The better your brain is, the better your memory will be. This is true for students, professionals, and seniors. There are things you can do to improve your memory and mental performance.
Although it was once believed that the brain was a static organ, incapable of change, it is now known that this is not the case. The brain has the ability to adapt and change, even into old age, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. With the right stimulation, the brain can form new neural pathways and alter existing connections.
The brain’s ability to change and adapt is what allows us to improve our cognitive abilities, learn new information, and enhance our memory. Here are nine ways you can harness the power of neuroplasticity.
- Give your brain a workout
By the time you’ve reached adulthood, your brain has developed millions of neural pathways that help you process and recall information quickly, solve familiar problems, and execute habitual tasks with a minimum of mental effort. But if you always stick to these well-worn paths, you aren’t giving your brain the stimulation it needs to keep growing and developing. You have to shake things up from time to time and try new things in order to keep your brain healthy and growing!
If you want to keep your memory strong, you need to exercise it regularly. Just like working out your muscles, the more you use your brain, the better it will be at processing information. However, not all activities are equally effective. The best brain exercises are those that break your routine and force you to use and develop new brain pathways.
Four key elements of a good brain-boosting activity
- It teaches you something new. No matter how intellectually demanding the activity, if it’s something you’re already good at, it’s not a good brain exercise. The activity needs to be something that’s unfamiliar and out of your comfort zone. To strengthen the brain, you need to keep learning and developing new skills.
- It’s challenging. The best brain-boosting activities demand your full and close attention. It’s not enough that you found the activity challenging at one point. It must still be something that requires mental effort. For example, learning to play a challenging new piece of music counts; playing a difficult piece you’ve already memorized does not.
- It’s a skill you can build on. Look for activities that allow you to start at an easy level and work your way up as your skills improve —always pushing the envelope so you continue to stretch your capabilities. When a previously difficult level starts to feel comfortable, that means it’s time to tackle the next level of performance.
- It’s rewarding. Rewards support the brain’s learning process. The more interested and engaged you are in the activity, the more likely you’ll continue doing it and the greater the benefits you’ll experience. So, choose activities that, while challenging, are still enjoyable and satisfying.
What is something you have always wanted to try? Taking up a new hobby can assist your memory, as long as it is something that will keep you occupied and excited. Try things like learning to play an instrument, work with clay, juggle, play chess, speak another language, or dance.
- Repeat and retrieve
If you repeat new information to yourself, you are more likely to remember it.
By repeating something, we create stronger connections between the neurons in our brain. So if you want to remember something, repeat it out loud, use it in a sentence, write it down, and read it aloud.
Although repeating information may help you remember it in the short term, research has shown that it is not an effective way to learn in the long term. You will need to go over the information later without looking at where you wrote it down, and actively try to remember it. This is more effective than repeated studying. Practicing retrieval will help you learn more effectively in the long term.
- Try acronyms, abbreviations, and mnemonics
Mnemonic devices can help remember information by using acronyms, abbreviations, songs, or rhymes.
Since the 1960s, mnemonics have been tested as an effective strategy for students. A mnemonic is a memory aid. You’ve probably been taught a few mnemonic devices for remembering long lists, such as the colors of the spectrum: ROY G. BIV (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet).
- “Group” or “chunk” information
Grouping information into smaller chunks makes it easier to remember. For example, it is much easier to remember a ten digit phone number if it is divided into three separate groups, rather than one long string of numbers.
- Construct a “mind palace”
The approach can be used to memorize both simple and complex information While the mind palace technique is often used by memory champions, it can be used by anyone to memorize both simple and complex information. The approach is to create a visual and complex place to store a set of memories.
- Use all of your senses
Memory connoisseurs use multiple senses to help retain information. They relate information to other senses such as colors, tastes, and smells.
- Lose the GPS
Relying too heavily on GPS devices for navigation may cause shrinkage in the hippocampus, which is responsible for spatial memory and moving information from short-term to long-term memory, according to researchers. Poor hippocampus health is linked to dementia and memory decline.
If you don’t want to get lost, try to use your brain to navigate to your destination instead of blindly following your GPS. You can use your GPS to help you get there, but try to use your brain to find your way back home. It will be a good workout for your brain.
- Don’t skip the physical exercise
It’s important to exercise both your body and your mind to keep your brain sharp. Getting physically active increases oxygen to your brain and lowers your risk for developing disorders that cause memory loss, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Exercise not only helps to improve the effects of helpful brain chemicals, but also reduces stress hormones. Perhaps most importantly, exercise helps to improve neuroplasticity by boosting growth factors and stimulating new neuronal connections.
Brain-boosting exercise tips
- Aerobic exercise is particularly good for the brain, so choose activities that keep your blood pumping. In general, anything that is good for your heart is great for your brain.
