Exercise Your Brain For Better Memory
If older adults were asked to list their top 10 worries, there’s a good chance that memory loss would rank near the top of the list. After all, it’s possible to make a mistake when something you know doesn’t surface in the moment you need it. So, it’s no wonder seniors reach for crossword puzzles, take classes, and get involved in other activities to help their brains stay sharp.
Dr. Amisha Jha, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at the University of Miami who studies attention, suggests that what we think is a memory problem may actually be an attention problem.
Rather than spend time worrying about our memory, Dr. Jha, author of Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day, believes we can train our brains to pay attention more effectively. According to Dr. Jha, becoming more focused can help your memory.
She further suggests three critical steps you can take to successfully remember something:
Rehearsal involves organizing information in a more in-depth way to help your brain remember it. The most common ways of rehearsing information are repeating it out loud or reviewing it in your head. For example, when we want to remember a new telephone number, we repeat it to ourselves several times or notice the unique arrangements of the numbers, such as the last three digits ending as 222.
We can also create images in our minds to rehearse information. For instance, when remembering details about a wedding, you may recall the unique decorations, the taste of the cake, or your enjoyable interaction with certain family members or guests.
Elaboration involves taking new information or experiences and associating it with existing knowledge or memories. For instance, when you are introduced to a person from the state of Washington, you may be able to more easily remember that person’s name and personal information if you already know people who live in the state or you remember a trip you took to Washington. This instance of elaboration makes memorizing information about the person more meaningful.
Similarly, if someone told you that an octopus has three hearts, this might be information you did not previously know about an octopus. By linking this new information to the knowledge you already have about an octopus, you are storing richer memories because of elaboration about the marine mollusk.
3. Memory Consolidation
In memory consolidation, the brain takes short-term memories and converts them into long-term memories. This process deals with brain synapses which involve connections between specific groups of neurons that have encoded memories.
These neuron networks become stronger or consolidated through repeated rehearsing of information. For example, studying for a test means consistently reviewing information over a period of time. This consolidation leads to greater memory retention which might not occur when cramming overnight for the test.
Resting Improves Memory Consolidation
It’s not easy to find some downtime during the day, and when we do, we might feel guilty about taking a break. Despite our belief that we need to accomplish a task every few minutes, research shows that our perpetual state of busyness works against us.
A growing number of studies are finding that a period of rest helps in the memory consolidation process. Researchers have found that people remember more new information during a few minutes of quiet time than when they move from one task to another without taking a break.
A study published in 2012 in the journal, Psychological Science, involved telling 33 participants, between the ages of 61 and 87, two short stories. The participants were told to remember as many details as possible. Immediately after hearing the story, participants were asked to describe what happened in the story.
Then, one group was asked to rest for 10 minutes in a dark room with their eyes closed. Another group played a “spot-the-difference” game, which required attention but was nonverbal.
One-half hour later and then one full week later, the participants were asked to recall both stories. The participants who rested quietly remembered much more story material than those who played the game.
“Our findings support the view that the formation of new memories is not completed within seconds,” Michaela Dewar, the lead author of the study and a psychological scientist from the University of Edinburgh, said in a statement. “Indeed our work demonstrates that activities that we are engaged in for the first few minutes after learning new information really affect how well we remember this information after a week.”
According to Dewar, growing evidence suggests that the point at which we experience new information is “just at a very early stage of memory formation and that further neural processes have to occur after this stage for us to be able to remember this information at a later point in time.”
How Sleep Affects Memory
While our bodies might be still when we are asleep, our brains are hard at work processing new information and establishing memories. According to the Sleep Foundation, getting enough rest allows us to process new information once we wake up. After learning something new, sleep consolidates new information into memories that are stored in the brain.
Sleep Foundation explains how this occurs:
1. The first two stages of an adult’s sleep cycle are considered light non-rapid eye movement (NREM) also known as light sleep, and the third stage is considered deep NREM sleep. These three stages help the brain to learn new information the following day.
2. During these three stages, the brain sorts through various memories from the previous day, and selects important memories that will become more concrete as deep NREM sleep begins.
3. The fourth stage of the sleep cycle is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. When the brain becomes more active, the body becomes more relaxed and dreams occur. Research suggests that memories are stored during this stage and the brain forgets excess information to prevent overload.
So, a good night’s sleep, rest during the day, and becoming more attentive will go a long way in helping to improve memory. Researchers in the resting study noted that we are bombarded by new information which crowds out recently acquired information. Because of this, the process of consolidating memories takes a little time and the most important things that it needs are peace and quiet.
A growing number of studies points to ways you wouldn’t think could help improve memory: Quiet rest and a good night’s sleep.