We all have memory lapses: We forget the name of the person we just met, where we put our keys, or why we walked into the kitchen. These are perfectly normal—they don’t signify impending cognitive decline—but they’re a nuisance, nonetheless. So Bottom Line Health asked memory expert Marc Milstein, PhD, how we can improve our recall.
When you process new information, it first enters a “waiting-room” in the brain’s hippocampus, where it resides for seven to 10 seconds. If you focus on something for less than seven seconds, it doesn’t have a chance to stick, so the first tip to improve memory is to simply give yourself more time before moving on to the next task.
Your brain is constantly deciding if information is important enough to move into longer-term storage or if it can be discarded. You can boost memory, then, by telling your brain what’s important.
One way to do this is to recruit different parts of your brain. If you want to remember someone’s name, instead of just thinking about the name, try imagining yourself writing it on their forehead. Writing—or imagining it—activates the frontal lobe and helps mark the information as worth remembering.
Speaking activates parts of the brain used in speech and hearing, so simply saying something out loud helps you better remember it. If you tend to lose your keys or wallet, the next time you put them down, say out loud where you put them. Putting information to music can also activate the motor, emotional, and speech parts of the brain, which all aid in memory.
Your brain loves a story, but a single word, like a name or a password, not so much. So, add detail to boost your memory. If you are trying to remember that someone’s name is George, embellish that information. For example, you might make a mental picture of King George sitting in a pub in England.
Nowadays, we don’t have to work to recall information when we can just Google it. But pushing your brain to find a memory can strengthen your power of recall overall. Play trivia games or join a book club. When the name of an actor in a movie eludes you, don’t immediately look it up. Let your brain work on it a bit. When you go shopping, take your list, but also see if you can recall what’s on it without looking.
Simply learning something new can boost your brain power and help you practice moving information from your short- to long-term memory. Pick something outside of your expertise, such as painting, a sport, or a new language, as learning new information is one of the best things you can do for your brain.
Short bursts of stress are good for the brain. In fact, people with some stress have memories that stay sharper longer. But when that stress tips into being chronic, the hippocampus can actually shrink. To reduce stress and improve memory, exercise, take relaxing breaks, practice mindfulness, and spend some time in nature.