- Does it take you a long time to clear out the sleep fog when you wake up? If so, you may find that exercising in the morning before you start your day makes a big difference. In addition to clearing away the cobwebs, it also primes you for learning throughout the day.
- Physical activities that require hand-eye coordination or complex motor skills are particularly beneficial for brain building.
- Exercise breaks can help you get past mental fatigue and afternoon slumps. Even a short walk or a few jumping jacks can be enough to reboot your brain.
- Get your Zs
There is a big difference between being able to function on a reduced amount of sleep and needing a certain amount of sleep to function at your best. The truth is that over 95% of adults need between 7.5 to 9 hours of sleep every night in order to avoid sleep deprivation. Even skimping on a few hours makes a difference! Memory, creativity, problem-solving abilities, and critical thinking skills are all compromised.
Sleep is critical to learning and memory in a fundamental way. Research shows that sleep is necessary for memory consolidation, with the key memory-enhancing activity occurring during the deepest stages of sleep.
Developing and sticking to a regular sleep schedule can help improve your overall sleep quality. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends and holidays.
You should avoid all screens for at least one hour before bed. The blue light that is emitted by TVs, tablets, phones, and computers can trigger wakefulness and suppress hormones such as melatonin that make you sleepy.
Cut back on, or eliminate entirely, caffeine if you think it is keeping you up at night. Caffeine affects people differently and some people are highly sensitive to it. Having even a morning coffee may interfere with sleep for those people.
- Eat more of these foods:
The Mediterranean diet, DASH diet, and MIND diet share some common benefits, including improve memory and reduced risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
These diets focus on eating:
- plant-based foods, especially green, leafy vegetables and berries
- whole grains
- chicken or turkey
- olive oil or coconut oil
- herbs and spices
- fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines
- red wine, in moderation
Fatty fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for building brain and nerve cells. Omega-3s are essential for learning and memory, and they have been shown to improve cognitive function.
- Keep stress in check
Stress is one of the things that can damage the brain the most. If a person has a lot of stress over a long period of time, it can kill brain cells and damage the part of the brain that is involved in making new memories and recalling old ones. Also, research has shown that stress can cause memory loss.
Tips for managing stress
- Set realistic expectations (and be willing to say no!)
- Take breaks throughout the day
- Express your feelings instead of bottling them up
- Set a healthy balance between work and leisure time
- Focus on one task at a time, rather than trying to multi-task
- Have a laugh
Laughter is good for the brain and memory as well as the body. Emotional responses are limited to specific areas of the brain, while laughter engages multiple regions across the brain.
Additionally, listening to jokes and figuring out punch lines activates areas of the brain that are important for learning and creativity. As psychologist Daniel Goleman points out in his book Emotional Intelligence, “laughter seems to help people think more broadly and associate more freely.”
Looking for ways to bring more laughter in your life? Start with these basics:
- Laugh at yourself. Share your embarrassing moments. The best way to take ourselves less seriously is to talk about the times when we took ourselves too seriously.
- When you hear laughter, move toward it. Most of the time, people are very happy to share something funny because it gives them an opportunity to laugh again and feed off the humor you find in it. When you hear laughter, seek it out and try to join in.
- Spend time with fun, playful people. These are people who laugh easily—both at themselves and at life’s absurdities—and who routinely find the humor in everyday events. Their playful point of view and laughter are contagious.
- Surround yourself with reminders to lighten up. Keep a toy on your desk or in your car. Put up a funny poster in your office. Choose a computer screensaver that makes you laugh. Frame photos of you and your loved ones having fun.
- Pay attention to children and emulate them. They are the experts on playing, taking life lightly, and laughing.
- Enjoy nature
It is very important for our emotional and physical health to spend time in nature. Being in nature can be thought of as a form of meditation. A study done in 2008 showed that people had better memory and attention when they walked in a park compared to when they walked in a city.
One 2006 study found that gardening lowers your risk of dementia by 36 percent.
There is a lot of evidence to support the idea that meditation has several health benefits. Studies have shown that meditation can help improve focus, concentration, memory, and learning. It is also believed that meditation can encourage more connections between brain cells. If you are interested in trying meditation, there are several different methods you can try to see which one works best for you.
- Make time for friends
Is it more lighthearted pastimes or “serious” activities that come to mind when you think of ways to improve memory? If you’re like most of us, it’s probably the former.
Healthy relationships: the ultimate brain booster
Humans are social animals and need relationships to stimulate their brains and thrive.
The Harvard School of Public Health found that people with more active social lives had a slower rate of memory decline.
There are many ways to boost your brain power by socializing. Try volunteering, joining a club, or seeing friends more often. You can also try reaching out to friends over the phone. If you don’t have any close human friends, don’t forget about the benefits of having a pet, especially a social animal like a dog.