When it comes to the functioning of your brain and your memory the saying is “use it or lose it”. But there are plenty of other things you can do to stay mentally sharp and keep your memory strong. There are even ways to get a better memory at any age, with science showing us that neuroplasticity puts an end to the thinking that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. For humans anyway, anything is possible.
1. Stay Active
Keeping a strong mind means keeping the body active as well. It might be hard to make the connection between keeping the body moving and keeping the mind sharp, but research shows that the less active you are, the more likely you’ll be to experience memory loss at an early age. You don’t have to exercise like mad in order to keep your memory sharp. Consider taking a daily walk. You can take a different route each day in order to keep the mind engaged as well as the body.
2. Don’t Overdo Alcohol
You’re born with a finite number of brain cells, so it’s a good idea not to kill them off with excessive amounts of alcohol. The liver can only process so much at one time, so binge drinking can be very taxing on the brain. You might find that you have trouble remembering what happened the next day, but the real damage will come later in life when you’re trying to recall important information and are unable to due to a decreased mental capacity caused by alcohol abuse earlier in life.
In order to aid the brain in remember things you want it to, it helps to visualize what it is you want to remember. The brain works by created visuals of things, for example when you read the word “cat” your brain doesn’t conjure up an image of the letters c-a-t, but rather the word conjures up images of what a cat is. So rather than try to get your brain to remember arbitrary symbols, attach the meaning of those symbols to visual cues and concepts for easier retrieval.
4. Use Associations
The brain works by building a large neural network of associations. That’s why there are certain words, phrases, and images that automatically get us to think about certain things. For example, if your Aunt Sally’s favorite flower is roses, seeing or smelling them might make you think of her. So if you want to remember someone’s name, it’s good to build an association around it. That way all you have to do is remember the association, and the name should come up without effort.
5. Believe You Can Do It
A big part of memory is self-efficacy when it comes to remembering things. if you have repeatedly told yourself that you have a bad memory, or that you don’t remember things easily, you have been conditioning yourself to not remember things well. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like so many things in life, a strong belief that you can do it is the starting block for success. Start with something small to remember and build up from there. These small successes will establish the confidence you need to remember larger and more important things.
6. Use Mnemonics
This is a trick you might have used to remember lists of things in high school, such as the names of the planets. It involves using phrases like My Violent Evil Monster Just Scared Us Nuts. It provides clues to what it is you’re trying to remember, and provides order and structure so you don’t forget the details, like which planets come first. If you have to remember a list of random items, it might be easier to establish a mnemonic in order to keep it organized and help you remember the first letter of each item on that list.
7. Use Rehearsal
Rehearsing what you need to remember is a great way to commit it strongly to memory, as it will add repetition to the game, and also involve different parts of the body, and therefore different parts of the brain. If you go through the process of imagining what it will be like to recall the information you need, and stir up the feelings that you’ll have once you successfully remember something, you’ll be more likely to replicate it in reality. Practicing a successful delivery is key to remembering all sorts of things.
8. Break It Up
It is easier to memorize larger topics in phases, so that you don’t become overwhelmed by the task. You can gradually start digesting bigger chunks as you go along and get more familiar with the material. What we’re trying to avoid here is the feeling like there’s simply too much to remember. You want to feel like you’re in control of the material, rather than at its mercy. Mastering the basics of what it is you’re studying is key, as this forms the proper foundation for more advanced material later.
9. Keep Things Organized
It’s harder to remember things if your brain can’t see any order to them. That’s why you should take the time to organize the data you want to remember in a meaningful way. When you go to remember it you’ll have an easier time, because the brain will have compartmentalized it in a similar way to how you organized it in the physical realm. The more complex the subject matter, the more important organization becomes. You might have a cluttered desk or a messy room, but you can still work to organize your information before trying to lodge it in your brain.
10. Use Gestures
When you use tapping, clapping, snapping, or other hand, arm, and body gestures in conjunction with what it is you’re trying to remember, it commits it to your muscle memory, which can help to trigger your actual memory. Think of an instance where you had to remember a phone number and it helped to actually pretend to dial the number in order to jog your memory. It’s the same concept, only this time you are doing it deliberately, instead of just something you use in pinch when you can’t remember a number.
If you have a large number of things to memorize, such as for a big exam, you’ll need to do triage and identify the things that are most important to remember. Work hard on those items first, and leave whatever remaining room you have in your brain for the less important items. All too often we end up filling our heads with useless data that doesn’t serve us in the future when we really need a crucial piece of information and can’t recall it.
It’s easier said than done in certain situations, but the more you can tune out the world around you and focus in on what you’re trying to remember, the better. Do whatever you can in order to help establish or maintain your focus, until you feel that you have the object committed to memory. You can then go about your day and periodically check in to see that you still remember what it is you were trying to remember. If you’ve forgotten, simply regain that focus and try to memorize it again. Eventually you’ll be able to log it in your long term memory and won’t need to focus in order to recall it.
