I remember watching a drama about a man who had a unique condition where he had a flawless and unfading memory of everything, including the tragic circumstances of his childhood. He was constantly tortured as time never healed any of his painful past. The author, Rita Mae Brown, said, “One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory.” I often find myself grateful that I’m NOT like the man in the drama. I would probably spend more time ruminating about the ‘bad’ than the ‘good’!
But then the Roman philosopher Cicero said that memory is the “treasury and guardian of all things,” — so what if we feel like our memory is fading? Is memory loss an inevitable part of getting older, or are there key steps we can take to maintain mental sharpness?
Dr. Richard Restak is a neurologist and professor at George Washington Hospital University School of Medicine and Health, and he says that a decrease in memory over time does not have to be expected. In his new book, The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind, Dr. Restak reviews the stumbling blocks which lead to memory decline and how we can improve our memory over time. We’ve outlined six practices for memory improvement recommended by Dr. Restak for you below:
Pay (more) attention
Dr. Restak specifies that not all issues with memory are actually, well, issues with memory. The larger problem for many people is the ability to pay attention. When we are unable or simply do not pay full attention to someone as they tell us their name, for example, we are unable to store the memory properly.
Dr. Restak recommends using a visualization technique to help us store new information more effectively. When you’re learning a new piece of information, get creative and build a mental image to pair with the new information. He recalls a simple example of meeting a doctor named Dr. King, and to help remember his name, Dr. Restak imagined a king in a white lab coat. When your brain has more ways to remember a piece of information (i.e., a name and a metaphor / visual), it will boost your chances of recalling that info later!
Challenge your memory regularly
Memory serves a huge part of our daily life, and we can actively train our memories by relying on our brains more frequently. Dr. Restak challenges readers to attempt to memorize their grocery or shopping lists prior to running errands. You can again use visualization techniques here, imagining all of the items you need together in a bag, for example. You can also consider memorizing the route to a friend’s house instead of immediately turning to GPS. A 2020 study provided evidence that constant GPS usage correlated with a decrease in spatial memory over time.
All sorts of games can benefit memory; who said boosting your brain power can’t be fun? Bridge and chess are classics that can help your ability to remember, but other childhood games work too. One of Dr. Restak’s favorites is 20 Questions, where one person chooses an item, person, or place, and the other person (or people) asks 20 yes-or-no questions in an attempt to figure out what the item is. The game requires the questioner to remember all of the answers in order to successfully determine the object!
I started to play this game called: Dual N-Back – It forces you to match clicks from 1 or 2 steps prior: download it for free on your phone and try it. It’s really HARD but if you can get past 1 step prior – you rock!
Dive into fiction more often
Interestingly, Dr. Restak notes that reading exclusively nonfiction and neglecting fiction novels can correlate with memory decline. An adventurous book, say Lord of the Rings for example, switches between the perspectives of many different characters. As Tolkein switches back into Frodo’s POV, you’re tasked with remembering what he did a few chapters ago. Novels are enjoyable and a way to keep your brain engaged while remembering the nuances and twists of a story.
Decrease your reliance on technology
Nearly everyone is becoming more reliant on technology for remembering everything from directions to grocery lists to birthdays and more. Dr. Restak notes that when we store the various details of our lives on our phones, we aren’t being asked to truly know and remember it. Technology, though convenient, takes away simple ways we would otherwise train and maintain our memory each day. Challenging yourself to memorize birthdays, grocery lists, and even simple directions is a way to decrease your own dependency on technology and improve your brain’s memory muscle at the same time.
Additionally, Dr. Restak brings up how technology decreases our ability to focus—circling back to point number one about attention. Being present in the current moment is key to properly storing memory. When our brains are attempting to complete a variety of tasks—watching Netflix while writing a memo for work, for example—we decrease our ability to focus and consequently encode new memories. Instead, focus on “monotasking”, or simply doing one task at a time, to help yourself stay more present, and to increase your brain’s ability to store memory.
Tend to your mental health
Dr. Restak notes that one of the most common causes of decreased memory is mental illness, especially depression, because memory is linked to the emotional centers in the brain. Dr. Restak refers to the hippocampus as the “memory entry center” and it’s responsible for registering emotional triggers and manufactures the chemical bases of emotion in the body. The amygdala serves a similar purpose by encouraging emotional production and expression. When you are in a low mood, you are more likely to recall negative past memories rather than neutral or positive ones, creating a skewed memory if the mood persists over time. When persistent negative moods and depression are treated with pharmaceuticals or talk therapy, memory often improves!
Some things are easy to forget—a name you just learned, where you parked, your hotel room number. If you find yourself struggling to remember things like this, it’s often normal. If you find yourself forgetting your own address, how you got somewhere, and other more fundamental information, it may be time to consult your doctor.
Dr. Restak says that, “there is no simple solution for knowing what should be of concern,” but recommends talking with your doctor if you are concerned. Regardless of how you feel about your memory today, choose a few tips from this list to boost it.
Who wants to be like an elephant with giant brains and superb memory?
Learn more about amazing elephants: https://www.scienceabc.com/nature/animals/why-do-elephants-have-such-great-memory.html