A neurologist's memory tricks: train your brain to remember better
By Dr. Julie Schwartzbard, MD
“No, you don’t have Alzheimer’s disease.” Happily, I’m able to say that to most of my patients who come to me in terror because they’re losing their memory. I send these forgetful, fearful — but physically fine — folks home with a list of things that will improve their memory and focus (you can’t have one without the other).
Yes, the aging process does affect memory, but recent research shows just how “plastic” your brain actually is. You can still build new memory pathways as you get older, but you have to be proactive.
Here’s what I recommend to help you remember better:
#1: Eat to feed a healthy brain and memory
You can counter the negative health consequences of inflammation and oxidative stress by eating foods with lots of antioxidants such as:
- red and orange veggies and fruits
- leafy greens
- fish and other foods with lots of omega-3s (use a supplement if you don’t like fish)
Eat a Mediterranean-type diet, with less meat, refined sugars and carbohydrates. Get enough vitamin D every day (supplement with at least 2000 IUs a day) and strongly consider adding B vitamins. Vegetarians in particular need B12; and B6 and 9 are also important for memory and general brain function. You can usually find all these in a B complex supplement or a great multivitamin.
#2: Visualize what you want to remember
Taking a mental picture can improve recall, especially if you’re a visual learner. It helps you remember specific information that you already know (names, lists, dates) but tend to forget. Known as “visualization and association,” it works like this: if you can’t remember what, for example, an isosceles triangle is, make an image in your mind and “code” it visually.
An isosceles triangle has at least two equal sides so you could envision an “icy and even” mountain. “Icy” is code for isosceles and “even” is code for “equal” sides of the “mountain” that represents the triangle itself:
“Icy and even mountain”
Icy = isosceles
Even = equal sides
Mountain = triangle
Now this image will pop into your head when you need to recall “isosceles” and you’ll decode it from there.
#3: Think about what you’re doing
You can’t retrieve a memory if you aren’t paying attention when you first try to incorporate and store the information. Ask yourself, if I can’t find my glasses — ever — am I paying attention at all when I put them down?
To make strong memories, consciously note the information when you’re first exposed to it. Then, think about it, repeat it in your head and say it out loud over the course of 10-20 seconds. You’ll probably remember the information later because you’ve etched the memory more deeply.
#4: Make, create, solve, strum, dance, sing, paint…and exercise
Music practice, dance lessons, creative pursuits, exercise, sports and hobbies all push your brain into new spaces and pull your memory to include new information and experiences. And if you’re serious about having a good memory, you need to exercise a minimum of 30 minutes at least four times a week. Daily exercise is even better. Sorry if that’s not what you wanted to hear.
Word games and math puzzles won’t help you remember new things but your brain function will sharpen with a new activity. Learn a new language, join an acting group, practice drawing, try yoga, explore cooking classes, knit a sweater, or ______________ (fill in the blank).
Stimulating and thought-provoking activities with a social component earn bonus points — bridge clubs, book groups, continuing education classes, chess tournaments, etc.
#5: Go to bed and sleep when you get there
Sleep is crucially important to the process of remembering and plays a very active role in consolidating memories and key bits of related information. Forming long-term memories is dependent on sleep and the process is far more dynamic that originally thought.
During the day, it’s impossible for your brain to process and encode memories for retrieval. The consolidation of a memory from your day is optimized during the slow-wave sleep phase. The memory is then stabilized on a molecular and synaptic level during REM sleep.
Many things you do have an impact on your memory, from the food you eat to the shuteye you enjoy. The better you understand the process of making memories, the more empowered you’ll become to improve your recall.
Dr. Schwartzbard shares more about memory in our article How to have a better memory: a neurologist’s guide
- Rasch, Björn. 2013. About Sleep's Role in Memory. Physiol Rev. 2013 Apr; 93(2): 681–766. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3768102/. Accessed 12.08.15.