If there has ever been a time when you have misplaced your keys or your mobile phone or opened the refrigerator and then wondered why – and that must include just about all of us at one time or another – then you might also have wondered whether there is any way to improve your memory.
Well, the good news is that there is actually a lot you can do to give your memory a boost. It’s often said that a good memory is something you either have or you don’t. But, like many things in life, it’s not as simple as that.
In some senses, memory is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the better and more efficient it becomes. You don’t need to be a savant to have a good memory. Here are FIVE science-based strategies that will help you enhance your recall.
- Get more sleep
It’s long been established that people have better learning outcomes when they get sufficient sleep. In fact, if you are studying for an examination then the best thing you can do after studying is get a good night’s sleep.
This is because the human brain, an intricate and delicately balanced organ that it is, has an internal mechanism that allows it to consolidate learning via the restorative power of sleep.
Immediately after you learn information it is fresh and easy to recall. But as time passes, as you do other things, those memories fade and in fact become a less accurate interpretation. At the same time, new memories can also be fragile and easily lost in the vast amount of information that we consume each day.
Most research suggests that sleep is one of the key factors in memory consolidation. Quite literally, by sleeping after learning you are bedding down that information in your subconscious.
A research study that appeared in the scientific journal Learning and Memory in 2006 found that students who slept within three hours of learning material were able to remember approximately 16% more content than a group that waited 10 hours before they slept.
The brain uses sleep as a time to sort information and prioritise it. It effectively eliminates the grey noise of our lives – how much was the loaf of bread at the supermarket, how many times the telephone rang before we answered it, how much milk is left in the carton – and retains the important learned content.
So, study well but don’t study all night. Make sure you get eight hours of sleep before an exam or an important work event. Not only will you feel better, but you’ll also probably get better results.
- Take breaks
Study is best done in small bites. Study for a few minutes and then allow yourself a break. Taking a break, however, doesn’t mean throwing your books in the corner and forgetting about them. Ideally, study is best performed in a few short bursts, mixed with breaks, rather than doing all your study at once.
Some of you may have heard of the Pomodoro Method. It says that you should practice focussed study for 25 minutes then take a short break. If you find that 25 minutes is too long (or not long enough then change it up or down to suit. The important thing is that you find a time that works for you.
The truth is that most of us can only concentrate on one thing for a certain amount of time. The advantage is that brief, alternating spurts of study are called the spacing effect.
Some people may not know that human beings can theoretically store seven (plus or minus two) individual pieces of information in our short-term memories at the same time.
For example, we might remember a recipe with seven ingredients, if necessary, but we’d struggle if there were 10 or 12.
To help overcome that, it’s good to know a technique called chunking.
Chunking is simply breaking up a long stream of information into convenient “chunks”.
Let’s think about the 14-digit number sequence 1-9-7-7-3-9-12-15-1-6-1-9-4-5. At first, this might seem difficult to remember, but if we reconceptualise it as 1977, 3, 9, 12, 15, 6, 3, 1945, it’s suddenly not so bad.
Instead of remembering 14 separate pieces of information, all you need to remember is: 1) Star Wars released in cinemas; 2) multiples of three; 3) the end of WW2. Most information threads will not be as easy to get “chunking”, but that should help you get the gist.
Exercise your body. Vigorous aerobic exercise can improve your circulation and the blood flow to and through the brain. But there also seem to be memory benefits from exercise independent of blood circulation. We don’t know why. Perhaps stress relief and improved mood are factors that influence memory. We know positive emotions do help memory, but again for unknown reasons.
5. Read out loud
In December 2017, a study from the University of Waterloo confirmed what is called the “Production Effect”. The Production effect is the difference experienced when words are read aloud as opposed to being read silently.
And the difference in cognition is significant. The spoken word is much more active than silent reading, and as a result, produces long-term memories. The scientists involved in the study said this is why actors place so much emphasis on rehearsal. “This may well underlie why rehearsal is so valuable in learning and remembering,” they said. “We do it ourselves, and we do it in our voice physical voice. When it comes time to recover the information, we can use this distinctive component to help us remember.”