Last updated on November 28th, 2023.
Do memory lapses affect your quality of life? Do you forget people’s names three minutes after meeting them? Are you that person who never remembers the dates of loved ones’ birthdays, let alone what month they’re in? Have you performed poorly on tests or missed important meetings because you forgot simple, yet crucial, details? If so, you’re not alone, and there’s good news: WIth work, you can improve your memory.
What is Memory?
Memory is more than remembering names, dates, and meetings. It is the quintessential core of being. Without memory, you wouldn’t learn. You wouldn’t be able to function. Even common tasks, like going to the bathroom, cooking a meal, or moving throughout your home would be difficult without a working memory. There would be no conversations, no meaningful purpose, and no love. Memory is the everyday way we experience and use those experiences to survive and enjoy our lives.
Memory is vital to our existence, but it is also important for optimal employment and keeping our loved ones happy. The condition of your memory can influence academic success, job performance, and the ability to maintain your possessions (unless you currently don’t know where you placed them). Cognitively, you are born with the memory you get, but that doesn’t mean you have to settle for constantly misplacing your sunglasses or making errors in your work. With careful attention, you can create a plan to prevent further memory loss, and enhance the power of your memory now and for the future.
How Does Memory Work?
The human memory system is so complex that scientists are unable to understand all the nuances of this function. However, they have defined some basic principles that explain the general memory process. The basics of memory work just like a computer: Information enters the system; the system processes and encodes the information; the information is stored; and then the system retrieves the information for use.
First, it is important to understand that your memory is not a filing cabinet. You do not store information in a particular region of the brain, like a folder on a computer, only to be retrieved when needed. Also, memories are not just glimpses of past events; they are the very building blocks that make us who we are. Memories are real-time and instant information retrieval. They influence our reactions and experiences throughout life.
What Parts of the Brain Control Memory?
The brain’s main function is to perceive information to understand its environment. It does this through creating memories. Nearly all parts of the brain work together to form memories, which is really an accumulation of knowledge. When the brain experiences an event through sensations (sound, sight, taste, touch, smell, etc.), neurons, which are the brain’s nerve cells, communicate with each other. Communication occurs through synaptic connections: the gaps between neurons. These connections fire in tandem with others, creating a pathway. The more often they fire together, the stronger the connection gets, making that pathway well worn. That’s why you get better at a task when you consistently practice it and why it’s easier to remember experiences that have become routine, like tying your shoes.
Activities as mundane as learning to eat and speak are made possible through such routine memories. For instance, babies perceive the sounds and actions of others, and then they assimilate these aspects of communication into their brains. This sensory input is registered by the brain in the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex assesses the situation. From this point, the brain makes a judgment—is this really worth remembering? Most likely it is, and the information becomes a part of the brain’s knowledge.
So in essence:
- Sensory organs (ears, eyes, skin, tongue, and nose) perceive stimuli
- Neurons communicate with each other to make sense of the stimuli
- The hippocampus works to consolidate and store short-term and long-term memories
- Prefrontal cortex executive function determines how we interpret the information (higher-level judgments)
What is Short Term Memory and Long Term Memory?
Once the brain perceives an action, the information becomes a part of its short-term memory. Imagine this aspect of your brain as a place setting at a table. You have a plate, fork, knife, spoon, glass, napkin, and then things get complicated with a butter knife, soup spoon, salad fork, etc. Too many societal rules may make you feel like a fool at a fancy dinner, just like too many situations may overwhelm your short-term memory. The short-term memory can typically handle only about seven items at one time, and usually for only about 30 seconds each. Once it decides that particular input is important, it stores it in long-term memory.
Think about phone numbers for a minute. They are seven digits for a reason; this is the optimal length for short-term human memory. You need to remember the number to dial it, so it is also conveniently dissected into different portions. However, once you dial that number a few times, and then maybe many times if you like the person, it is committed to memory. Do you still remember your phone number from childhood or that of your best friend? (You do if you remember a time before cell phones).
Why is Memory Important?
As stated earlier, it is impossible for humans to navigate the world and perform simple functions without memory utilization. But we want to do more than simply find our way through a labyrinth of routine tasks: We want to excel. Memory usage enables us to become experts, to hone our skills and rely upon our own knowledge base, and it allows us to deepen meaningful connections. For example, memory of dreams can lead to lucid dreaming and understanding the subconscious. We can gain great insight through this practice. An excellent memory can improve learning processes. Information builds upon itself, and the more you can remember, the greater your ability to learn.
