker. Others make you think of Dory from “Finding Nemo.” Most people would prefer to be the former rather than the latter, but what if you are one that struggles to remember even basic things? Are you cursed to have terrible recall for the rest of your life? Thankfully, you have a great deal of neuroplasticity, so you can train your brain. Some people, admittedly, are blessed with better memories or math skills than others, but that does not mean you cannot teach your brain to get the most out of what you have. Here are six tricks for improving your memory and recall.
Get plenty of sleep.
Night owls and those convinced that they can train themselves to function without sleep are getting very tired of hearing that, if they want to improve their lives or health in any meaningful way, they need to get enough shut eye. Unfortunately for them, it is almost impossible to improve or even maintain your health if you are shorting your sleep. When it comes to your brain, sleep is even more important than it is for the rest of your body. Your brain relies on sleep to function properly, and a chronic lack of sleep can have permanent consequences. Even a few nights with less sleep can lead to big problems, and when you short yourself on sleep, your memory is one of the first things to go. Your brain uses the time when you are sleeping to organize and store your memories from the day. If you skip out on sleep, your brain ends up losing track of memories that it had no time to store. This is why college students often look back to find that they have few concrete memories of finals week.
Keep learning new things.
Your brain is hardwired to like new things, and feeding that desire can help you increase your memory. It may seem counterproductive to fill your brain with new information when you are struggling to remember old things, but learning new things uses different portions of your brain. They also force your brain to create new neural pathways rather than simply relying on old ones. This helps you strengthen your brain overall. In the same way that you would not try to get in shape by only doing bicep curls, you cannot improve your memory by only dealing with memories you already have.
Learning new things also gives you more opportunities to work with the memories you already have. New information relates to old information, and your existing memories can take advantage of the new neural pathways you are forming which can make memory recall both easier and faster.
Use the memory you already have.
If you want to improve your memory, you must first take advantage of the memory you already possess. You cannot expect your body to get stronger if you spend your days laying on the couch, so why would you assume your brain can grow without exercise? Even if you claim you have a terrible memory, do what you can do and practice using your memory and mind. Rather than relying solely on your GPS, see how many steps of the directions you can remember, and only use the GPS if you get lost and cannot figure out where you are. Rather than using your phone or a calculator to figure out how much you owe as a tip, do the math yourself. If you cannot do the percentage in your head, do it on the back of your copy of the receipt.
Like sleep, exercise is one of the closest things to a true panacea that exists in the world. Both are essential for your health. If you want to improve your memory, you must exercise regularly. Exercise strengthens your cardiovascular system so your brain gets more of the oxygen and nutrient rich blood it needs in order to function properly.
In addition to being essential for your overall health, exercise has been shown to specifically strengthen your memory. Aerobic exercise such as running or swimming has been shown to grow new neurons in your hippocampus, the main part of your brain that deals with memories. If your hippocampus is growing, you will have more neurons between which to create connections. These connections, then, become the pathways that store memories. If you really want to improve your memory, hit the pool or treadmill on a regular basis.
Use tricks and brain hacks.
People who are known for having good memories make remembering things as easy for themselves as possible. They use proven brain hacks to get the most out of the neural connections they already possess and to make it easier on themselves when learning or memorizing new information. Improving your memory is already going to be difficult, so there is no reason to make it any harder on yourself. When you want to remember things, use tricks that have been shown to work. Use mnemonic devices to keep track of lists. You may not remember anything else about seventh grade biology, but “kings play cards on fat green stools” is probably still stuck in your head if you learned the common mnemonic for remembering the taxonomic ranks. Similarly, take handwritten notes if you want to remember what happened in a meeting instead of typing them out. Written information is more easily recalled than typed, and you are more likely to remember something you read in your own handwriting than something in typeface. When you meet a person and want to remember their name, repeat it to yourself several times and make it a point to use their name when talking to them in the future. Take advantage of tricks that are known to work.
Pay attention and be present.
How much do you remember about that boring meeting from last week? If the answer is “not much,” how much time did you actually spend paying attention? Paying attention does not just mean avoiding zoning out and spending the hour daydreaming about your weekend plans, but also being actively attentive. You cannot simply stare blankly at a presentation and be surprised when the information goes in one ear and out the other. If you want to remember information, you need to be focused and present when it is given the first time. Take notes by hand, repeat information to yourself or try to come up with at least one question to ask every so many minutes. Force yourself to pay enough attention to be able to at least summarize a meeting or conversation later. Learning to pay attention may not be easy, but your brain cannot encode new information when it is off in la-la land.
Improving your memory is the same as trying to improve almost anything else about your body. You need to take care of your overall health, and then focus on using your brain in the way it was meant to be used. Do not rely on technology to act as an artificial memory and then be surprised when your brain gets lazy. Get enough sleep, water and healthy food, then put your lazy brain back to work and make it earn its keep.