We expect too much of our memory, says Professor William O'Connor, Head of Teaching and Research in Physiology at the Graduate Entry Medical School, University of Limerick. Instead of assuming that the memory is a sort of an effortless DVD recording device, he says we should realise that our ability to remember is influenced by a wide range of factors from what we eat to how we manage stress. Here's how to improve it:
1 pay attention
Memory involves a form of learning or encoding. In order to encode information properly, you must consciously direct your attention at the thing you want to learn.
"Think of a squirrel who wants to hide a cache of nuts for the winter and is in the process of burying them when it is interrupted by a fox and runs away. That squirrel may have difficulty remembering where the nuts were buried because its attention was disrupted. It's important to give attention and time to the information you wish to encode," he explains.
2 manage stress
Sharpen your ability to pay attention by examining the kind of stress you experience and deciding to learn how to manage your stress levels. Everyone has a different way of managing stress, says O'Connor, but if you manage to control your stress, your ability to pay attention to things will improve.
"Stress interferes with the ability to encode information to the brain," says O'Connor, who suggests trying a number of different methods.
Meditation works for 85pc of people, says O'Connor, who suggests starting with just 10 minutes of meditation every day to help sharpen your focus in general. "Meditation is about paying attention on purpose - usually to the breath, and without judgement." If you develop a strong capacity to pay attention, he explains, your mind will be less distracted, thus focusing more easily, learning more quickly - and remembering things better!
4 breathe deeply
Oxygen is required by every cell in the body, and the brain cells, which encode the information which allows you to learn and remember, are no different. Oxygenating the brain triggers a process called neurogenesis, which is the growth of new brain cells required to encode the information you want to remember.
This raises your IQ and gives you extra learning capacity by making it easier for the brain to focus on, and encode the appropriate information. "Basically, to encode information, the brain requires plenty of oxygen - the more you oxygenate your brain the faster your learn," explains O'Connor.
5 be curious
Consciously improve your attention levels by focusing on your environment and teaching yourself to be observant suggests O'Connor.
"Learn to be observant and curious. Take notice of the things that are going on around you. Become interested in the green-ness of the grass for instance, because we know that fixed attention is very good for the brain."
Be curious, he says. Make a point of taking note of the unusual around you. Notice the changing of the seasons and how they are impacting on your environment. "Be aware of where you are and what you are doing."
6 chew gum
When you chew gum, says O'Connor, you exercise the major muscles of the jaw and this introduces oxygen to your brain, improving its ability to perform, and thereby increasing your capacity to learn and remember.
When you physically exercise the big muscles of the jaw by chewing, O'Connor explains, the jaw becomes tired. When it's tired, it experiences an increased demand for oxygen, which prompts you to inhale more. As you inhale more, your brain receives more oxygen which fuels and improves its overall performance. "The very act of chewing actually improves the ability to learn and remember."
7 get knitting
Knitting and crocheting are extremely powerful ways of training yourself to focus and improve your attention. This is firstly because it requires you to focus closely on an intricate knitting pattern and secondly to replicate the pattern through paying attention to achieving good hand-eye coordination. "This is both a physical and psychological activity which sharpens your focus and strengthens your ability to attend to detail and to learn."
8 read more of less
Mental exercise is very important for the brain, says O'Connor, who advises the regular reading of "challenging" materials such as a thought-provoking book which exercises the mind. "Read one book which is challenging rather than skimming through 15 light novels."
O'Connor suggests Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow which examines the dual process of the brain and our deeply embedded self-delusions. It's worth putting the work in, advises O'Connor, who says it's a fallacy that as people get older their memory dis-improves.
"Your brain is active all your life and there is new evidence that in the teenage years, information processing peaks, in the mid-20s your short-term memory peaks. "In your 40s your memory for faces peaks, while in your 80s your intelligence and wisdom peaks."
9 Eat memory foods
A diet high in fish oil is conducive to a good memory. Eat oily fish at least once a week, advises O'Connor who suggests a simple and inexpensive meal like sardines on toast rather than expensive fish oil supplements.
"You get the benefit of the oil and you also get a food rather than just taking it in a supplement," he says, adding that fish oil helps reduce inflammation, which damagers the body and the brain and distracts you.
Other anti-inflammatory-and-anti-oxidant-containing foods such as berries, vegetables and fruits should also be included, he advises. "Cherry tomatoes and blueberries are believed to be particularly good," says O'Connor, who adds that green and other highly coloured fruits and vegetables, as well as dark chocolate and grape-juice, which is non-alcoholic, and uses the skin of the red grape is believed to be particularly healthy.
"Eat plenty of lean meat, vegetables, fruit and plants and fish oils - but of all of these, fish oils are the elite when it comes to the brain."
10 eat less
"Some people advocate the Okinawa Diet, which involves eating a hot meal once every two days rather than every day, believing that it lengthens life and improves the ability to learn and remember." says O'Connor. "Because we are by nature hunter-gatherers, we are not meant to be over-fed. Our ancestors were often hungry."
In fact, O'Connor points out, the optimal intelligent human being is slightly under-fed, slightly under-weight, extremely aerobically fit, highly focused, in touch with the environment, and excellent at assessing a calculated risk.
11 get motivated
To learn and remember, you need to want to remember! Motivation and a love of learning are crucial to remembering, says O'Connor.
When you are motivated, you are more open to trying something new - and the brain loves stimulation. Signing up for new courses, taking on different responsibilities at work and at home, learning new skills, for example playing a musical instrument and adopting an open approach to new challenges all refresh and stimulate the brain.
"Be a brain that is always learning new things," he counsels. "It's really a case of use it or lose it."
12 be creative
Scientists have discovered that the parts of your brain which are involved in learning and remembering are the same parts of the brain which are involved in creative thinking, so the more creative you become, the easier you will find learning and remembering.
There are lots of ways to stimulate your own creativity - ask more questions about everything and start consciously thinking beyond the obvious. Learn to use and trust your imagination, visualise, try new activities, listen to new music and learn to become comfortable with silence - experts suggest quieting your mind and visiting 'within' to discover the nuggets of creativity within yourself.
Above all, the advice is to love what you do - and if you don't, find a passion for something that you do love - and do it.
13 avoid drugs
"We know that drugs like alcohol and cannabis can cause memory loss, particularly short-term memory loss, because they damage the part of the brain which is involved in laying down the short-term memory," O'Connor warns.
"We are not sure exactly what the physical impact is, but we know that these substances interfere significantly with short-term memory."
However, he says, it's worth remembering that such toxic substances can also have long-term consequences later in life - even at a time when you have given up drug abuse.
14 use the alphabet
Using your Mental Alphabetical Filing Cabinet can help enormously when you find yourself unable to remember a person's name, says O'Connor.
First, detach from your struggle to remember the name itself, he advises.
Then slowly start to go through the alphabet, letter by letter - and more than likely, the name you want will jump out from the file in which your memory originally place it!
Another useful memory-consolidation technique is reading through the material you want to encode just before you go to sleep. "Reading the information you most want to remember just before you sleep, will help your brain consolidate and encode the information, and you will remember it better the next day.
15 say it loud
Repeating aloud something that you want to remember during the learning process is an excellent memory aid, believes O'Connor.
If, for example, you have a habit of forgetting where you put your keys, he says, talk to yourself about where you are placing them the next time you are putting them down. This encourages you to 'engage' more actively with your brain in encoding the memory you wish to remember.
On the other hand, if you're trying to remember a phone number, divide it into three or four-digit 'bits' or 'chunks' - this is called "chunking."
For more information visit inside-the-brain.com or type 'memory' into your search engine to access Professor O'Connor's blogs.
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