Human beings rely on memory for many things. Without the ability to remember, we wouldn’t be able to learn our multiplication tables as children, or recite poetry, or pass even the easiest history quiz. But our memories are not just for learning – they are also responsible for the way we move through life. Our memories help us to keep track of important events and people. The fact that we rely on memory so much is what makes diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease so heartbreaking.
We tend to think of memory as an ephemeral thing, but actually it is the result of a complex biochemical process in the body. Let’s take a look at how it works.
How Human Memory Works
Information enters our brains from various sources via sensory perception. Examples of information streams might include numbers written on a chalkboard at the front of a classroom, the melody of a song heard on the radio, or the feel of a dog’s fur beneath our hands.
When sensory information enters our brains, it can be stored in either short-term memory or long-term memory. Short-term memory tends to be limited – it can hold only a few pieces of information for a short period of time. One example might be a telephone number that someone tells you – you can repeat it for a few minutes while you search for a pencil and paper to write it down.
Long term memory is more complex. It is broken down into three basic parts:
- First, our brains break new information into its composite parts. This process helps us imbue data with meaning. For example, the experience of eating a cherry might include segmented information such as: red, juicy, tart, sweet, or delicious. That same memory might also include information about the weather (sunny, warm) or who we were with (Mom, friends.) Each bit of information is encoded for easier storage.
- Next, our brains group the memories with other similar memories. For example, cherries have pits, so they might be grouped with other stone fruits such as peaches and plums; or with other red fruits like apples. The place we ate them would also be stored, perhaps with similar events such as picnics, or days at the farmers’ market.
- Finally, when we need it we are able to retrieve the concept by triggering one of the pointers (red, juicy, tart, etc.) to lead us through the neural pathway to where the particular memory we need is stored.
Like every other function in our bodies, our brains need particular nutrients in order to carry out the various functions involved in maintaining memories. There are other things we can do as well, to keep our memories healthy and strong. When we test our brains, we force them to work at a more intense level. Let’s take a look at some things you can do to improve your memory.
Ways to Improve Your Memory
So what are the things you can do to improve your memory? Here are the top ten ways you can boost your ability to remember.
Reduce your consumption of inflammatory foods. Some of the most common causes of inflammation in the brain are refined sugars and processed foods. If you cut back on the amount of sugar you eat, you can see a big improvement in your brain function. Remember, sugars are often hidden in packaged foods. Any ingredient ending with –ose (sucrose, lactose, fructose, dextrose, maltose) is a sugar. It’s also important to cut your consumption of trans fats such as margarine and vegetable shortening.
Increase your consumption of antioxidants. Antioxidants help to protect the body against oxidative damage caused by free radicals. Vitamins A, C and E are all antioxidants. Eating citrus fruits and dark leafy greens will get you a healthy dose of antioxidants.
Eat healthy fats and eliminate unhealthy fats. We already talked about trans fats, but it’s also important to cut back on how much saturated fat you eat. Saturated fat is the fat found in animal proteins. Healthy fats include monounsaturated fats like the fat found in olives, avocados, nuts, nut butters, coconuts and ghee.
Get enough Omega-3 in your diet. Omega-3 plays an important role in brain function – it’s why some people refer to fish as “brain food.” Good sources of Omega-3 include cold water fish such as salmon, mackerel and tuna. Plant sources include flaxseed oil, chia seeds, walnuts, broccoli, and pumpkin seeds.
Eat foods rich in resveratrol. Resveratrol is a flavonoid found in things like grape juice, red wine, cranberry juice, peanuts, fresh grapes, and berries.
Get some physical exercise. Physical activity improves circulation and prompts the brain to produce mood-boosting chemicals such as endorphins and serotonin. A happy brain is a healthy brain.
Make sure to get enough sleep. Nearly everyone has had the experience of not getting enough sleep and walking around feeling fuzzy the next day. It can be incredibly difficult to recall important information when you are sleep deprived. Try to get at least eight hours a night.
Give meditation a try. The ancient practice of meditation can do wonders for the brain. When you make meditation part of your daily routine, you are actually training your brain to form new neural pathways. People who meditate have a larger pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that regulates equanimity and happiness. Meditating can improve deductive reasoning, and it can reduce anxiety and depression – both of which can interfere with healthy memory function.
Learn something new. As we age, we tend to get a bit set in our ways. It’s easy to fall into patterns where we don’t learn anything new – but learning is one of the best ways to keep your brain functioning well. Learning something new could mean studying a second language, learning to play an instrument or teaching yourself how to crochet or knit.
Cultivate an active social life. Meaningful interactions with other people help to keep our brains strong and healthy. Some studies have shown that people with good social lives are less likely to develop dementia. Not only that, but spending time with people you care about is fun, and laughter is great for the brain. The experience of laughing triggers a wider response in the brain than other emotional responses – and everyone loves to have a good laugh.
The most important thing when thinking about improving your memory is not to take it for granted. Memory can be trained, the same way you can train your body to ride a bicycle or figure skate. In order to keep your memory working the way you want it to, you need to give your brain the proper fuel – and the proper environment – to help it thrive.