What is human memory?
Simply stated, memory is the mental processes that are used to acquire, store, retain and later retrieve information. The information can be obtained from our 5 senses before they are processed by the brain. There are three major processes involved in memory, namely Processing, Storage and Retrieval.
New information or experiences make their way to the brain through the 5 senses where they are processed by the neurons in the brain. The key to having your brain successfully processing the information into your memory is paying careful attention to the information or experience. For example, if you are being introduced to a new colleague but your mind is on the Chinese cuisine you are going to have for lunch, chances are, you will not remember you new colleague’s name.
If you’ve paid enough attention to the new information, your hippocampus, or that part of your brain vital in the information processing, will send a signal to save the information into the long-term memory. This process can be enhanced if you use some memory techniques that will be discussed later, to help you store the information.
When the time comes to retrieve the information, your brain will stimulate the same pattern of nerve cells that was used to store it. The more you recall and use that information, the better you get at recalling it as the same pathways are strengthened.
How is long term memory compared to short term memory?
Short-term memory, also known as working memory, is the information we are aware of or thinking about, at the present moment. For example, when you look up the phone number of a store you need to call to check on the availability of an item. The store’s phone number is held in short term memory. Short term memory is fragile and usually parts or all of it can be forgotten in a short period of time. Because most times, the information, like the telephone number, is only needed for that moment. Unless of course, you need to call up the store a few times a day every day for a week, then it will be lodged in your brain for a much longer period of time.
Long-term memory refers to the continuing storage of information. It involves the effort (conscious or unconscious) you make around a piece of information in order to retain it for a longer period of time, because it’s personally important or meaningful to you (for example, your wife’s birthday); you need it (such as job procedures or material you’re studying for an exam); or it made an emotional impact (a place you had an accident, the restaurant where you were proposed for marriage or the first time you drove a car). As long-term memory is subject to being faded out or parts or the whole of the event being forgotten, several recalls/retrievals of memory may be needed for long-term memories to last for years, it is dependent also on the depth of processing. Individual retrievals can take place in increasing intervals in accordance with the principle of carefully spaced repetition.
Here then are 10 ways to improve your long term memory or memory in general.
1. Physical Exercise
Over the years, as more studies are conducted on the human brain, it has become more apparent to scientists that the connections between the body and mind are stronger than were previously imagined. Not only is physical exercise important for keeping the body healthy, but it has also become apparent that it may reduce the chances of a person developing dementia or other memory disorders. There are a number of reasons why this occurs.
Physical exercise has an effect on the cardiovascular system that is well documented. It seems that there is a connection between the health of the brain and the health of the heart.
It has been discovered that physical exercise is also responsible for the regulation of the blood sugar levels. Experts believe that the amount of glucose tolerance in the body has an effect on the size of the hippocampus. In addition to this, exercise will increase the amount of blood flow to the brain, and this blood is rich in oxygen. Increasing the amount of oxygen and blood to the brain will allow it to function correctly, and this will have an effect on the memory. While physical exercise is important for both men and women, research have shown that it is more important for aging women than men.
2. Mental Exercise
Performing a mental exercise twice a day could help delay the rapid memory loss associated with dementia for more than a year,” The Daily Telegraph reported. It said that a study of nearly 500 people aged 75 to 85 years looked at how often they did crosswords or puzzles, read, wrote or played card games. Of those who developed dementia, people who did 11 mental exercises a week developed memory problems about a year and four months later on average than those who did four exercises a week. It is small wonder that in the Chinese are fond of playing mahjong to keep their mind sharp. In western countries, playing bridge or poker also helps.
3. Get Quality Sleep
Scientists have debated over the years on the role of sleep and memory. One entertaining theory suggests that we needed sleep, when we were cavemen, to keep us wandering out of our caves and being eaten by sabertooth tigers.
One of the things we do know is that young birds and mammals need as much as three times the amount of sleep as adult birds and mammals. It has been suspected that neuronal connections are remodeled during sleep, and this has recently been supported in a study using cats (Cats who were allowed to sleep for six hours after their vision was blocked in one eye for six hours, developed twice as many new or modified brain connections as those cats who were kept awake in a dark room for the six hours after the period of visual deprivation). In humans, sleep is necessary for memory consolidation. Sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea leave you tired and unable to concentrate during the day.
4. Manage Your Stress
Have you ever forgotten something during a stressful situation that you should have remembered? Chronic over-secretion of the stress hormone, Cortisol, adversely affects brain function, especially memory. Cortisol also interferes with the function of neurotransmitters, the chemicals that brain cells use to communicate with each other.
Excessive cortisol can make it difficult to think or retrieve long-term memories. That’s why people get befuddled and confused in a severe crisis. Their mind goes blank because “the lines are down.” They can’t remember where the fire exit is, for example.
Stress hormones divert blood glucose to exercising muscles, therefore the amount of glucose – hence energy – that reaches the brain’s hippocampus is diminished. This creates an energy crisis in the hippocampus which compromises its ability to create new memories. That may be why some people can’t remember a very traumatic event, and why short-term memory is usually the first casualty of age-related memory loss resulting from a lifetime of stress
You probably know already that a diet based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and “healthy” fats will provide lots of health benefits, but such a diet can also improve memory. Studies have shown that certain nutrients nurture and stimulate brain function. For instance,
Vitamin A combats toxins that damage brain cells.
