Have you ever wondered where you get the ability to remember things? The brain’s hippocampus is tasked with the important function of remembering information such as facts and events. Memory consolidation turns our short-term memories into long-term memories, and is thought to happen every night while we are asleep.
The hippocampus is a memory powerhouse
In reality, the hippocampus doesn’t store all of our memories – different aspects of our memories are stored in different places all over our brains. For example, recognizing a painting you saw in a museum as a child will incorporate visual memories stored in your brain’s visual cortex in addition to firing up your brain’s hippocampal neurons.
The hippocampus is nestled deep in the innermost part of the brain in a region called the medial temporal lobe. Like other parts of the brain, the hippocampus is comprised of brain cells, or neurons. Hippocampal neurons are very sensitive to the effects of stress but are constantly being regenerated. A healthy lifestyle can help you promote the health of your brain and, particularly, the hippocampus, and promote neurogenesis, or the growth of new brain cells, in this brain region crucial for memory. You can also seek to improve brain function through the use of memory “hacks” that can help you better remember facts. Read on to learn more about different ways to boost your memory function.
The word hippocampus is named for its shape in the brain – the word “hippocampus” comes from the Greek word meaning “Seahorse.”
Eat “brain foods”
Avocados are a source of healthy fats and vitamins and are therefore considered a “brain food.”
Foods that boost brain function are also called “brain foods” and include foods rich in a variety of minerals and nutrients. Some brain foods include:
- Berries, such as blueberries
- Spinach and other leafy greens
- Nuts, such as walnuts
- Salmon, eggs, and other sources of omega-3 essential fatty acids
- Whole grains
- Olive oil
- Spices such as turmeric and cinnamon
- Dark chocolate (in moderation)
- Coffee (in moderation). Interestingly, studies have shown that drinking a cup of coffee before beginning a studying session can help people remember better IF they also drink coffee when they need to remember what they have studied.
Brain foods are not only good for your brain but also great for your overall health, energy levels, and protecting your body’s cells from oxidative stress. Oxidative stress and inflammation has been linked to many diseases such as cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and even Alzheimer’s disease.
Eat these delicious brain-boosting foods and reap the memory (and health) benefits.
- Exercise regularly
Exercise is both a mood- and memory- booster, and the federal government recommends 150 minutes of exercise a week.
Exercise can boost memory by elevating levels of a chemical called BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which helps neurons in the hippocampus grow and develop properly. In addition to the memory benefits from exercise, you will also get an energy boost from it. The federal government recommends that you get 30 minutes of exercise, five times a week for optimal health.
If you’re not someone who loves to exercise, you can find simple ways to work more physical activity into your life. Go for a walk or do some light stretching or yoga. People who like to exercise as a hobby may choose to engage in more strenuous exercise such as running or weight lifting.
Regardless of how you decide to work in more activity to your day – go for it! Exercise will have a positive effect on your health and your memory.
- Get proper sleep
Cats can sleep for up to three-fourths of the day. Humans would be wise to learn from cats if they wish to maintain their memory-related abilities.
Sleep is a restorative process for the brain and aids in memory consolidation. Don’t skimp on sleep, especially when trying to memorize a lot of information before an exam, for example. Sometimes, it’s better to give up trying to cram for an exam and just go to sleep in order to let the information that you have studied enter your long-term memory (and to feel more well-rested while taking your exam). If you are a student, be strategic about studying and make a plan to study a few hours every week so that you don’t have to cram a semester’s worth of information at the last minute. This will help both your stress level and your understanding of the subject.
The link between sleep, learning, and memory is not entirely understood. However, it is thought that the brain consolidates memories during sleep and that this process occurs throughout the night, each night that we are asleep.
Without sleep, our mood, perception, attention, and judgment is out of whack. We also put ourselves at higher risk of obesity and illnesses when we deprive ourselves of sleep. Aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night for optimal health (and memory function).
- Achieve a balance between “good stress” and “bad stress”
Stress can affect the body’s ability to store and retrieve memories.
Stress is how the body responds to various demands. There are two kinds of stress – good and bad stress.
“Good stress,” also sometimes referred to as eustress, is good stress that keeps you alert, engaged, and on your toes. A common example of good stress is feeling anxious or stressed before an exam. The stress, which likely stems from a fear of failing the exam, can motivate you to study more and be more prepared so that you do not meet your imagined fate. Eustress keeps us alert and ready for our
“Bad stress” refers to a type of stress that persists for a long period of time and can cause you significant emotional and physical distress over time. Examples of “bad stress” include a toxic work environment; a very severe case of “bad stress” is exemplified by military service men and women who develop post-traumatic stress disorder due to experiencing repeated traumas. Post-traumatic stress disorder leads to memory problems and can result in damage to hippocampal neurons.