How Does Memory Affect Learning?
To understand how memory affects learning, it is important to understand the role of working memory. Working memory is a part of short-term memory function. Working memory is currently what is on “your plate”. It is where information is temporarily processed and is essential for decision-making. The value of working memory is as follows:
- It is a holding place for information to determine memory allocation.
- It strengthens attention, concentration, and the ability to follow instructions.
- It is vital to reading and math skills.
Working memory uses auditory and visual information to create a process for assimilation. It’s like watching and listening to a movie. However, if the information in the movie isn’t immediately processed (when the brain “plays back” the information), then it cannot be understood and synthesized for later recall. Distractions and lack of practice with working memory can lead to memory issues.
It is important to note that although the typical memory network is incredible, it has limited bandwidth. Just as if a computer has browser tabs open and running, our brains function better when we have fewer tabs open. Focusing on one task at a time, repeating processes (practice makes progress!), and performing without memory aids (technology especially) can boost working memory. If working memory is not strong, it can lead to a variety of learning difficulties.
How Does Memory Change Over Time?
Memory is a paradox. While it is important to practice tasks for optimal memory retention, it is also important not to live in our memories or analyze them to the point of distortion. According to research from Northwestern Medicine, our memory is somewhat like the game Telephone: The more often we recall a specific memory, the higher the chances are that our brains will distort the event.
This concept is slightly different from the emphasis of strengthening working memory for knowledge acquisition. However, it’s critical to realize that when you repeatedly retrieve a memory of an event, you will remember as you did the most recent time recalled. The brain will create new neural networks, which can override the memories of the originating incident. This is the reason why memory can be unreliable. Mood, environment, and even time of day can affect memory retrieval and reliability.
How Does Memory Loss Work?
Memory is fluid, and just as we can improve it, we can also lose it. Many reasons exist for memory loss, such as:
- Alcohol, drug, and tobacco use dehydrate and reduce oxygen levels in the brain.
- You can find the best biohacking supplements online but other medications, such as antihistamines, antidepressants, antipsychotics, and tranquilizers affect the chemical reactions in the brain.
- Disorders that affect the hippocampus, like Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, depression, and dementia can alter brain functioning through loss of brain cells and structural abnormalities. Memory loss is a common symptom of these disorders.
- Malnutrition starves the brain, which affects development and synaptic firing.
- A stroke or head injury can damage the brain structure and possibly deprive it of oxygen, leading to memory deficiency or amnesia.
- Illness, like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and overactive/underactive thyroid can lead to memory deficits.
- Sleep deprivation prevents brain cells from consolidating and processing experiences, while diminishing focus and concentration.
- Chronic stress can flood the brain with excessive quantities of adrenaline and cortisol. It can also cause the hippocampal region of the brain to shrink.
The circumstances above can negatively impact the brain’s memory management system. Memory impairment can happen quickly or over time. It can be due to an unhealthy lifestyle or inherited memory disorder. The most common cause of memory loss occurs because of an aging brain.
How Does Age Affect Memory?
In the first three years of life, the brain is super elastic and ever-growing. A baby is born with nearly 100 billion neurons. At birth, the human brain contains as many brain cells as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy! Connections grow rapidly as these expanding minds learn about their world. Throughout childhood, the structures of brain cells physically grow, branching out, becoming larger, and making more connections. And as long as a negative influence doesn’t affect the child’s development, the brain and its cells will continue to flourish into the 20s.
But as we become adults with more stress, toxins, and changing brains, we lose the ability to retain the memory function of our youth. Every 10 years, the hippocampus loses 5 percent of its neurons. By 80, this region is diminished by approximately one third. As we age, the brain decreases in size, weight, and neurons. Additionally, the synaptic connections among the remaining neurons have the potential to weaken, which are necessary for memory encoding and recall.
What are the Signs of Memory Loss?
Different types of memory loss exists. Some people have difficulty with short-term memory, while others may find that they struggle with long-term memory problems. Some memory loss is normal and can be improved with memory exercises and strategies. However, some symptoms of memory loss demonstrate more serious issues.
