Down Memory Lane: Fixing Your Brain
By Krista Elliott
Like the guy said, "My memory is good, but it's short."
All kidding aside, memory is a funny process. In technical terms, it's "our ability to encode, store, retain and subsequently recall information and past experiences in the human brain."
Sure, that's a fair enough definition. But how memory works isn't quite as straightforward. Our brains obviously don't retain things based on importance. Otherwise why would I forget a vital work task, but remember my fourth-grade best friend's phone number?
What affects our memory, and how can we improve it?
Memories are created and stored in different ways depending upon a variety of factors. We remember the familiar more easily than the unfamilar. That is why it is so hard to remember things that we have a hard time understanding: We can't link it to things we already know and remember.
Unsurprisingly, we are more likely to remember events that are associated with strong emotions, whether positive or negative. And we also tend to have an easier time with individual memories if they are repeated or set to music. (Which is why we have no problem remembering Journey song lyrics but can't recall what we wore last Tuesday.)
One emotional aspect that does NOT help our memory is stress. While acute stress can help retention, chronic stress can wreak havoc on your memory by actually creating long-term changes in the brain that make it harder to process information.
So, how to improve your memory? There are a few things you can do:
- Take care of yourself. Eating healthfully, sleeping well, and getting plenty of exercise are the best two things you can do for your brain (for any of your organs, really). Giving your brain the nutrients it needs, giving it a good amount of restorative sleep, and improving its blood flow through exercise are great ways to keep your gray matter humming along nicely.
- Reduce stress. Yes, I know. It's a lot easier said than done. But taking time to relax, reducing stressful influences in your life, and developing healthy ways to cope with stress go a long way toward preventing the nasty effects that chronic stress can have on your memory.
- Train your brain. By playing brain-boosting games or learning a new skill like knitting or the piano, we stimulate the neurological system and prevent deterioration of the brain, helping our minds function at top capacity. The term "use it or lose it" has never been more true than when we discuss the brain.
- Try mnemonic devices. "Every good boy deserves fudge," "HOMES," and other mnemonic devices convert new and unfamiliar data into something a bit more relatable, and thus, more memorable.
You may have a spotty and unreliable memory, but there are ways to improve your retention. With a bit of practice and some smart technques, you'll soon remember the location of your car keys just as well as you remember the embarrasing thing you said to a store clerk four years ago. And that's a development worth remembering.