There are a billion articles out there on improving your memory. Or more accurately, about 31 million, according to Google. Most of them regurgitate the same overused information—do puzzles, use mnemonic tricks, take fish oil, yada yada yada. This isn’t one of those. When you boil all the information out there down, the takeaway is that your brain is much like your muscles and bones. If you want to keep it strong, you need to use it, as much and as often as possible, and sometimes in creative ways.
Taking fish oils and doing puzzles is good advice—that’s why there are so many articles about it. But we’ve learned a lot about the brain in the past few years, and discovered that there are plenty of other things that work even better.
"Multi-tasking" is hurting your memory
One of the key things you can do to improve your memory and mental focus is to do just that… actually focus! You may feel like you’re able to have a conversation, do chores, and answer your email all at the same time. While you probably think you get more done that way, the research overwhelmingly shows that many times we get less done when we multi-task.
Not only that, but we have a harder time remembering what we did.
When you do multiple things at once, you can’t give any of them your full attention, which is what you need to do in order to build and maintain your memory. It takes about eight seconds for something to be fully committed to memory, and it’s a sure bet that when you’re doing three, or five, or more things at the same time, none of them is getting that eight seconds. So focus—really focus—on the thing at hand. If you’re having a conversation, give the person your full attention. If you’re answering your email, don’t do it while you’re cooking dinner. You'll find it's much easier to remember things.
Let your fingers do the walking
Use all your senses to reinforce things. When you’re learning something new, get your hands dirty. Seeing, saying, hearing, and touching while you’re learning new things (or meeting new people) helps cement them in memory. When you learn a new piece of information, say it out loud, and if possible, touch it too. For instance, when you’re introduced to a new person, say their name aloud and shake their hand or touch them on the arm.
If you’re learning something from a book, say the information aloud and touch the illustration or the text in question. (This is one of the reasons we highlight our textbooks when we’re taking notes.) If you’re unable to touch the object of what you’re learning, touch your own temple or chin. Later on, touching that same area can help you recall the information. We are a multisensory creatures, and the more senses you can involve, the more parts of your brain you engage.
Don’t just think outside the box, climb out of it and do something new
If you don’t use your muscles, they waste away. The same is true for your brain. If you want to keep it in tip-top shape you have to exercise it on a daily basis. One of the best ways to do this is to keep actively learning new things. Trying something outside of your comfort zone works even better at flexing your brain. If you’re a computer geek, try a dance class. If you love to cook, take a woodworking course. The key is to challenge yourself, and make yourself really think. If you’re already learning something new, teaching someone else how to do it is also a great way to reinforce what you’ve learned.
Get up on the wrong side of the bed
Habit is the enemy of your brain. We all have routines—how many times have you thought to yourself, “I could do this in my sleep?” Habit and routine don’t challenge your brain, so make an effort to do things differently every so often. Get out of bed on the other side (I promise, it won’t make you have a bad day!) Get dressed with your eyes closed. Do something your brain doesn't expect. Little things can make a difference: take a different route to work. Have dinner at a different time. Even small changes make your brain work harder, and working harder builds brain power.
And the winner for the most effective brain-building exercise is…
Some people say that it will rot your brain. Although many people enjoy it, many others see it as a useless waste of time. Research shows that it improves a whole range of skills and even causes parts of the brain to grow bigger and more robust. So, what is it?
That’s right. Playing videogames is like a high intensity workout for your brain, improving not just memory but logic, concentration, problem-solving, and more. In fact, a study from the University of Iowa in 2013 showed that playing video games for just two hours per week slowed the rate of “mental decay” in people 50 and over.
While we’ve seen a lot of hand-wringing about how violent video games cause violence in the real world (newsflash: research says quite the opposite is true!) the fact is that videogames are one of the best ways to keep your brain in shape. And the very games most demonized—first-person shooters like “Call of Duty” and “Halo” - seem to have the most profound effect. But don’t worry if shoot-em-ups are not your style, even simple puzzle games like Tetris are beneficial. And if you have a Wii console, you get the added benefit of some physical activity with your gaming.
So to get the most out of your brain! Get up on the wrong side of the bed, take a class, then fire up the game console and blast some zombies. Oh, and don't forget to take your fish oil.