So what is normal and what calls for a visit to the doctor’s office? Short-term memory problems happen when someone is often forgetful about recent experiences:
- Misplacing items easily
- Difficulting retaining recent information, either visual or auditory
- Forgetting events that just happened
- Repeating questions
These issues can lead to learning issues and long-term memory consolidation. Long-term memory loss tends to occur more as we age, but it can occur because of any of the aforementioned reasons. Signs of long-term memory loss can include:
- Word confusion
- Inability to retrieve pre-existing knowledge
- Difficulties recalling old memories
- Commonly getting lost
- Irritability, confusion, or mood changes
- Declining ability to perform common tasks
When is Memory Loss Serious?
Any type of memory loss can interfere with our lives, but serious memory issues can lead to injury, illness, and even death. It is important to see a doctor if you or anyone you know is experiencing the following symptoms and signs:
- Financial chaos and loss due to diminished problem solving skills and memory problems
- Consistently getting lost, especially while driving or being in public
- Difficulty acknowledging or accepting past or future events (time awareness)
- Problems with defining color contrasts and spatial relationships, which can interfere with driving
- Continuously misplacing items, and possibly becoming accusatory or belligerent about such losses
- Diminished judicial and decision-making abilities
- Social withdrawal, mood, and personality changes
If you or a loved one are concerned about severe memory loss that impedes health and quality of life, see a doctor for testing, guidance, and possibly a prescription.
What Can I do to Improve My Memory?
Whether you are seeking ways to improve your memory now or to prevent memory loss from occurring in the first place, realize that with any aspect of health, some situations are out of your control. However, like any other aspect of maintaining health, it is possible to take better care of your brain to prevent memory loss and enhance memory power.
Pro Tip: Practice Makes Progress. Of course, this is a very simple explanation for one of the most complex processes known to man, but it’s a start. And here’s where this information becomes useful to you in your search for personal development. As you repeat tasks, or spot a pattern through constant behaviors or events, that particular memory gets stronger. Chemicals (neurotransmitters) convey messages between two brain cells (neurons). It is likely that the same cells in the same regions communicate a specific memory. The more often they communicate, the stronger the connection. This is why practice is so important.
But the most important aspect of memory that we must realize is that these connections can be altered just as they can be reinforced. Although it may take more time to change a habit or re-learn a skill (like riding a bike for the first time in 10 years), the brain can easily make new connections. Psychologists call this neuroplasticity, and it is this powerful capability that you can harness for mental growth and personal development.
Tips for Memory Improvement
- Get plenty of rest. Sleep is how your brain recharges; it is not a luxury. In fact, memory reinforcement occurs during deep sleep. Also, give yourself a chance to daydream and do “mindless” activities. It is in these moments that the brain’s creativity makes many new connections. Learn how to avoid and manage burnout, so your brain can cope with stress easily.
- Enjoy other people. Research has shown that relationships boost brain power. Social interactions are the foundation of learning, and the more social a person is, the more likely he or she will have stronger memory function, longer.
- Get silly. Laughter engages multiple regions of the brain, which is why it is good for mental well-being. Hanging out with kids and jovial people can help give you a laughter lift. Gravitate toward it.
- Whatever you do, de-stress. It doesn’t matter how you do it, just do it. Chronic stress can actually lead to neural damage, particularly in the hippocampus. Researchers have discovered that people with clinical depression have smaller hippocampal regions. Symptoms of anxiety and depression include difficulties with memory and concentration. Get professional help if your symptoms are impeding your productivity and quality of life.
- Not only does meditation help relieve stress, but it actually improves psychological functioning. Through brain imaging, researchers have discovered that meditation can increase activity in the left prefrontal cortex (think happiness and a calm disposition). Meditation can also thicken the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain or gray matter, which is responsible for information processing.
- Eat right, drink well. Consume foods high in omega-3 fatty acids (salmon and walnuts), and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Drinking wine and green tea—not together—can also help benefit your cognitive functioning. Too much fat and sugar will only hurt your brain. (For a detailed list of best foods for memory and concentration, follow the link.)
- Challenge your brain. Do brain aerobics. Play memory and mind-bending games. You can typically find plenty on the Internet or in books at the library. You can also boost the connections in your brain by trying new things. Try writing with your opposite hand. Listen to music you normally wouldn’t. Practice math problems if you’re horrible at math. Creating new connections will keep you sharp and will only open your mind to limitless possibilities.