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How to Remember Everything

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I’m in the middle of research for this article when I need to get something from another room. By the time I finish my five-second climb up the stairs, I’ve completely forgotten what it was I wanted and freeze until it hits me that I was grabbing my notebook... and some Mentos. I think.

Memory loss is a natural symptom of aging, but it starts way before the grey hair and dentures — possibly when we’re as young as 20 [1]. Some researchers blame forgetfulness on our tweeting and Googling, suggesting that multitasking and a constant influx of information may be hurting our memory [2] [3]. Other parts of our lifestyle, like snooze time and working out also play a key role [4] [5] [6] [7]. Fortunately, there are lots of techniques that may help keep our memory sharp — before we start repeating stories that start with, “When I was your age...”

Forget Me Not — The Need-to-Know

We receive an overwhelming amount of information every day, but the brain filters out most of it. The stuff we do notice heads straight to our short-term memory, which can hold about seven units of information (i.e. a seven-digit phone number) for 20 to 30 seconds. Anything important or impactful (like the way a first love used to laugh) moves to another part of the brain for long-term storage, while the rest gets pushed out to make room for new information coming in. More emotional experiences tend to stick with us, as do activities we repeat often, like dance routines [8] [9]. (Hey, Macarena!)

So why do we always seem to struggle to find those house keys? Aging is a big factor, and some studies suggest that the gradual decline in memory begins as early as age 20. Other research suggests we’re less likely to remember things now that information is easily accessible 24/7 on the Internet [10]! And studies from the past several years are myth-busting the idea that multitasking is efficient or productive. Some researchers believe multitasking actually impairs our short-term memory and hurts our ability to focus on the most important information in our environment [2] [3].

No matter what the source of those memory problems, the good news is we’ve got you covered. Keep reading for tips on improving memory.

Remember This! — Your Action Plan

From sleeping more to keeping a calendar, certain lifestyle habits can really boost our ability to remember new information.

Improve General Memory

Get some sleep. Just one night of sleep deprivation can damage our short- and long-term memory, and all-nighters may bring down our ability to retain new information by 40 percent [13] [4]! That’s because, during sleep, the brain picks out information worth remembering and strengthens new memories [4] [5] [17]. And hey you 20-somethings, check this out: One study found that sleep deprivation has a more negative effect on people in their 20s than on baby boomers [13] [19]. Regardless of age, if those recommended seven to nine hours of sleep seem impossible, a 60-minute nap can also improve memory and recall [20] [21].

Move it. As if there aren’t enough reasons to put on those running shoes, here’s another one: Exercise can improve memory and learning — even if it’s just 30 minutes of daily walking [6] [7]. Scientists think exercise boosts the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that processes new information and plays a role in long-term memory storage.

Work the mind. Try changing things up by using a non-dominant hand or taking a new route to work. Or start using the mind in the ways you’ve been using the phone, like memorizing phone numbers and addresses or writing directions on paper instead of using a GPS. Need a quick pick-me-up? A good old-fashioned cup of coffee just might boost that memory as well as any brain-training game [24].

Study Smarter

Study when it counts. In one study, participants who received training in the afternoon performed better on tests than those who were trained in the morning [25]. Reviewing what you’ve learned before bed and right after waking up can also improve retention, but Pythagoras already knew that ages ago.

Space out. Multiple studies have found that a memory technique called “spaced repetition” can increase retention by up to 50 percent. Basically, spaced repetition involves breaking info into smaller units and reviewing them consistently over the course of a few months [26]. It can also help to test yourself on new information instead of just passively reviewing it.

Tell a story. The crazier the story, the more likely we are to remember it! Try this technique with the shopping list: If the first word is “apples,” picture an apple pie on the table and use other words on the list to tell a tale about what happened on the trip to the grocery store.

Remember Random Things

Know what’s in a name. Keep repeating a new name in your head or use it in conversation as much as you can. (“That’s a great idea, Sam!”) Or tie the person’s name to something unique about them, like “Dan the Digital Ninja.”

Save the date. Plan ahead with Google Calendar reminders and Post-It notes. Bonus points for memorizing the date without help: Try the mnemonic method and create a story by using the numbers in the date. (For instance, for the date 10/29: Mark was born on a cloudy October day and his mother was in labor for 29 hours.)

Systemize it. Create rituals and develop habits, like leaving keys in the same place every day. Run through a checklist of all essentials before leaving the house. (Phone? Check. Wallet? Keys?)

Have you had trouble keeping track of things lately? What are some techniques that help you remember? 

