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I used to make fun of my parents and their friends when they would try (and struggle) to recall the name of an actor in a particular movie. The classic phrase was “You know, he’s that guy in that movie with the woman from the thing John Candy was in.” (For some reason, John Candy was never forgotten).
Now, I find myself doing this again and again; actors names slipping, forgetting where I put things, memories of family vacations becoming blurred at the edges. This made me wonder, as I get older, is something going wrong with my memory? Should I be worried? If you’ve noticed this happening to you more frequently, then these next 10 minutes are something you won’t want to miss.
As it turns out, we are probably not all losing our marbles, and with a few minor course corrections we can actually work to strengthen our memory overall.
Common memory failures are totally normal. Our brains are not built to remember everything we experience. If they were, we’d simply have too much information to handle. But these everyday slips, say, the reasons you may not be able to recall where you parked your car, somebody’s name, or why you walked into your kitchen, have less to do with your memory slipping and more to do with factors that, in many cases, can be inside of our control.
Neuroscientist and bestselling author Lisa Genova explores the complexities of the human brain and memory in her books. In her 2021 book, Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting, she dives deep into how memories are made, how we retrieve them, and the factors that contribute to making and keeping memories. 1
So, what can we do to start building a stronger mind and holding onto the memories we cherish—and the ones we want to make? In this great interview with Big Think, Lisa outlines 9 ways we can start building a stronger memory and mind:
For more thought provoking videos from personal development to cutting edge science, go check out Big Think’s YouTube channel. There you’ll find an amazing collection of videos from some of the world’s most profound thought leaders to dive into.
Need a reminder?
Here are the 9 key practices Lisa suggests we follow to build a stronger mind:
1. Pay Attention
Your brain won’t remember what you don’t pay attention to. You’ve probably felt this phenomenon when you jump out of the car and can’t recall if you locked it or when you’ve absent mindedly set down your keys somewhere out of the ordinary. If we’re distracted, we won’t be able to recall things we weren’t giving our attention to.
During the week between starting this article and finishing it, this has been the MOST IMPORTANT factor in improving my memory. I was constantly losing my phone or my water bottle because I was doing things so distractedly. When I made a conscious effort to say to myself, “you’re putting your phone on the corner of the kitchen island,” I was able to spend a lot less time running around checking the couch cushions for my phone.
Another great tip for this is to have a designated “drop zone” for like-things. This makes it a lot easier to consciously put things down and return to them later. My drop zone for my sunglasses, tote, wallet, and keys—the essentials for leaving the house—keeps me from having to waste time gathering them every day or forgetting any one of them when I’m rushing out the door.
2. Combat Stress
As Lisa mentions, stress is meant to be an on and off phenomenon. Our brains were not designed to be in a constant state of chronic stress. Chronic stress has been found to detrimentally impact memory function. Additionally, research is finding that chronic stress during key points in our life can have consequences on our cognitive function as we age. 3
Chronic stress keeps our brains from being able to shut off, which shrinks our hippocampus—the part of the brain that holds on to memories.
If you find yourself to be a chronically stressed person—as many of us would say we are—we can combat stress and restore our hippocampuses with some easy practices. Yoga, meditation, mindfulness and exercise can help relieve stress and restore cognitive function. An easy 9-second meditation like closing your eyes, breathing in through your nose for a count of four, a one second breath hold, followed by a four second breath release can be an easy stress-counter you can implement any time.
3. Get Enough Sleep
According to the CDC, 1 in 3 adults in the United States report not getting enough rest or sleep every day, and an estimated 50 to 70 million Americans experience chronic or ongoing sleep disorders. 4
In addition, sleep may be a key time for the brain to remove waste from the brain that seems to increase risks of cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. 6
There are many ways that we can improve our sleep habits, but one widely suggested habit to pick up is maintaining consistent sleep and wake times. This helps the body maintain a schedule and it helps you set some pre-bedtime habits to help you wind down, which can include limiting phone use, light exposure, or consuming large meals or caffeine. 7
As a bonus, exercise has been found to help you fall and stay asleep—not to mention combat stress (see #2).
4. Drink Caffeine
Yes, 3 and 4 on this list can be contradictory if you’re ingesting caffeine all day long. Caffeine, though, has been found to increase your attention and as we know, attention boosts memory. So, a reasonable amount of caffeine consumed during the day is a good way to help with your memory. Just remember to cut off your caffeine use at least 8 hours before going to bed to avoid your caffeine intake having an impact on your sleep. 8
5. Create Associations
As somebody with a difficult to remember and pronounce name, I am far too guilty of being a name forgetter. It feels like as soon as I learn somebody’s name, it’s already flown out of my brain. A great way to fix this problem is to create associations. When I say my name, I immediately say “Liesl, like the Sound of Music” or “Liesl, pronounced like diesel.” These associations help other people hold on to my name because they connect the abstract idea of my name to a visual cue that is more concrete, tangible, and imaginable in their mind—though whether or not I want myself to be remembered in association with a diesel engine is up for debate.
So, the next time you’re presented with a name you want to commit to memory—street, person, or otherwise—try attaching that name to a visual cue that you can remember to help jog your memory.
