How you can improve your memory

We know that the process of remembering something makes use of multiple regions and systems in the brain, with different areas all working together to record new information and recall what we’ve already learned and stashed away into long-term memory storage.
But how can you increase the chances of getting important information into your long-term memory—and successfully recalling it later? Some strategies are relatively easy and have overall health benefits—get a good night’s sleep, eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. But other methods might take a bit more effort.

How can I improve my memory?

Finding ways to make new information meaningful and personally relevant activates different neural circuitry when compared to more ‘shallow’ levels of processing. For instance, someone glancing briefly at this article on a screen might notice the font, the website layout, the colours, or other superficial features. However, someone who reads the article and recalls a story their mother recently told them about how easily she forgets things may be more likely to remember the content, as it has direct personal relevance.
It also helps to form multiple different ‘representations’ of a piece of information. For instance, you might remember a phone number in several different ways: how it looks when it’s written on some paper (visual), what it sounds like when spoken out loud (auditory), or even the movements your fingers make as they move across the buttons on a phone when dialing (spatial). Each of these are encoded differently, meaning there are multiple possible pathways for you to recall the same information.
Close up of someone using a smartphone
Write it down, say it out loud, dial it on a keypad—different representations of the memory will help you remember a phone number. Or just save it in your phone. Image adapted from: Rawpixel.com; CC0
It’s not all about encoding, though. Sleep (especially slow-wave sleep), during which memories are reactivated and rehearsed, appears to be crucial for the consolidation of memories—which is one reason why pulling an all-nighter to study for an exam the next day is not a wise strategy.
What about playing puzzles or brain games? If you’re hoping that solving word puzzles might help you to better remember where you keep leaving your car keys, you’re out of luck. Studies have shown that while you may improve your ability to solve word puzzles, those skills won’t necessarily transfer across to give other cognitive abilities a boost. There is some evidence that games focused on helping you to think faster may help prevent cognitive decline with age, but a lot of so-called ‘brain training’ games are simply fun ways to spend some time.

Memory ‘superpowers’?

What about individuals who seem to have superior memories, like so-called photographic memory or the ability to remember every single day of their lives? What’s special about their abilities—and can we find ways to supercharge our own memories?
In some cases, it may simply be practice: lots and lots of specific, focused practice. London taxi drivers must pass a gruelling test known as The Knowledge, memorising thousands of streets and places of interest around the city before they receive their licence to drive one of the famous black cabs. Studies have shownthat successfully passing the test is associated with an increase in size of the posterior hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in spatial memory. And yes, there seems to be some cause-and-effect involved, with researchers examining the brain structures of study participants both prior to taking the test and after passing (or failing) it.
A black London taxicab
London cab drivers typically have a larger hippocampus, which is responsible for spatial memory Image adapted from: mwanasimba; CC BY SA 2.0
However, there are still individuals with memory abilities that are far more extraordinary than this. For example, individuals with highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM) can remember details such as what they wore, what they did, who they were with, or other information for any given date of their lives.
But there’s a downside to having such impressive memory abilities: they also remember in vivid detail every breakup, painful loss and bad event they’ve experienced as though it were only yesterday. Those with HSAM have superior consolidation (‘filing away’) and recall of memories, traits that may be linked to obsessive tendencies towards habitually dwelling on past experiences. While they could help provide some insights into how to prevent memory loss, it’s clear that having such a ‘super-memory’ is not necessarily a good thing.
And what about eidetic (sometimes called ‘photographic’) memory—the ability to recall images in great detail after seeing them for just a few seconds? While case studies of adults claiming to have these abilities have been reported, there are serious scientific doubts about whether these reports are true. A small percentage of young children seem to have greater capacity for eidetic imagery compared to adults, but good-quality scientific evidence of the phenomenon is lacking.
Our memories are a fascinating and remarkable thing, on the one hand enabling us to recall vast amounts of stored information, facts and statistics and, on the other, sometimes letting us down completely as we walk from one room to another and then forget why we’re there. But whether you’re a whiz at pub trivia nights or someone who can never remember their password, it’s clear that our memories help us make sense of the world around us—and they make us who we are.

This article has been reviewed by the following expert: Professor Max Coltheart AM FAADepartment of Cognitive Science, Macquarie University

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