Can Memory Be Improved? — Part 4

Read the previous posts in the Memory series: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Throughout this series, we’ve covered memory from several angles: the basics of how memories are formed and stored, the mysteries surrounding encoding and retrieval, and the many ways our memories affect, and are affected by, our daily lives. But one aspect we’ve yet to tackle is how to improve it.

There’s great cause to focus on memory improvement, even if we don’t fully understand all of the processes that affect memory storage. By the year 2050, an estimated 115 million people will have dementia, as reported by Harvard Health Publications. This is more than double the current number of dementia patients in the U.S. (47 million). Due to unmitigated lifestyle risks like obesity, imbalanced diets, tobacco use, and alcohol abuse, more and more people are affected by memory-related illnesses every day. And in cases less severe than dementia, poor memory still makes for a difficult and frustrating life.

The problem with memory improvement, of both the short- and long-term varieties, is figuring out what works. There’s no shortage of listicles outlining the many supplements, foods, and activities that supposedly increase your ability to form and recall memories. But many of these resources are little more than clickbait seeking to take your money and aren’t based in research or backed by science.

Thus, the question still remains: can memory be improved? There is strong anecdotal evidence to suggest yes.

The World Memory Championships

The World Memory Championships (WMC) offer proof that, with effective techniques, our memories can become stronger and more agile. Originally founded in 1991, the WMC positions the act of remembering under time constraints as a sport. Competitors from over 30 countries compete in 10 disciplines over the course of 3 days. They’re tasked with memorizing names, faces, words, and digits during competition periods lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. The person who recalls the most information most accurately wins. In the Hour Cards category, WMC Champion Alex Mullen memorized 1,626 cards, the equivalent of 31 decks, in an hour. It’s an astonishing feat that signals what our brains are capable of if we maximize memory creation and retrieval. (And the WMC may call to mind the premise of Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, in which he investigated the championship’s mentalists to improve his own memory.)

WMC competitors employ a host of learning methods to create memories, such as creating acronyms and using mental pictures. The Link Method, as reported by Wired, involves creating a link between multiple items on a list. “For instance, with Torch, Grapes, Ring, Sherry, imagine shining a Torch on a bunch of Grapes. Inside one of the Grapes you see a Ring sparkling with diamonds. As you squeeze the grape, the ring falls into a glass of Sherry,” writes Liat Clark. Creating a story that links each item together makes the list easier to remember. Similarly, linking items on a list to a route or path you walk daily helps. Simple repetition, in increments of five over the course of several weeks, also works.

These mental exercises seem to keep the brain agile and ready to form memories. Just as athletes must train their bodies consistently to perform at peak levels, we must do the same with our brains.

Other ways to improve memory

But this evidence is not provided to suggest memory conditions or illnesses are reversible, or that they aren’t to be taken seriously. What we are suggesting is that the brain is a muscle that can be strengthened with constant activity. Additionally, healthy lifestyle choices can positively impact the brain and our ability to recall memories. Here are some additional tips that can help:

· Meditation: During meditation, the brain stops processing information as quickly. This improves your concentration and extends the maximum capacity of your working memory, which typically holds no more than 7 memories at a time. Studies have shown that mediation improves memory recall after 2 months of practice.

· Exercise: Several studies have shown that exercise improves our spatial memory. One such study from PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, showed that exercise actually increased the size of the hippocampus. In the average adult, this part of your brain shrinks over time. But fit seniors showed not only an increase in size but also improved memory capacity. There’s also daily mental exercise, which you can do through apps like Lumosity. Lumosity contains more than 50 cognitive games designed to test and improve brain function.

· Sleep: Adequate nightly sleep has been linked to greater memory recall. The process of memory consolidation, in which the day’s new memories either find their permanent home or get dumped, takes place at night. Even a nap can have the same effect.

· Diet: Nutrition is linked to our health in many ways, but some liquids and foods have a greater impact on memory than others. Drinking coffee after learning something new can improve your memory recall for upwards of 24 hours after. Eating at least 2 servings of berries each day can prevent long-term memory deterioration. And chewing gum increases the activity level in the hippocampus.

While there’s still a lot about the memory process that we don’t know, it seems there’s plenty that we do understand and, thus know how to use to our advantage to improve everyday life.

Thanks for exploring memory and its many complexities with us. There is so much to be in awe of concerning the brain and its processes, and hopefully, we’ve provided a little more clarity about the way it works.

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For further learning and research, we recommend checking out the following resources:

1. How Our Brains Make Memories [Smithsonian Magazine]

2. How Memories Form and How We Lose Them [TED ED]

3. Remembering the Details: Effects of Emotion [NCBI]

4. You Have No Idea What Happened [The New Yorker]

5. Simple Tricks to Remember Everything You Learn [Inc]