The human brain is like a library that stocks memories instead of books. In some ways, that makes the hippocampus, the part of the brain most involved in memory, the brain's librarian. The hippocampus has the most responsibility in this cranial library, juggling the new releases of short-term memory while cataloging materials for the permanent collection of long-term memory. It's not the only part at work, however, in storing these chapters of our lives. Different kinds of memory are stored in different areas of the brain. With such a large system, the brain needs a system of encoding and retrieving memories, something a bit more complex than the local library's Dewey Decimal System.
The brain has to be able to pull information at the drop of a hat, whether it's a fact on hold (such as a telephone number) or a dusty memory that's been sitting in storage for years (the memory of your first kiss). No one likes a library that loses books or shelves them in the wrong place. Yet sometimes we find ourselves with a very poor librarian on our hands, one that doesn't allow us to retrieve memories when we need them. Sometimes it's trivial, like when we tear apart our homes looking for glasses perched innocuously atop our heads, and sometimes these lapses in memories are more embarrassing, such as when we call a colleague "sport" because we simply can't remember his name.
Whether you're a college student studying for an important test or an aging baby boomer concerned about forgetting a recent doctor's appointment, there are a few things everyone can do to optimize the storage and checkouts in our private libraries of memories. Alert the librarian and head to the next page for the first tip.
10. Drink in Moderation
Before you settle in to read this article, you may want to get yourself a glass of wine. Surprised that such debauchery begins our list of memory improvers? Well, hear us out. Memory and alcohol have an interesting relationship.
First off, you'll notice we didn't advocate bringing the entire bottle back with you. Too much drinking handicaps the memory, as anyone who's ever woken after a binge with a fuzzy recollection of the night before can attest. And one component of a DUI test shows how overconsumption of alcohol can immediately affect the brain: Even simple mental tasks like counting backward and reciting the alphabet can become tricky under the influence. Alcohol abuse will have a negative effect on the cells of the brain related to memory.
But as long as you're not pregnant and able to maintain control of how much you drink, there's evidence that light to moderate alcohol consumption can improve memory and cognition. Though more research needs to be done, some studies have found that moderate drinkers do better on certain tests of memory and cognition than nondrinkers and heavy drinkers [sources: Victoroff, Minerd]. There may be some long-term effects as well. A French study that followed almost 4,000 people over the age of 65 found that light drinkers, who consumed up to two glasses of wine a day, were 45 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease than nondrinkers [source: Victoroff].
But as we said, don't start tipping back beverages if you have certain risk factors, such as a family history of alcoholism. No one is recommending that teetotalers start drinking, either. Resveratrol, one of the flavonoids in red wine that's believed to have special benefits for blood vessels, is also in red grape juice.
If you tend to drink when you're sad, head to the next page for some information on how your blues affect your brain.
9. Seek Treatment for Depression
Anything that causes major stress in life, including anxiety or anger, will eventually eat away at the parts of the brain that are responsible for memory. Chief among these stressors is major depression. Depression is often misidentified as a memory problem since one of the main symptoms of the condition is an inability to concentrate. If you can't concentrate on schoolwork or the information needed to complete a task on the job, then you may feel as if you're constantly forgetting things. As it is, you're not even able to concentrate long enough to learn them in the first place.
Depression causes an increase of cortisol levels in the bloodstream, which in turns elevates the amount of cortisol in the brain. With the help of brain imaging devices, doctors have been able to see how that increased cortisol diminishes certain brain areas, chief among them the hippocampus [source: Tan]. One study showed that people who had been depressed, even if it was years ago, had suffered a 12 to 15 percent loss in the hippocampus [source: Victoroff]. Since the hippocampus is the clearing center for short-term memory, prolonged depression demolishes the brain's ability to remember anything new.
Additionally, depression affects the types of things a person is able to remember. While everyone's brain is selective about which memories make it into long-term storage, people with depression seem only able to retain negative memories [source: Crook]. That means there's a neurological reason why a person with depression remains obsessed with the one time a loved one forgot a birthday or anniversary, even if it was remembered every other year.
But happy memories needn't be lost forever to someone battling depression. Medications for depression, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), have been shown to jump-start the process of cell regeneration in the hippocampus [source: Tan].
