Memory is an interesting thing. Most of us may wish it was better. We may envy those with “photographic” memory or people who seem to have no trouble recalling phone numbers, matching faces to names, or recollecting events from years gone by. But, when you get past the gimmicks and sensationalism, what is memory really, and how can you use science to improve it? Here’s what you need to know:
What is memory and where is it located in the brain?
As much as memory may seem like a simple idea, the truth is that this represents an incredibly complex brain function that allows us to encode, store, and retrieve data over time. Healthy memory is key to decision-making, problem-solving, and general cognition.
Brain researchers often differentiate between different types of memory:
- Short-term memory: A form of working memory, short-term memory allows us to bring a small amount of data into our conscious thinking for a short period of time. Short-term memory is what enables us to remember something we just heard, like a phone number.
- Long-term memory: This type of memory refers to longer-term storage. Think about this as data from minutes to decades ago. While short-term memory storage is more finite, long-term memory can store a seemingly unlimited amount of data.
The process of encoding, storing, and retrieving memory involves multiple parts of the brain, but some of the most relevant regions include the cerebral cortex, the hippocampus (long-term storage), the amygdala (especially emotionally charged memories), and the cerebellum.
How does memory change over the lifespan?
There is some variability in the research here, but the general theme is that, across populations, both short- and long-term memory may decrease as we approach older adulthood. Importantly, this in no way finds that all people will experience worsened memory as they age, nor does it imply that there is nothing we can do about the age-related decline that some people may experience.
What can we do to preserve and improve memory?
Research does show us that certain lifestyle strategies may play an important role in allowing us to protect and even enhance our memory. Here are four of the top strategies:
- Prioritize great sleep. Research shows that sleep is essential to long-term memory consolidation. It’s also been implicated in short-term memory. We additionally know that long-term poor sleep quality is associated with higher risk for memory-deficit conditions like Alzheimer’s dementia. All this is to say that prioritizing better sleep is likely among the top things you can do each day for better memory. For some underappreciated great tips for better sleep, see this article.
- Eat a healthy diet rich in minimally processed real food. Generally speaking, eating a healthful diet is one of the best strategies for every aspect of good brain function. But research shows that eating close to a Mediterranean pattern of diet (olive oil, nuts and seeds, fresh fruit and vegetables, fish and poultry but less red meat) may be especially protective for memory and cognition. Some nutrients worthy of extra attention include the omega-3 oil DHA, as well as creatine monohydrate
- Engage in daily movement. Like a healthy diet, regular exercise has consistently been shown to be associated with better brain health outcomes. Incorporating movement into the day may be one of the most potent protectors against developing Alzheimer’s dementia, and some work suggests that exercise may have positive effects on short- and long-term memory through a variety of pathways.
- Practice! Perhaps the most practical strategy for anyone with a specific memory-related goal is simply to practice using memory with simple tools like spaced repetition, mnemonic devices, and visualization. Each of these can be a potent way to enhance your ability to remember key information. Spaced repetition involves reviewing information at increasingly spaced intervals (e.g., daily, then weekly, then monthly) to enhance long-term memory formation. Mnemonic devices are basically shortcuts to help make complex data more memorable. Popular examples are creating acronyms or rhymes using information you want to remember. Visualization involves tethering information to memorable images you see in your head (e.g., to remember the name of a person named Edward, link his face to a mental image of Johnny Depp’s Edward Scissorhands character.