Everything you remember, from the meaningful to the mundane, shapes how you see the world…and yourself. In many ways, your memories make you who you are.
But let’s set the philosophical aside for a moment and talk practical. Throughout your day, it’s your memory that lets you perform simple tasks like finding your keys or recognizing a coworker. And, of course, memory is also essential to learning.
Although the ability to recall and process memories naturally slows down with age, there are steps you can take to help keep your memory sharp. Let’s take a deep dive into how memory works and what you can do to improve it.
Memory and the Brain–How Does It Work?
Memory is the processing, storage, and recall of information. Your brain is always deciding what information is worth storing—and for how long. For example, you probably can’t remember every item on last month’s grocery list, but as you wrote it, you easily recalled what was missing from your pantry. And yet there are likely events from years ago—decades, even—that you remember with perfect clarity.
This recall is controlled by your long-term and short-term memory. Short-term memories are only stored for a brief period of time—usually a matter of seconds or minutes. While long-term memories are stored more or less permanently.
This leads us to the big, looming question: how are these memories stored?
Different regions of your brain perform separate tasks. Olfaction (your sense of smell), for instance, is handled in your brain’s temporal lobe. But visual processing takes place in the occipital lobe. Your memories often include diverse details like visual, auditory, and other sensory information—not to mention the associated emotions. Because of this, the rich variety of information that makes up a memory is stored throughout your brain.
So how does your brain keep track of all of these pieces? Enter the hippocampus. This brain structure is found deep in the temporal lobe. And it’s responsible to keep a running index of your memories and their elemental parts.
The final piece of the memory puzzle is the one we’re most familiar with: recall. So how exactly do you summon up stored memories? The answer: neural pathways. Your brain is made up of neurons using electrical and chemical signals to transmit information. With each new experience, multiple regions of your brain connect and communicate to create a new and unique neural pathway. When you remember something, your brain is simply recreating this pathway as a memory.
Why Does Memory Deteriorate
As mentioned, memory may naturally decline with age. This doesn’t necessarily mean your ability to form new memories is declining, but rather your brain’s ability to recall existing memories slows down. This is, in part, due to the deterioration of neurons in your brain.
With age, the communication between neurons that’s crucial to memory recall can become less efficient. It is not that your brain can no longer form the necessary neurological pathways, the process just takes a little longer than it used to.
Of course, other outside factors can also impact your ability to recall memories. These include sleep deprivation, stress, head trauma, and other neurological conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
How to Keep Your Memory Healthy
Struggling to recall a memory that feels just out of reach can be frustrating, inconvenient, and, at times, embarrassing. Thankfully, there are ways to help boost your memory and keep your recall sharp as a tack:
- Stay physically active: It might seem counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to keep your brain active is to keep your body in motion. Exercise improves blood flow to the brain, helping to keep your neurons healthy and happy. Studies show that as little as 15 minutes of exercise can lead to observable improvements in cognition and memory. Regular exercise—between 75–150 minutes per week—has been tied to improved memory function in adults.
- Get a good night’s sleep: Sleep plays a vital, albeit mysterious, role in memory encoding and processing. Although its exact role in memory function is still being explored, most scientists agree sleep allows your brain to store and process new memories from the day. But it’s not just new memories that sleep can help. Lack of sleep can also impact your ability to recall existing memories. To give your brain the rest it needs, try to get between 7–9 hours of sleep each night.
- Eat a well-balanced diet: You’ve probably heard it said, but it’s worth repeating—you are what you eat. Your diet can impact many aspects of your life, including your neurological function. Nutritious, vitamin-rich foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, can give your brain the fuel it needs to keep functioning as it should. And on the flip side, foods such as sugars, processed foods, and refined carbohydrates have been tied to cognitive decline and, in some cases, increased risk of dementia.
- Read a book: Your brain (and memory) is like a muscle—the more you use it, the stronger it gets. Creating new neural pathways keeps your neurons in tip-top shape. One great way to exercise your neurons is reading a book. Reading also decreases stress and improves concentration—both of which can have a positive impact on your memory.
- Try to stay organized: Clutter, both physical and mental, can negatively impact your ability to remember things. If you keep your working and living spaces tidy, it‘s easier to remember where you set your phone, keys, or wallet. Similarly, a planner can help keep you mentally organized, making it easier to remember appointments, tasks, and other responsibilities.
- Get plenty of vitamins B and D: If you’re eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet, there’s a good chance you’re already getting enough of the essential vitamins and minerals to help maintain your health. When it comes to your memory, you want to get enough vitamin B and D. These two nutrients have been tied to reduced rates of dementia and may play a vital role in keeping your memory working properly.
- Limit your alcohol consumption: Alcohol can affect your health in a number of ways, but one of the more obviously affected areas is your memory. If you drink excessively you run the risk of “blacking out”—or temporarily losing the ability to store new memories. That’s why after a night of heavy drinking some people struggle to remember the evening clearly. Although these effects may not be permanent, drinking alcohol in moderation or abstaining completely is one of the best ways to look out for your memory.
Memory Exercises: Tips and Tricks for Improving Your Memory
The tips above are great general lifestyle changes to keep your memory sharp. But how can you strengthen your ability to store and recall information in real-time? If you struggle to memorize details, or simply want to improve your recall, give these strategies a shot:
- Use memory associations: The human brain is a wonderful and mysterious organ capable of making connections between just about anything—related or not. And these connections can help you store and recall information. When committing new information to memory, try associating it with something unrelated. A new coworker’s name, for instance, could be connected to the song playing when you met. As your brain goes to remember your coworker’s name, this connection may help speed up the process.
- Say the information out loud: Whether you are trying to remember a phone number, studying for a test, or committing directions to memory, saying the information out loud can help it stick.
- Chunk the information: Rather than trying to remember a series of individual data points, you might find it easier to recall information organized into groups. Known as chunking, this strategy is often applied to phone numbers: many people memorize these as a set of three and a set of four, not as seven individual numbers. Chunking can be applied in a variety of ways—simply break information into smaller sets to tackle one at a time.
- Write it down: Hand-writing information has a similar effect as speaking it out loud. That is, it can make information easier to remember later on. Writing things out on paper can be especially helpful and even a more effective memory tool than taking digital notes on a laptop.
Practice some of these tips and watch your memory sharpen. The next time you’re running late for work and scrambling to get out the door, you can reach for your keys confidently because they’ll be right where you remember leaving them.