Works Cited

  1. Toward understanding age-related memory loss in late adulthood. Luszcz, M.A., Bryan, J. Flinders University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia. Gerontology 1999;45(1):2-9.
  2. Deficit in switching between functional brain networks underlies the impact of multitasking on working memory in older adults. Clapp, W.C., Rubens, M.T. Sabharwal, J., et al. Department of Neurology, The W M Keck Foundation Center for Integrative Neuroscience, University of California, San Francisco, CA. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2011;108(17):7212-7217.
  3. Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Ophir, E., Nass, C., Wagner, D., A. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2009;106(37):15583-15587.
  4. A deficit in the ability to form new human memories without sleep. Yoo, S.S., Hu, P.T., Gujar, N., et al. Department of Radiology, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA. Nature Neuroscience 2007;10(3):385-92.
  5. Sleep to remember. Born, J., Rasch, B., Gais, S. Department of Neuroendocrinology, University of Lübeck, Lübeck, Germany. Neuroscientist 2006;12(5):410-24.
  6. Aerobic exercise improves hippocampal function and increases BDNF in the serum of young adult males. Griffin, É.W., Mullally, S., Foley, C., et al. Department of Physiology, School of Medicine, University of Dublin, Trinity College, Dublin 2, Ireland. Physiology and Behavior 2011;104(5):934-41.
  7. Regular exercise improves cognitive function and decreases oxidative damage in rat brain. Radák, Z., Kaneko, T., Tahara, S., et al. Laboratory of Exercise Physiology, School of Sport Sciences, Semmelweis University, Budapest, Hungary. Neurochemistry International 2001;38(1):17-23.
  8. Interaction between the amygdala and the medial temporal lobe memory system predicts better memory for emotional events. Dolcos, F., LaBar, K.S., Cabeza, R. Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Duke University, Durham, NC. Neuron 2004;42(5):855-63.
  9. Human emotion and memory: interactions of the amygdala and hippocampal complex. Phelps, E.A. Department of Psychology, New York University, New York, NY. Current Opinion in Neurobiology 2004;14(2):198-202.
  10. Google effects on memory: cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Sparrow, B., Liu, J., Wegner, D.M. Department of Psychology, Columbia University, New York, NY. Science 2011;333(6043):776-8.
  11. Deficit in switching between functional brain networks underlies the impact of multitasking on working memory in older adults. Clapp, W.C., Rubens, M.T. Sabharwal, J., et al. Department of Neurology, The W M Keck Foundation Center for Integrative Neuroscience, University of California, San Francisco, CA. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2011;108(17):7212-7217.
  12. Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Ophir, E., Nass, C., Wagner, D., A. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2009;106(37):15583-15587.
  13. Sleep deprivation: Impact on cognitive performance. Alhola, P., Polo-Kantola, P. Department of Psychology, University of Turku, Turku, Finland. Journal of Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 2007;3(5):553–567.
  14. A deficit in the ability to form new human memories without sleep. Yoo, S.S., Hu, P.T., Gujar, N., et al. Department of Radiology, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA. Nature Neuroscience 2007;10(3):385-92.
  15. A deficit in the ability to form new human memories without sleep. Yoo, S.S., Hu, P.T., Gujar, N., et al. Department of Radiology, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA. Nature Neuroscience 2007;10(3):385-92.
  16. Sleep to remember. Born, J., Rasch, B., Gais, S. Department of Neuroendocrinology, University of Lübeck, Lübeck, Germany. Neuroscientist 2006;12(5):410-24.
  17. Slow oscillations orchestrating fast oscillations and memory consolidation. Mölle, M., Born, J. Department of Neuroendocrinology, University of Lübeck, Lübeck, Germany. Progress in Brain Research 2011;193:93-110.
  18. Sleep deprivation: Impact on cognitive performance. Alhola, P., Polo-Kantola, P. Department of Psychology, University of Turku, Turku, Finland. Journal of Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 2007;3(5):553–567.
  19. Prefrontal neuropsychological effects of sleep deprivation in young adults--a model for healthy aging? Harrison, Y., Horne, J.A., Rothwell, A. Sleep Research Laboratory, Loughborough University, UK. Sleep 2000;23(8):1067-73.
  20. The effects of napping on cognitive functioning. Lovato, N., Lack, L. School of Psychology, Flinders University, Australia. Progress in Brain Research 2010;185:155-66.
  21. Slow wave sleep during a daytime nap is necessary for protection from subsequent interference and long-term retention. Alger, S.E., Lau, H., Fishbein, W. Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and Sleep, The City College of the City University of New York, New York, NY. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 2012. [Epub ahead of print].
  22. Aerobic exercise improves hippocampal function and increases BDNF in the serum of young adult males. Griffin, É.W., Mullally, S., Foley, C., et al. Department of Physiology, School of Medicine, University of Dublin, Trinity College, Dublin 2, Ireland. Physiology and Behavior 2011;104(5):934-41.
  23. Regular exercise improves cognitive function and decreases oxidative damage in rat brain. Radák, Z., Kaneko, T., Tahara, S., et al. Laboratory of Exercise Physiology, School of Sport Sciences, Semmelweis University, Budapest, Hungary. Neurochemistry International 2001;38(1):17-23.
  24. Caffeine-induced synaptic potentiation in hippocampal CA2 neurons. Simons, S.B., Caruana, D.A., Zhao, M., et al. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, US National Institutes of Health, Research Triangle Park, NC, USA. Nature Neuroscience 2011;15(1):23-5.
  25. Effect of the time-of-day of training on explicit memory. Barbosa, F.F., Albuquerque, F.S. Departamento de Fisiologia, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte, Natal, RN, Brasil. Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research 2008; 41(6):477-81.
  26. Online spaced education generates transfer and improves long-term retention of diagnostic skills: a randomized controlled trial. Kerfoot, B.P., Fu, Y., Baker, H., et al. Surgical Service, Urology, Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, Jamaica Plain, MA. Journal of the American College of Surgeons 2010;211(3):331-337.