13. Speak It Aloud
The act of speaking something aloud helps to remember it later, even if you aren’t able to speak it aloud at that time. You have the aural memory of hearing it spoken, and that engages a different part of your brain, which can be beneficial to the process of recalling what it is you need. And of course the more you speak it aloud, the greater your chances of remembering it when you need it in the moment.
14. Learn a New Language
Learning a new language not only gives you a new vehicle with which to express yourself, it also beefs up your memorization muscles as you take on a new vocabulary, sentence structure, and conjugation rules. If you already know a second language, or have previously studied one in the past, you can take it up again. The process of relearning a language also activates dormant parts of the brain, which has been shown to help in unrelated areas.
Sharpen Brain Function
15. Feed Your Brain
The food you eat has a direct effect on your brain, which is why it’s essential to eat foods that contain the proper antioxidants for brain health. Many of the foods on our extensive list of superfoods contribute to a healthy brain, so this is a good place to start. The reason they’re so important is that they help the body defend against free radical damage, which can have a big impact on degenerative disorders that specifically target the brain. Battling back is an important step for overall neurological health.
16. Train Your Brain
Keeping your mind active is now easier than ever, because there are several sites that provide brain training games designed to improve your sharpness, memory, and agility. Rather than simple crossword puzzles, these games have been developed specifically to improve certain brain functions, and they even provide scores and graphs that record your progress. The whole point of these games is to make it more fun to expand your mental capabilities, instead of making it dull and boring through rote memorization. You might find that you’re able to expand your peripheral vision and calculate larger figures in your head than you did before.
17. Take on a Challenge
Playing it safe and keeping your brain in its comfort zone can allow it to get lazy and you’ll lose some of that mental edge you once had. Sometimes you have to give your brain some tough love and challenge it with a new project or venture, something that stimulates it and gets it ready for another day. This can be in the form of a new profession, or a new hobby, just follow your passion and don’t be afraid if it’s in a totally new area for you.
18. Read More
In our Information Age we’re inundated with all sorts of tidbits of information flying at us, and it might seem like we’re reading more than we once did. But reading news blogs and emails is not the same as getting immersed in novel, and reading helps to give the brain something new to chew on. New ideas, new concepts, a mystery to solve, or even trying to remember character names and subplots all help keep your brain at its best. Not only is it important to feed the brain good nutrients, but you don’t want it to rehash the same thoughts over and over again, so it’s important to give it new information regularly, preferably daily.
19. Stay Positive
It’s important to try to keep a positive outlook in order to keep your brain healthy. In fact the two go hand in hand. When you are more positive, your brain releases different chemicals that allow you to feel even better. When you have a negative outlook your brain doesn’t release these endorphins and you’re less likely to feel better going forward. It’s better to get a positive spiral going so you can lift yourself upwards rather than run yourself into the ground mentally.
20. Stay Out of Ruts
If you’re a creature of habit you may be allowing your brain to atrophy. It’s made up of neural pathways, and if you don’t keep them open they’ll get weak from nonuse. That’s why it’s good to keep things interesting, shake things up, and do things that are out of the ordinary once in awhile. Take a vacation in a new location, take a different route home from work, surprise your partner with flowers, anything that is usual or gets you out of your routine is delicious for the brain.
21. Use Music
Music is almost magical the way it can alter your mood, either making you sad when you otherwise weren’t, or getting your revved up if you were calm and relaxed just moments ago. There are even certain types of music that can aid in concentration and focus, and you can use these to your advantage to help keep your brain growing and learning. Try listening to Baroque music while studying and see if you notice a difference. There are also playlists on YouTube specifically for studying and concentration. Each person has their own music tastes and responds differently to different types of music so it’s a matter of finding out what works best for you.
22. Go Lefty (or Righty)
You don’t have to become ambidextrous, but challenging the brain by switching to your non-dominant hand can help it to grow. You may feel silly at first, and your writing might look like chicken scratch, but over time you might find that you become quite adept at using your other hand, and in the meantime your brain as overcome a challenge and learned something new. Start by trying to write the alphabet and see how you fare. Then practice each of the letters until they start to look pretty good. If you’re into sports, trying throwing a ball with your opposite hand, or switch hitting if you’re into baseball.
23. Drink Water
Staying properly hydrated is key to having a brain that is firing on all cylinders. Contrarily, if you find yourself in a dehydrated state you can quickly find yourself losing focus, and asea in a sort of brain fog that makes it hard to concentrate on anything. You don’t want to overcompensate here, and if you’re not used to drinking water you’ll want to ease your way into it. You can’t make up for months or years of not drinking enough water by drinking gallons of it in one day.
The main thing to keep in mind when trying to improve the condition of your brain is to just take it slowly. Everyone has their own potential to live up to so don’t try to compare yourself to others, and try to unlock your own hidden talents and latent abilities. With continued practice and a bit of determination you can start to see the fruits of your labor. But it’s not going to come in a quantum leap where you’re suddenly solving physics equations a la Good Will Hunting. Look for small signs of encouragement and then build on that.
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