The next item on our list can help fight depression while it improves memory as well.
8. Get Moving
If you've ever taken a break from work or studying to take a quick walk around the block, you may understand the rationale for this next tip. Exercise not only exercises the body, it exercises the brain as well.
Obesity is a risk factor for many diseases and conditions that eventually wreak havoc on the brain, including stroke and Alzheimer's disease. Without regular exercise, plaque builds up in the arteries and blood vessels lose the ability to pump blood effectively. While you may know how plaque buildup leads to heart attacks, you may not think about the way your brain is gasping for breath as well.
The brain depends on energy received through a constant intake of oxygen and nutrients from the bloodstream, and when those nutrients don't arrive, the brain's ability to work is compromised. So to keep the blood moving to the brain, you're going to need to get up from your chair (after you finish reading this article, of course) and get the blood pumping. It doesn't matter what you do -- a brisk walk, a swim and even a dance move or two can all provide a good mental workout. Studies show that the more physically active a person is, the greater his or her cognitive performance [source: Victoroff].
Keep a lookout on your brisk walk for interesting images -- you'll need them for the memory tip on the next page.
7. Visualization and Association
A picture's worth a thousand words, as the saying goes, so turning a list of random words into images may help you remember the words better. Explaining this method works best by example, so let's say that you need to remember that a parent-teacher conference is taking place at three in the afternoon. Take a moment and think of a visual image for three -- let's say that you and your son just love reading the story of the "Three Little Pigs." Visualize those three little pigs. To remember what exactly you have to do at three, picture your son's teacher cavorting with the pigs out in a meadow. Sometimes, the more unique the image, the easier it will be to remember. Here's another example: say you place your eyeglasses on the kitchen table. When you do so, imagine your eyeglasses eating all the food on the table. Later, when you're wondering where your glasses are, your brain has this image in the bank.
You can use visualization to remember an entire list of things if you associate the images together. Say that you need to remember to take the following things to your SAT exam: a No. 2 pencil, a calculator, your ID and a snack for the break. You can create a visualization that links all of the images together in a ridiculous story. Picture your pencil as a snake, curving itself into the number two. That snake just loves calculators, so it winds itself around the calculator, using its hissing tongue to press the buttons. When the snake pushes one of the calculator buttons, the calculator turns into a camera and snaps the snake's picture for an ID photo. All of this calculating and picture-taking has worn the snake out, so it wants a snack of pretzels.
Sure, it sounds bizarre, but you can't deny that it also sounds fun. Visualization is at the root of many of the memory tips left to go on our list, so go ahead and practice by visualizing yourself heading to the next page for another memory tip.
6. Pay Attention
Eight seconds is more than just a length of time that bull riders try to stay atop a bucking bronco, it's the amount of time you need to completely focus your attention upon something to effectively transfer it from short- to long-term memory [source: Crook]. No matter how wonderfully you can conjure up entertaining and useful visualizations for incoming information, the skill will be useless if you're not paying attention to what you need to remember in the first place.
Sometimes we can't remember things because we never got the information into the memory bank to begin with. Like an absent-minded professor, we all have moments where we put down keys or an important book without noticing. Or we scribble phone numbers or one-word reminders on Post-It notes, thinking that's all the information we'll need later. However, without paying attention to why you need the information and its value to you, that Post-It is useless.
Try to stay in the present and really pay attention to the task at hand, whether it's learning new information for a job or meeting new people. Minimize distractions such as music, television or cell phones to focus fully. One way to stay mindful of even the smallest actions is to repeat aloud what you're doing; as you take off your eyeglasses, say aloud "I am putting my glasses on the kitchen counter." While talking to yourself may feel awkward, you'll be grateful to find your glasses easily later.
When meeting new people, we can often be more obsessed with how we look and the impression we're making than truly paying attention to the other person. Simply staying focused will boost your ability to remember the names of new people. But we're not done with faces and names yet. Since that area is troublesome for so many people, the next tip is all about using some of these techniques to attend parties with ease.