Another tip—though not directly related to this particular example—is to associate things you want to remember with things you can’t forget. Say I need to bring something to the post office. ut your keys on top of the item. Associating something you can’t forget (your keys) with something you have to do (take that package to the post office), makes it easier to remember to check off an errand that you might otherwise forget. (On that same note, I constantly forget to do things like give my dog her tick medication, but by attaching that monthly task to something like the day I pay my credit card bill—a task I’m not as likely to forget—I’m able to remember to give my dog her meds even if I miss that notification on my calendar.)
Heading out on a trip you don’t want to forget? Want to remember a special day? Strengthen the neural connections that help you retrieve memories. Journaling is a great way for you to help you consolidate memories from the day and make them easier to recall later.
Another way to get some memory repetition in is to take time to revisit old pictures. As somebody who is in a better habit of snapping a picture than sitting down to journal, taking time to review photos even from a recent trip and think about the sights, smells, sounds, and feelings associated with them helps me to repeatedly bring memories back to keep strengthening those neural pathways.
7. Write it Down
As much as we wish we could remember every important thought—the grocery list, the appointments, the deadlines—our brains are not great at remembering these kinds of things. And there is nothing wrong with just writing them down. Keep a calendar, a checklist, a to-do list, or keep a reminder system that’s right for you.
Keeping a checklist is one of my favorite ways to outsource my thinking and avoid forgetting things. Heck, if checklists are used to keep life running on the International Space Station, they can certainly help me at home. A checklist and/or shared calendar is also great for helping you share the mental load with a partner, roomate, or your kids. Establishing a checklist of tasks that need to be done—and the steps to accomplish those tasks—can be a great way to take the to-do’s that are in your brain and delegate them to others.
8. Test Yourself
We often think of memory as a one-way street. We read or absorb information and then hope that it sticks. To help strengthen your memory, recall or repeat the information you want to remember. That way, you can process the information in two directions. You’ve probably heard that a great way to learn is to teach others. This tip sits next to that little adage. If I want to learn to make my famous chocolate chip cookies from memory, it helps to test myself every time I make them—trying my best to recall the ingredients and amounts before consulting the recipe I’ve written down to verify them. This is a great tip for students as well. Don’t just write down what you want to study, try making flashcards and making yourself recall, say out loud, or write down the answers to help strengthen your memory.
9. Just Google It
No, just Googling it won’t make you dumber. Getting stuck in the wrong mental cul-de-sac trying to recall a name or fact may actually make it harder to retrieve the memory you are looking for. So, don’t be afraid to give things a Google. Save that recalling time and put it towards some extra sleep, exercise, journaling, or any of the other things on this list!
It’s Okay to Forget!
Your memory is actually pretty amazing. It is limitless in what it is capable of remembering if we work with it and not beat ourselves up about forgetting. Just adding a few—heck even one—of these 9 tips to your daily habits or ways of thinking can do wonders for helping you boost your memory!
You’d be surprised how much less cluttered your brain feels with a simple act of taking one second to be mindful of where you put down your phone, or releasing the memory of your upcoming dentist appointment to your calendar and a phone reminder. That time you save and stress you let go of helps you build more (and probably better) memories with the people you love.
If you’ve got somebody forgetful in your life, or a friend, partner, or loved one you’d like to embark on making some healthier mental habits with, share this article with them. Your life is worth remembering and your brain is worth celebrating with the people you love!
Stay beautiful & keep laughing!
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- “Book Inner | Lisa-Genova-Author.” Lisa-Genova-Author, 2015, www.lisagenova.com/book-inner. Accessed 17 Aug. 2023. ↩
- Big Think. “9 Tactics to Build a Stronger Mind | Lisa Genova.” YouTube, YouTube Video, 23 Nov. 2022, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fcx3WEhodBw. Accessed 17 Aug. 2023. ↩
- Sandi, Carmen. “Memory Impairments Associated with Stress and Aging.” Nih.gov, CRC Press/Taylor & Francis, 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK3914/. Accessed 17 Aug. 2023. ↩
- “What Are Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency?” NHLBI, NIH, 24 Mar. 2022, www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/sleep-deprivation. Accessed 17 Aug. 2023. ↩
- Sleep On It. “Sleep on It.” NIH News in Health, 31 May 2017, newsinhealth.nih.gov/2013/04/sleep-it. Accessed 17 Aug. 2023. ↩
- “Sleep’s Crucial Role in Preserving Memory.” Yale School of Medicine, Yale School of Medicine, 10 May 2022, medicine.yale.edu/news-article/sleeps-crucial-role-in-preserving-memory/. Accessed 17 Aug. 2023. ↩
- CDC. “Tips for Better Sleep.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13 Sept. 2022, www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/sleep_hygiene.html. Accessed 17 Aug. 2023. ↩
- “When to Stop Drinking Alcohol, Water or Caffeine before Bed for Better Sleep | Psychiatry | Michigan Medicine.” Psychiatry, 16 Dec. 2020, medicine.umich.edu/dept/psychiatry/news/archive/202012/when-stop-drinking-alcohol-water-or-caffeine-bed-better-sleep. Accessed 17 Aug. 2023. ↩