Forgetfulness happens to all of us. But if you’re struggling to remember things on a regular basis, you may be wondering how to improve your memory in a way that lasts.
In this article, we’ll be covering some memory improvement tips and tricks, including how to manage some common causes of forgetfulness, how to improve your health for better memory, and what behavioral tricks will help you remember things better.
Why Do You Need to Improve Your Memory?
There are many, many causes of forgetfulness, most of them common and not worth really worrying about. If you’re concerned that your forgetfulness comes from a health condition, you should talk it over with a doctor.
If your health isn’t a concern and you’re just trying to better remember things, it’s a good idea to pinpoint exactly where you’re struggling. Once you can identify things that contribute to your memory trouble, you can start finding solutions. Some common causes for forgetfulness aside from health concerns include:
Stress is one common trigger for forgetfulness. If something stressful is happening in your life, it may feel as if your entire mental capacity is devoted to handling that stress, letting little things you need to remember, like paying a bill or picking up cat food, slip through the cracks. Unfortunately these little instances of forgetfulness can cause more stress, turning it into a vicious cycle. Working on improving your memory can go a long way toward easing some of your stress!
Too Much Information
School and work can often flood us with more information than we can possibly hope to remember. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with what you’re learning or the tasks you need to compete for work, you may begin to find yourself forgetting some of them. As those tasks pile up, it can become increasingly difficult to remember all of them. You could fall behind and struggle to keep up due to information overload. Finding a way to manage these tasks that goes beyond just trying to remember them all can really help you stay on top of things.
Age really does have an impact on our memories. As we get older, our hippocampus, which we use to form and retrieve memories, can deteriorate. Our brains may not be as efficient at protecting, repairing, and growing new brain cells, and older people may not have as much blood flowing to the brain, leading to a slower or less sharp memory. These are all totally normal parts of aging and not something to be concerned about. That said, you don’t have to assume that memory loss is inevitable just because it’s normal—there are still plenty of things you can do to make sure you’re staying sharp as you get older.
What Kinds of Memory Are There?
We don’t have just one kind of memory. You’ve probably heard of short-term and long-term memories, but there are also others, like explicit and implicit memory. To help you better understand how to improve your memory, let’s go over the different types of memory that exist.
Short-term memory is exactly what it sounds like—memory that you hold on to for a short period of time. Your short term memory covers things like a phone number someone is telling you. Despite common usage of the term, short-term memory is generally 15 to 30 seconds. If you can’t remember what you ate for breakfast this morning, that’s a problem with your long-term memory, not your short-term.
Some researchers consider working memory, which holds information temporarily for processing—such as when somebody is talking to you while you do a complex task and you respond when you’re finished—as a part of short-term memory. Other theorists disagree and consider it a separate cognitive function. Whatever the case, it can be frustrating if either your short-term memory or your working memory are not functioning as well as you’d like.
Your long-term memory is the memory that recalls everything from things that happened a minute ago through things that happened when you were very young. That could include the subject of the last article you read, where you went on vacation a month ago, or the name of the kid who lived next door to you when you were eight.
There are also different kinds of long-term memory, including:
Explicit memory is memory that you choose to recall. For example, if someone asks you to remember the name of your high school English teacher, you’d use explicit memory to do that. Explicit memory can be episodic—which has you recalling things that you personally have experienced—or semantic—which refers to knowledge about the world.
Implicit memory is unconscious memory, things that you do without thinking about them. That includes procedural memory—which covers things that you’ve learned to do like singing the alphabet or making a peanut butter sandwich—and priming. Priming refers to the way our brains respond to stimuli; for example, if you’re asked to make word associations, you’re more likely to make them between words like pea and carrot than between words like pea and astronaut.
Health and Lifestyle Changes for Better Memory
No matter what kind of forgetfulness you’re experiencing, there are steps you can take to improve it. You can start by making some lifestyle changes, like what you eat and how much you sleep, to improve your memory.
Many foods are believed to have memory-boosting properties. Thankfully, many of these foods are also just good for you—improving your diet for your memory is just improving your health!
Fatty fish, like salmon, is one of the most common foods recommended for memory boosting. Studies have shown that the omega-3s in fatty fish can help slow the decline of brain function as we age, and at least one study showed that people who eat baked or broiled fish have more gray matter, which impacts memory.
Blueberries are another food often recommended for memory. Blueberries contain antioxidants, which, in some cases, can help prevent brain aging and aid in communication between brain cells. Some studies of animals have shown that blueberries may have an impact on short-term memory loss.
Studies of older adults have shown that taking more vitamin K, a vitamin commonly found in broccoli, can lead to a better memory as you age.
If you’re a chocolate fan, good news—research has suggested that the flavonoids in dark chocolate can potentially enhance memory and reduce the decline in mental sharpness related to age.
Oranges, or more specifically their vitamin C, are also a great way of preventing mental decline. According to one 2014 study, foods with lots of vitamin C, such as bell peppers, tomatoes, and strawberries, can help prevent age-related mental decline.
Multiple studies of vitamins B6 and B12, folate, and choline, all found in eggs, have shown that these nutrients can help boost memory and slow mental decline. Most of the research is specifically connected to the nutrients rather than to eggs themselves, so taking vitamins or getting the nutrients from other sources may also be beneficial.
Sleep is incredibly important to brain function. If you aren’t getting enough sleep, it’ll be harder to focus and remember things. Researchers have shown that people need all kinds of sleep—REM sleep and slow-wave sleep are both necessary for strong memories.
If you struggle with memory throughout the day, a nap might be the answer. Short naps, even as short as six minutes, can help boost your memory for recalling information.
Good health includes good brain health, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that exercise is also great for boosting your memory. Regular exercise is believed to help increase the size of the hippocampus, boosting your ability to learn.
