- GET MOVING. Long staff meeting? Take a short, brisk walk right after it to help you remember what was covered, says Terrence Sejnowski, PhD, a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and a distinguished professor at the University of California, San Diego. Sejnowski’s research also suggests that regular moderate exercise (elevating your heart rate above 85 beats per minute for 20 minutes) helps maintain the health of neurons in the hippocampus, the portion of the brain responsible for forming long-term memories. Always misplacing your keys? Do an uncommon gesture (like hopping on one foot) before setting them down to help your brain mark the location, says Nelson Dellis, a four-time winner of the USA Memory Championship and the author of Remember It!
- VISIT THE “PALACE”. Top memory athletes (yes, that’s a thing) use a technique called the memory palace. Imagine a route through your house in which you visit areas—front door, living room, dining room—in the same order every time, says Dellis. If you’re recalling a list of errands, imagine your dry cleaning at the door, your checks to cash in the living room, your prescriptions in the dining room, and so forth. “To recall the list later, think of the memory palace and mentally navigate the same path, picking up the images you laid there,” says Dellis.
- MAKE IT WEIRD. “For the most part, our brains are good at remembering pictures,” explains Dellis. Instead of trying to memorize day-to-day essentials such as names, to-do lists, passwords, and so forth by brute force, he recommends turning them into pictures you visualize in your mind’s eye. “The more bizarre or over-the-top the image, the better your brain will recall it,” he says. For example, if you need to remember to pick up milk on the way home from work, don’t just think to yourself, “I need to grab a gallon!” but also imagine something like your car stuffed to the gills with cartons and milk gushing out the windows. The idiosyncratic image is far more likely to stick and be ready for recall later.
- PUT IT ON REPEAT. “Unfortunately, our brains are designed to forget,” states Dellis. “The best way to hold on to something indefinitely is to review it more than once.” Say there’s a casserole you make regularly and you want to commit the recipe to memory. You could try memorizing the ingredient list and cooking instructions in one fell swoop, but a more effective strategy would be to spend a few minutes a day reviewing the recipe over a span of five or six days. “You’ll spend the same amount of time,” says Dellis, “but you will retain the information much, much longer if you give your brain time to rest and revisit.”
- CATCH SOME Z’S. A good night’s rest has long been equated with memory retention and optimal brain health. But recent studies show that mere napping can also bolster memory. “Your experiences are consolidated during sleep,” explains Sejnowski. “While eight hours a night is the standard-bearer, we now know that a nap also has a powerful effect.” A 2016 study from the University of California, Riverside, found that participants who partook in a 90-minute midday nap were better able to retain information and tackle creativity challenges. But even a quick 20 minutes of shut-eye can send the brain into REM sleep and help preserve memories, adds Sejnowski. Nighty night.
(written by Caroline McKenzie for Real Simple, March 2019)