All day every day, your brain is bombarded with new information. Confronted with this tsunami of sensory and cerebral input, it’s no wonder much of it slips through your memory’s grasp. But if you feel like you’re forgetting more than you should—or if you just want to pump up your retention and recall—there are some science-backed ways to improve your memory.
Start with exercise. A recent study appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that just 10 minutes of light exercise was enough to increase patterns of brain activity associated with memory improvements.
This adds to a big pile of evidence linking physical activity with improved memory and overall cognitive functioning. “Our research has shown that significant memory gains emerge when individuals engage in regular aerobic exercise for 50 minutes three times a week,” says Sandra Bond Chapman, a distinguished professor and director of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas. Exercise improves cerebral blood flow—even after you’ve finished your workout—which aids memory as well as other brain functions, Chapman’s research shows.
Adequate sleep is another necessary ingredient for a healthy mind and memory. But allowing your mind some free time to ponder new information also seems to be helpful.
A small 2018 study found that when people were allowed to sit quietly and zone out for 10 minutes after looking at a series of photographs, their “fine detail” memory for the photos was superior to the memories of people who were asked to complete an unrelated 10-minute task after viewing the same pictures. Basically, the idle time seemed to bolster people’s memories of the photos.
“The brain continues to process and replay past experiences during immediate post-learning rest periods,” says Lila Davachi, a professor of psychology at Columbia University. “This is like effortless mental rehearsal.”
Davachi was not involved with the study. But some of her own research suggests that small mental timeouts can assist recall. Even a few seconds of idle time—meaning time when your brain is not being confronted with new or stimulating information—may be enough to strengthen its memory for information you’ve just encountered, she says.
If you’re constantly jumping from one mental task to the next without giving your brain a break to squirrel away what its learned, it’s not surprising that those kernels of memory won’t be there when you go searching for them later on.
If all this makes you wonder whether checking your email or social feeds during every free moment could be messing with your memory, your head’s in the right place. A 2017 study from Stanford University found that heavy media multitaskers—those who spend a lot of time using multiple forms of media at once, like listening to a podcast while surfing online—tend to do worse on tests of working memory and long-term memory than light media multitaskers. More research finds that relying on your device’s GPS functionality hampers your ability to navigate on your own. You can’t remember something well if you didn’t pay much attention to it in the first place, it seems.
But there are things you can do. Mindfulness meditation may help beef up your memory. One small 2013 study found that students who took a two-week mindfulness course improved their scores on a test of working memory. They were also better able to block out distraction. “It doesn’t take much mindfulness training to get a temporary boost in performance,” says Michael Mrazek, first author of the study and director of research at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Center for Mindfulness & Human Potential. “Even eight minutes of mindful breathing can make you a little sharper,” he says.
“It is also important to avoid cruising on automatic pilot,” Chapman says. “Life moves fast, and we often compensate by falling into routine, sticking to the path of least resistance, and letting our thoughts, conversations and activities become stagnant.”
Your memory and the overall health of your brain are bolstered by novelty and “inspired thinking,” she says. Breaking away from familiar routines and challenging yourself with change is a good way to keep your mind from growing lazy.
Try this: After reading, watching or listening to something new—whether it’s a news segment or a podcast—try to “think deeply and formulate succinct take-away messages,” she advises. “Take some time to synthesize these new ideas and to update previously held views.”
Just as physical exercise strengthens your bones and muscles, this sort of mental exercise can build your mind and memory.
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