5. The Name Game
This memory tip builds upon many of the tips we've learned so far. When you meet a new person, it's important to pay attention to the name and the face. As soon as you learn the name, repeat it back to the person by saying, "Nice to meet you, so-and-so." It's not a cheap trick; researchers have found that people have a 30 percent better chance of remembering a name when they repeat it as soon as they learn it [source: Herold].
Then it's time to put those visualization and association skills to work. Let's say you're meeting a person named Katie Lambert, who just happens to be this humble writer's editor. First, you want to repeat the name, but you also want to start looking for identifying features that will help you with the visualization and association. Check out the person's hair, nose, mouth, cheeks and eyes. Katie has chin-length blond hair, so you might take that feature and combine it with her last name, Lambert. Suddenly you're picturing little lambs with blond hair frolicking about. You name one of those lambs Katie to help you with your image, but you also take the "kat" from her first name and imagine little cats running around as well.
If you wanted another way to remember "Lambert," you could picture Katie on the "lam" with "Bert" from "Sesame Street." You could also use rhymes or a celebrity she resembles to make the association. If all else fails, you could just focus on how you would describe her later to a police sketch artist if you were to hear that a girl named Katie Lambert had committed a crime. Whatever it takes to remember her name and face together.
But enough about a HowStuffWorks editor committing crimes! Let's head to the next page for another valuable memory tip.
Maybe you have no problems remembering your grocery list or names and faces but you repeatedly stumble over your PIN number, Social Security Number or license plate number. Chunking may be just the memory method for you. You've used chunking if you've ever read off a phone number as three sets of numbers as opposed to one long 10-digit number. Chunking puts a large amount of information into more manageable chunks so that you have less to remember.
Let's tease out the phone number example even further. Say you use this phone number every day but can never remember it: 404-760-4729 (for the record, that's the main line at HowStuffWorks). First, the area code -- do you love golf? Picture hitting a golf ball twice; you might yell, "Fore! Oh! Fore!" Then let's say you have seven children and you were born in 1960. By great coincidence, your soccer jersey number was 47, and you'll never be able to forget that the Great Depression started in 1929. To remember how to call HowStuffWorks, you just need to think, "golf, kids, year born, soccer jersey, Great Depression." Make a fun story out of it: Golfing with the kids in the year I was born while wearing my soccer jersey was more fun than the Great Depression. You'll never forget how to call us again.
OK, maybe that's not the handiest way to remember our phone number. The associations made with certain numbers will be different for everyone. What's important is to look for patterns and numbers associated with memorable things for you. Then you can break a long list into more manageable chunks.
Chunking's not limited to remembering numbers, though. Anything can be reduced to smaller chunks. Say that you need to send an e-mail to George, William, Greg, Jim and Jane. If you remember to invite the 2 G's, the 2 J's and one W, then you're set. If you have a long shopping list, try grouping it according to sections of the store, so that when you get to the dairy section, you'll know you have a few items to look out for.
Do you know your way around the local grocery store by heart? You may be able to put that knowledge to use with our next tip.
3. Method of Loci
The earliest recorded mnemonic device comes from Ancient Greece. One night, a poet named Simonides was called upon to recite a poem at a banquet. By some stroke of luck, Simonides briefly left the banquet hall, right when the entire building collapsed. Because the bodies of those that remained inside were so badly mangled, Simonides identified the dead for their families by recalling where people were sitting at the time of the accident. This memory device of associating things with a place or location became known as the method of loci, and it was all the rage for teaching in Ancient Greece. If you've ever said, "in the first place" or "in the second place" when rattling off a list, then you're using a modern derivative of the method of loci.
In using the method of loci, you're essentially piggybacking the information you need to remember on top of information that would be near impossible for you to forget. For example, it would be hard for you to forget a bus or subway route you use every day, or the setup of your own house. If you select between five to seven locations on these routes or in these places, you can use the landmarks to remember a list of errands by using the visualization methods we discussed earlier.
For example, let's say that you've selected places you pass daily on your commute to the office. You drive by a large yellow house, a fast food chicken restaurant and a tire shop. You need to remember to stop by the store to get detergent, bread and orange juice. For each familiar place, visualize an association with an item on the list. You could envision the detergent dripping down the sides of the yellow house, making the yellow even brighter. You picture the chickens eating pieces of bread thrown to them in their chicken coops, and you could imagine tires trying to move through a rising river of orange juice. You can expand the list with more landmarks as needed, and then when you arrive at the store, you just pull up this route information and think of your visualizations.