In general, stress is a normal feeling. But if you are experiencing too much stress and anxiety, you may suffer from a host of problems, including but not limited to memory problems. Digestive and sleep problems can also occur with high stress. Yoga and meditation can help reduce stress. You may wish to talk to a medical professional about how to reduce your stress if it is negatively affecting your life.
- Remember the magic number “seven, plus or minus two”
In 1956, Princeton professor and psychologist George A. Miller published a landmark paper called “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two.” This magic number, which can range anywhere from 5 to 9, refers to the cognitive limits of the brain in storing information. That is to say, most people can store 5 to 9 objects in their working memory at any given time.
What is working memory, you may ask? The working memory acts as a mental information buffer – similar to a temporary file that is created by your computer – that contains information that can be manipulated in your mind. For example, when trying to do a simple math problem, you rely on your working memory to add, subtract, multiply, or divide the numbers. In order to solve the math problem 4 + 6, for example, you need to add 6 to the number 4, and your working memory helps you arrive at the correct answer, which is 10.
Working memory also transfers objects to their permanent home in your brain’s long-term memory. Both the hippocampus and other brain regions, such as the prefrontal cortex and parietal lobes, are involved in the formation of long-term memories.
Use the magic number 7 ± 2 to better help you store things in your working memory. Better working memory function is associated with improved long-term memory storage.
- Use mental heuristics!
Use mental heuristics to improve your memory!
Memory heuristics are learning aids that can be used to boost your brain’s ability to store memories. Such mental heuristics can also be thought of as “brain hacks.”
Some simple, but effective, mental heuristics include:
- Transform words into pictures in your mind. For example, if you need to remember to feed your dog at 6 pm, you can help yourself better remember this by visualizing a bag of dog food next to an alarm clock that reads “6:00 PM.” To be best able to remember this picture in your mind’s eye, make sure to add lots of details so that it is easier to remember. You may want to have the alarm blaring in your mind, with your dog barking at you to feed him.
- Rhyme time! Rhymes can be an effective way to improve your memory recall. Remember when you were in preschool and learned nursery rhymes? Undoubtedly, you still know and can sing the nursery rhymes you learned growing up. Can you still recite the words to Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star? See! Rhyming is a great way to remember!
- Use mnemonics. While the word “mnemonic” can be difficult to spell, the concept it signifies is an easy and effective way to improve your mental recall skills. A mnemonic is a device such as a string of letters, ideas, or associations that can help you better remember something.
Acronyms are a powerful example of a mnemonic device that is used often. PEMDAS is an acronym that is frequently used as a mnemonic device to remember the order of operations when solving a mathematical equation – the letters in PEMDAS stand for Parenthesis, Exponent, Multiplication, Division, Addition, and Subtraction, respectively. Another mnemonic acronym is ROYGBIV – Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet – which is used to remember the colors in the rainbow.
- Group information using “chunking” to make it easier to recall. “Chunking” is a concept derived from the psychology literature which refers to the grouping of items in memory into larger units. For example, if your neighbor gives you their phone number while you are chatting with them, you actually have two different “chunks” of information: the area code, which is the three-digit code at the beginning, and then the actual phone number, which is the next seven numbers. Since your neighbor is local to you, you only need to remember the last seven digits of their phone number. This takes their phone number from 10 pieces of information to 7 – which is within the realm of your working memory capacity’s magic number of “seven plus or minus two.” Chunking becomes easier for phone numbers if you know of several popular phone prefixes in your area. By grouping information into large pieces, you can remember more information. Use chunking whenever you
Use these simple memory heuristics – visualization, rhyming, and mnemonic devices — to improve your recall!
- Don’t multitask – focus your attention on one task at a time
When you are completing a task, it may be tempting to attempt to check social media, call a friend, eat a snack, etc. Especially when it comes to tasks such as studying, focusing your attention is very important in order to be able to remember information later. That means that, for example, if you are working on an essay on your computer, you should consider using website blocker software. My personal favorite is Google Chrome’s “Block Site – Website Blocker” extension, but there are many on the internet, but there are others as well. You may want to turn off your phone or place it in another room (but make sure to retrieve it later!) to avoid distractions. When I was in college, I once entrusted my laptop to my friend during finals week so that I would not be tempted to browse the Internet mindlessly when I should have been working on problem sets. Shutting out distractions can be difficult, but will pay dividends, both in terms of your concentration level, as well as your understanding and ability to remember studied material.
When studying or trying to memorize information, avoid distractions – it can be hard to put down that smartphone, but you’ll thank yourself in the long term!
Whether you feel that you were born with a photographic memory or not, you can improve your memory and recall skills by utilizing the advice in this article. Good luck!