Specific Ways to Improve Your Memory

Which evidence-based strategies really work?

Posted Nov 13, 2016

“I see and I forget, I hear and I remember, I do and I understand.”

                                                 -Chinese Proverb

Before we review the various ways we can improve and maintain our memory it is important for us to clarify our primary intention. What is our principal motivation in trying to improve our memory? Do we want to minimize our forgetfulness or optimize our memory capacity or is the real reason to maintain our identity?

In overview our memory depends to a large extent on our overall health and on our degree of attention and our intention. Attention is how well we can maintain our mental focus, while intention is the conscious will to participate in what we focus on. Consider an example of intention and attention. The world record for playing chess blindfolded and winning was set in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1937 when international grand master George Koltanowksi played 34 players simultaneously. He won 24 games and had 10 draws while never seeing the chessboard. According to his obituary in the New York Times, his wife Leah said that his memory was so poor that he could not remember to bring a loaf of bread home from the market!

While each of us has differing mental capabilities, training and motivation appear to optimize our mental productivity and accomplishment. Often, we get in our own way and allow laziness, inaction or environmental distractions to keep us from full achievement. In terms of the brain’s anatomy there is no correlation between the size of brain areas and intellectual ability. Larger individuals tend to have larger brains but do not have increased IQs.

The good news is that our brains can respond eagerly to new challenges, especially when we believe in ourselves. We can train our brains to work more efficiently and improve our memory. A recent study by the Mayo Clinic found that after 8 weeks of practicing six memory exercises, such as distinguishing sounds of varying pitch one hour a day for five days a week, a group of healthy adults 65 years and older improved the speed of their overall brain processing. While the study focused on the brain’s auditory processing, improvements in speed and accuracy also were seen for attention and memory. The magnitude of the results was impressive. The important result of this study is that adults over age 65 can improve their cognitive skills and the improvement can generalize to everyday problem solving and accomplishing daily activities. Again the key is motivation, training and believing that we can improve our memory.

One recent book, Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell, suggests that mastery of an area where one wants to succeed requires about 10,000 hours of practice. Dr. Alvan Feinstein, an internationally acclaimed epidemiologist and clinical research mentor, once told me that medical research was 90 percent drudgery (literature reviews, data collection, etc.), 9 percent good fun and one percent sheer ecstasy when the results are finally apparent. His point was to choose an area where you are motivated to continue through the inevitable drudgery to reach your goal. Thomas Edison summed it up: “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Each of us can stimulate and increase our intellect.

Remembering names

Remembering has two opposing criteria: how much detail we wish to retrieve later (maximum retention) and how much effort we wish to exert in repetitions (minimum learning time).If we really want to remember someone’s name we first must intend to remember the name. Then we must pay attention to the person’s name and be sure we heard it correctly. To me this is where most of us drop the cognitive ball because at the moment of truth, when the person is telling us his or her name, our brain is not in gear because we are distracted by beautiful eyes, interesting outfit or other details. Suppose someone held a loaded gun to your head and said “In thirty minutes I am going to ask you this person’s name and if you cannot recall it I am pulling the trigger.” With that level of motivation virtually all of us would be likely to remember a person’s name. But we seldom are that vigilant and we fool ourselves into thinking we really intend to remember the name. Another basic strategy is to repeat the person’s name right after you hear it and use the person’s name at least twice during the conversation and as you are parting.

Create new experiences

Our brains are stimulated by new experiences, which is why we need to be aware of the muffling effects of our habits. Habits allow us to slip into a familiar context and spare ourselves the necessity of adaptation or dealing with uncertainty. We need to be aware of our habits and occasionally break them to stimulate more brain growth and interconnections. The magnitude of scale of these interconnections is mind-boggling. Our three-pound brains have about 100 billion nerve cells, each with interconnections to approximately 10,000 other neurons. As individual nerves die new connections sprout further, increasing the complexity of the neural network. Our brains literally grow with experience and certain things that we do can stimulate and energize our brains significantly.

You may have noticed when we travel that time seems to slow down. If you keep a journal on a trip, which I highly recommend, you can review it when you return from your trip and marvel at all the things you experienced and accomplished. By creating new experiences we stimulate our brain and a substance called brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF. Other things that stimulate BDNF include exercise and eating curcumin, part of the Indian spice tumeric that is used in curry. BDNF is vital to memory and helps nerve cells grow and connect. BDNF levels are low in Alzheimer’s disease and Huntington’s disease where the genetic defect seems to result in low BDNF levels. Stimulating BDNF is part of the biochemical underpinning of our memory maintenance and improvement strategies.

What should we do to stimulate BDNF? Perhaps a useful first step is to make occasional small changes in our daily routine. For example, try driving to work using different routes or sit in a different seat at your dining or kitchen table and in a different location to watch television. New social activities create a number of new and interesting experiences. The key is interpersonal communication and interaction. Use your cellphone rather than send an email; join an interest group such as an investment club, book club or Bible study group. Go to the bank and interact with the bank teller rather than punch buttons on the Automatic Teller Machine.

Consider teaching others on subjects you know because by teaching you organize information and significantly stimulate your intellect. Perhaps you can share a hobby or skill, volunteer to coach an athletic team, serve as a mentor to a local or national organization, or read books to children in a school or in a public library.