For another tip that uses familiar spaces with a twist, go on to the next page.
2. Use Your Environment
Tying a string around your finger to remember something has become a bit of punchline, but the reasoning for it makes sense. By putting something in your environment slightly askew, you create a visual reminder for yourself. The key, as with other methods, is to take the time to create a strong visualization for why there's a string around your finger before you mindlessly tie it on.
You can use other things in your environment as well. If you don't want to invest in string just yet, you could switch a ring, bracelet or watch from one hand to the other as needed to remember things. For example, if you needed to remember a doctor's appointment, you could visualize a large wristwatch wrapped around your doctor. If it bothers you too much to switch hands, try just turning the watch upside down or switching a ring so the stone points downward.
There are other things you can manipulate in your environment as well. If you wake up in the middle of the night with a thought you don't want to forget, make an association with something on your nightstand, like an alarm clock or a book. Then place the object on the floor. The next morning, when you trip over the item on your floor, you can bring up the visualization. You can also move furniture slightly if that helps. If you have trouble remembering to take morning medications, place your toaster on its side. When you stand it back up again, you can take your medications, enjoy some toaster waffles and then return the appliance back to its sideways position in preparation for the next morning. Move your telephone from one side of the desk to the other, depending on whether you have phone calls to return.
You could also place things that need to leave the house on the floor in front of the door to serve as an obvious reminder, or you could make use of the doorknob itself by hanging things on it. For example, if you return from home day after day without the dry cleaning you meant to pick up, place an empty hanger on the door. Put it on the front seat of the car, and it will serve as a daylong reminder of an errand you need to run.
Practice using your environment right now: Click "next page" to see our last tip for memory.
1. Practice Makes Perfect
Maybe you're thinking that some of the tips in this article sound a bit too easy. And that's the beauty of them -- but to get the full benefit, you're going to have to practice. Not everyone immediately begins creating helpful visualizations or using the method of loci to remember things, but when your brain becomes trained to think that way, it will become easier.
You can look at almost anything as a chance to practice these memory tips. If you're out to eat at a restaurant, randomly assign the people around you a name. Introduce yourself to them in your head and give them identifying features. Enjoy your appetizer, then look back around to see how many names you remember. It can also make the time fly by when you're standing in line at the bank or waiting in a doctor's office. You can do the same things with people in newspapers or magazines.
Speaking of newspapers and magazines, you can practice your ability to pay attention by reading an article and then explaining the article to someone else. Do you have all the details down, or do you need to pay better attention when you're reading? After enjoying your favorite television program, see if you can remember the outfits that various characters wore throughout the show. If you can remember the small details, then your memory is getting good exercise.
One of the simplest ways to practice these methods is to teach them to someone else. By explaining with examples, you'll be reinforcing them in your brain.
If you want to practice your ability to pay attention to what you're reading, there are plenty of great articles on memory and the brain for you to use on the next page.
Lots More Information
- Top 5 Mad Geniuses
- Human Intelligence Puzzles
- 10 Ways to Improve Your Senses
- Geniuses Pictures
- Who Said It: Einstein or Hawking?
More Great Links
- Crook, Thomas and Christine Allison. "How to Remember Names." HarperCollins. 1992.
- Herold, Mort. "You Can Have a Near-Perfect Memory." Contemporary Books, Inc. 1982.
- Higbee, Kenneth L. "Your Memory." Marlowe & Company. 2001.
- Minerd, Jeff. "Moderate Drinking Linked to Quick-Witted Women." MedPageToday. April 7, 2006. (Oct. 1, 2008)http://www.medpagetoday.com/PrimaryCare/DietNutrition/tb/3029?pfc=101&spc=230
- Schacter, Daniel L. "The Seven Sins of Memory." Houghton Mifflin Company. 2001.
- Tan, Zaldy S. "Age-Proof Your Mind: Detect, Delay, and Prevent Memory Loss -- Before It's Too Late." Warner Books. 2005.
- Victoroff, Jeff. "Saving Your Brain." Bantam. 2002.