Vitamin B1 is needed to produce the brain chemical acetylcholine, crucial for concentration levels and memory.
Vitamin B3 is essential for brain health.
Vitamin B6 improves nerve communication.
Vitamin B12 is needed to create the myelin sheath that protects nerves and speeds up the rate of electrical transmission.
Pantothenic acid is essential for the production of the brain chemical acetylcholine.
Folic acid seems to help guard against the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
(Best sources: spinach and other dark leafy greens, broccoli, asparagus, strawberries, melons, black beans and other legumes, citrus fruits, soybeans.)
Choline is needed to produce acetylcholine.
Vitamin C neutralizes harmful free radicals that may damage brain cells.
Vitamin E boosts brain function.
Best sources: blueberries and other berries, sweet potatoes, red tomatoes, spinach, broccoli, green tea, nuts and seeds, citrus fruits, liver.)
Omega3 fatty acids are concentrated in the brain and are associated with cognitive function. They count as “healthy” fats, as opposed to saturated fats and trans fats, protecting against inflammation and high cholesterol. (Best sources: cold-water fish such as salmon, herring, tuna, halibut, and mackerel; walnuts and walnut oil; flaxseed and flaxseed oil). Because older adults are more prone to B12 and folic acid deficiencies, a supplement may be a good idea for seniors. An omega-3 supplement (at any age) if you don’t like eating fish. But nutrients work best when they’re consumed in foods, so try your best to eat a broad spectrum of colorful plant foods and choose fats that will help clear, not clog, your arteries.
6. Focus, Concentrate, Pay attention
If memory was a car, attention would be its fuel: New information is not stored into memory if not attended to, and distraction often leads to misremembering past events.
You can’t remember something if you never learned it, and you can’t learn something that is not processed by your brain, if you’ve not paid attention. It takes about eight seconds of intent focus to process a piece of information through your hippocampus and into the appropriate memory center. So, if you need to concentrate, do not do multiple jobs at the same time. If you distract easily, try to receive information in a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted.
7. Involve your senses
If you’re a visual learner, even when you are reading, you are seeing the information. For non-written material or physical items, really try to concentrate. Look carefully and slowly at the shape, color, texture of the object, the material its made of. Read out loud what you want to remember. If you can recite it rhythmically, better still. Try to relate information to colors, textures, smells and tastes. The physical act of rewriting information can help imprint it onto your brain. If it’s a procedure or action you need to remember, do it. Do it several times. The act of “doing” is a separate mental pathway that you create. Just reading about something (or just hearing someone else explain how to do it) is not good enough.
8. Memory Strategies
Mnemonics are linkages of any kind that help us remember something, usually by causing us to associate the information we want to remember with a visual image, a sentence, or a word.
Common types of mnemonic devices are:
- Visual images – For example, thorns for remembering the name “Tony”, brine (salt solution) for “Brian”. Use images that are ludicrous or out of the ordinary to make your memory stand out, they’ll be easier to remember.
- Sentences in which the first letter of each word is part of or represents the initial of what you want to remember. Musicians, for example, first memorized the lines of the treble staff with the sentence “Every good boy does fine” (or “deserves favor”), representing the notes E, G, B, D, and F. Medical students often learn groups of nerves, bones, and other anatomical features using nonsense sentences.
- Acronyms, which are initials that creates pronounceable words. For example, the colors of the rainbow are VIBGYOR for Violet, Indigo, Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange and Red.
- Rhymes and alliteration: remember learning “30 days hath September, April, June, and November”? A hefty guy named Benedict can be remembered as “Big Ben” and an obnoxious co-worker as “Pushy Paula” (though it might be best to keep such names to yourself).
- Jokes or even off-color associations using facts, figures, and names you need to recall, because funny or peculiar things are easier to remember than mundane images.
- “Chunking” information; that is, arranging a long list in smaller units or categories that are easier to remember. It’s easier to memorize your credit card number if you can arrange the numbers in groups of 3 or 4 instead of a line of 16 numbers.
- “Loci Method”: This is an ancient method used by the Romans and effective way of remembering a lot of material, such as a speech. You associate each part of what you have to remember with a landmark in a route you know well, such as your way to work or stations along the subway or even the layout of your house.
9. Keeping What You Learnt Locked In
It is not uncommon to forget a large part of what you studied for a test. If review is organized properly, recall rates can be kept high shortly after learning has been completed. To accomplish this, a program interval of review must take place, each review being done at the time just before recall is about to drop. For example, the first review should take place about 10 minutes after a one-hour learning period and should itself take 5 minutes. This will keep the recall high for about one day, when the next review should take place, this time for a period of 2 to 4 minutes. After this, recall will probably be retained for about a week, when another 2 minutes review can be completed followed by a further review after about one month. After this time, the knowledge will be lodged in the Long Term memory. This means it will be familiar in the way a personal telephone number is familiar, needing only the occasional nudge to maintain it.
10. Practice, practice and practice.
It is important to put all the pieces together above and keep doing them until it becomes a habit. Get started on a physical exercise program, learn a hobby or skill that will keep your memory sharp, like the game of bridge. Make it a habit to focus your attention on something or someone, put the mnemonic methods to use although they may seem childish at first. And last but not least, if you are really committed to storing some information into Long Term memory, remember to use the review frequency and stick to it because it REALLY WORKS.