Exercise is not only important for your body, it is also extremely important for your mind. Who we are as people is shaped by our ideologies, our habits, our fears and our hopes—all of these things are dependent on your memory. Hitting the gym is great for your physique, but strengthening your ability to retain information will need a different kind of exercise.
Our nervous system is the messenger network that facilitates communication throughout the body, to and from your brain. Your brain is like the master computer that stores all your memories and relays how to act based on your body’s interactions. On a basic level, neurons, or communication chemicals, are responsible for our experiences and memories in life, and they set us up for future experiences.
Memory can be divided into three types—short term, long-term, and lasting long-term. Short-term memories may only last seconds to hours, long-term memories last from hours to months, and lasting long-term memories may stay with you for months through your lifetime. As far as functionality, there are other types of memory, including declarative and non-declarative, and immediate and working memory.
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Your brain goes through three basic phases when it comes to memory—encoding, consolidating, and retrieving. Encoding is when you are taking in new information, or you perceive it, and relate it to your past experiences. Consolidation is when your brain stores this new information so that it can be used later. When the time is right, your mind will access or retrieve the stored information for use.
Crucial elements to creating a lasting memory include the following:
- A good challenge
- Upward mobility
- A rewarding experience
- A new lesson
Dementia, or a decline in mental ability, is very common among the aging population. Alzheimer’s disease, a more severe form of dementia, affects as many as 5 million people living in the United States, and unfortunately the exact cause of it is unknown.
What we do know is that staying mentally active can have amazing protective benefits for your mental health. To make sure your memory is running at tip-top performance, make sure that you exercise your brain. Here are 8 techniques you can use to strengthen your memories and make them last:
When trying to remember something, look for patterns. How something is organized, or clustered together, can help greatly when it comes to trying to remember details. “Chunking” is the term used to refer to a type of cognitive compression by which we are able to pair information into chunks that are more memorable than random tidbits of information.
Categorizing information into objective (logical and well-recognized categories) or subjective (any way that might help you, even if the information seems unrelated) groups is useful to retaining information that you have just learned. For example, if you want to remember someone’s birthday and it is towards the end of December—try remembering that it’s close to Christmas (and maybe think about doubling up on the gift situation).
Mental imagery is a technique that can help you reinforce your memory toward specific actions or cognitive activities. Think about to act of doing something ahead of time, and put yourself in a visual thought process of what it will actually be like—this can help you succeed at complex activities with many steps and with future decision making.
This is because images are pretty set in stone, while a slew of information may be more abstract. Visualization in a way forces your attention toward a specific point, leaving no room for ambiguity. When it comes down to images versus facts and ease of remembrance, images typically take home the gold.
If you’re trying to remember something like which foods are Paleo and to stay on track with your Paleo goals, try this: picture yourself at the grocery store or farmer’s market and imagine you are selecting nothing but non-processed foods and foods as close to that of our ancestors as possible; maybe even think about your family or friends being there to support your purchases.
Visualize yourself enjoying this, and visualize it often. Over time, you will no longer need to remind yourself of this healthy habit; it can become part of your daily practice with a little bit of discipline.
Everyone has fallen victim to forgetfulness, and this often happens when you have only done something once before, or you were only told something one time. Once is usually not enough for something to stick to your memory.
So lather, rinse, repeat. The more you practice something, the more neural networks will strengthen to increase signals transmitted to and from your brain. But repeating something over and over in a short interval is not the best technique for memory.
What works better is squeezing some time in between your repetitions. This is also known as spaced retrieval, because you are forcing yourself to retrieve a piece of information over an interval of time. When you meet a new person and you find it difficult to remember their name, try to repeat their name in your head every 10 minutes or so, or force yourself to address them by name when you are talking to them.
Rest and Getting Enough Sleep
One day is rarely enough time for memories to make a lasting impression on your brain. While you rest, your body is replenishing itself for the next day by balancing out your hormones to support healthy growth and development. Sleep is also a key factor in optimizing memory consolidation, but not a two-hour nap type of sleep, but a real full-night’s rest type of sleep. During slow-wave sleep, or deep sleep, is when your memories will consolidate the best.
Don’t let breakfast escape your routine. It doesn’t matter how busy or lazy you are, or how much you think skipping breakfast is going to help you lose weight. After a good night’s sleep, to help lock in memories, breakfast is going to help get important nutrients into your body to further tie your memories down (it also helps to kick-start your metabolism for the day).
Eating breakfast was shown to have a significant benefit on not only memory, but also school achievement and cognitive function and performance. Omega-3 fatty acids like those found in flaxseeds and fish are most beneficial to your memory.
Eliminating Excess Stress
Chronic stress is always going to be the little devil on your shoulder for many reasons, including retaining information. Excess stress is going to literally get in the way of how your brain functions to store and retrieve memories.
Stress sends out messenger chemicals known as glucocorticoid hormones, which will bind to receptors and prevent normal memory consolidation and retrieval. Spatial learning and memory, the type of memory that helps you remember locations and relate objects, are diminished with excess stress, as well.
Staying Mentally Active Throughout Life
Your mental strength is one of those things that abides by a “use it or lose it” philosophy. In a study of 700 dementia-free patients where general cognitive decline was analyzed, people who were observed to participate in more cognitively-stimulating activities showed a slower rate of decline in their episodic and working memory.
Activities that are cognitively stimulating include things like reading, writing, doing puzzles and playing certain computer games. Other studies have shown that mental decline was about 48% faster in those who didn’t actively stimulate their mind throughout life, as compared to those who engaged in mental activity more frequently.
Writing Down What You Need to Remember
Writing down what you need to remember will help you not only because it’s on paper, but because you will force yourself to use more of your body. Not only will you have the memory in your mind, but you will also see it with your eyes.
Looking at the note multiple times a day can help make the memory last even longer. In addition, you can repeat whatever it is that you need to remember aloud, to add your sense of hearing. Taking notes in a class was shown to be more effective for long-term memory when it was done with a pen and paper versus with a laptop. Keep this in mind when trying to hold onto information.