Some studies have suggested that people who exercise have larger prefrontal cortexes and medial temporal cortexes. The prefrontal cortex is important in both short-term and long term memory and the medial temporal cortex is important for declarative and episodic memory.
It’s unclear exactly how much and what kinds of exercise contribute to an improve memory, but experts say that 120 minutes of aerobic exercise—exercise that raises your heart rate—is a good place to start.
Behavior Changes for Better Memory
Health changes are a great step, but there’s more you can do to help improve your memory. In conjunction with a better diet, great sleep, and more frequent exercise, these tactics can help you remember things better:
If you have trouble remembering what people have said to you, try cultivating your active listening skill. Active listening goes beyond simply hearing what a person is saying—to do it, you must be engaging with the conversation more deeply.
Use multiple senses for active listening. Look at the person who is speaking, listen to them, and respond with positive affirmations, such as saying “yes,” or asking questions. This might feel strange at first, but actively participating in conversations rather than just passively taking in information is a great way to help you remember things.
Taking good notes is an extremely useful skill. It may not be practical for all occasions, but if you struggle to remember little details, taking notes can be a big help! Notes don’t have to be something that you re-read—just the act of taking notes can help you better remember things, even if you don’t revisit them.
Effective notes are not a literal catalog of everything that a person is saying. Condense points down to their simplest form—for example, if I were taking notes on this section, I might write a heading saying “Notes,” and then:
- Not always practical
- Not exact or literal
- Condense points
Make use of headings, underlines, colors, and other features to streamline your notes. That way, if you do want to re-read them later, you won’t have to wade through a lot of extra words; you’ll be able to skip right to where you want to read.
If you can, take notes on paper rather than on a laptop. At least one study has shown that handwritten notes are more beneficial for memory than typed notes. If you want to use your phone, try using an app that lets you write by hand rather than type information.
If stress is causing you to forget things, reducing that stress is a great way to improve your memory. Reducing stress can be difficult, so try to focus on things that you can control.
If you’re feeling stress about a specific thing, such as needing to fix your car or your grades in school, focus on what you can do about that stress right now. Can you get your car to a mechanic? Can you talk to your teacher about extra credit opportunities? When you start with small steps, you can build on them to eventually tackle whatever larger issue is stressing you out.
If the stress is more generalized, focus on taking care of yourself. Prioritize a good night’s sleep and a healthy diet. Get exercise, which will help calm you down and sleep better. Take a bath, go for a long walk, or make your favorite meal. Spend a little time on self-care to help you unwind!
Memory Improvement Tips and Tricks
You don’t just have to rely on yourself to improve your memory. There are lots of tools out there that can help you get better at it, too!
#1: Brain Training Apps
Brain training apps make a lot of claims about what they can do for you. Science is still out on whether they’re as effective as they claim, but there has been some positive correlation between older adults using brain training apps like Luminosity and improved memory.
Regular use of these apps could help you boost your memory, and they certainly won’t hurt. But don’t depend on apps to do the work for you—use them in conjunction with some of the other tips outlined in this article to make the most of them!
#2: A Planner
Have trouble remembering events, to-do lists, and so on? A planner could be perfect for you. You don’t have to get really fancy with it, but consider writing down everything you need to get done on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis in one central place rather than on scraps of paper.
You may find that it takes some time to get adjusted to a planner, because at first you may forget to use it. That can be discouraging, but stick with it. The more frequently you do it, the more it becomes a habit. Once you’ve made it a habit, it’ll be way easier to keep track of all the things you need to get done without having to mentally juggle them!
#3: Multiple Senses
If you really want to make something stick, use multiple senses to learn it. If you’re seeing something you want to remember, trying saying it out loud right after witnessing it. If you’re hearing something, write it down. Better yet, do multiple—if you see something, say it and write it down. If you hear something, write it down and repeat it.
You can even bring in more unusual senses like taste and smell. Smell is often said to be the most powerful scent connected to memory, and some studies back up that claim. If you want to make something you have to do stick in your memory, try reminding yourself of it as you put on perfume or cologne. When you get a whiff of it throughout the day, it can serve as a reminder!
Having a poor memory isn’t unusual, and there are lots of completely normal causes for it. If you want to improve your memory, try to pinpoint when you’re struggling to remember things and address that cause first—stress, lack of sleep, and being overwhelmed with things to remember are some of the most common causes.
If that doesn’t do the trick, keep these things in mind:
Take Care of Your Health
All the brain training apps and mnemonic devices won’t help you have a better memory if you’re not taking care of your health. A balanced diet, good sleep, and regular exercise are important to good health, which can help your brain function better.
You don’t have to go overboard—start with small positive changes, like replacing soda or sugary fruit juice with water, or walking to the mailbox instead of driving. Build up your strength and health and your memory will follow!
Poor memory isn’t necessarily indicative of a serious health condition, but if you’re concerned about your ability to recall information, don’t hesitate to see a doctor. Even if nothing’s wrong, you’ll have some peace of mind!
No matter what’s causing your memory troubles, there are little things that you can do to improve your ability to recall information. Try out multiple ways of remembering information, like taking notes, using brain training apps, and similar tactics to find out what works best for you. Give them a little time—improving your memory can take a while, and few things work right away. If you find that one method isn’t making a difference after a month or so, add in another method to your routine or replace one part with another.
Remember, though, that a good memory starts with good health. Focus on improving your physical health and supplement those changes with other tools.
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Melissa Brinks graduated from the University of Washington in 2014 with a Bachelor's in English with a creative writing emphasis. She has spent several years tutoring K-12 students in many subjects, including in SAT prep, to help them prepare for their college education.