It’s pretty amazing that the same brain that stores our favourite moments, the names and faces of our loved ones, and what our favourite foods taste like can also make room for cocktail chatter, PowerPoint presentations and whatever your boss’s dog’s name is.
Keeping memory sharp is key for life.
Recent studies have shed light on some surprisingly simple ways for ramping up your recall.
Hit the drawing board
If you were one of those students who was more likely to doodle in the margins of your notebooks than write words in them, you may have been on to something. Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario asked participants to look at a list of simple words and either make drawings inspired by them or write them down repeatedly. Those who chose the drawing route remembered about twice as many words as those who wrote them down. The results of the study were published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.
“What we think is happening is you are bringing online a set of diverse networks or brain regions, which helps build a strong memory for that one item,” said Jeff Wammes, a PhD candidate in cognitive neuroscience and one of the study’s authors. “Drawing requires you to see a word, then bring to mind visual imagery of what that thing looks like, then generate some characteristics of it, then translate that mental image to paper using coordinated action.”
Wammes suggested making drawings about important items you want to remember. Of course, the same principle that may make drawing effective – namely, using a diverse range of co-ordinated brain processes – can also be applied in other ways. For example, Wammes points to previous studies that have found that physical movement can help with verbal memory.
The paper-averse – and the artistically challenged – should take solace: People who drew on a tablet got the same memory-boosting effect as those who used pen and paper, and researchers found no correlation between the quality of the drawings and the quality of the recall.
Roll out the yoga mat
According to a study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, yoga may be an effective memory-booster, with the added benefit of making us feel better.
In the study, 25 people older than 55 were assigned to weekly, hour-long classes in Kundalini yoga, which involves breathing, meditation and chanting, or memory-enhancement exercises such as mnemonics. Both groups were also given 15 to 20 minutes of homework per night.
The results: Both groups showed statistically similar improvement in verbal memory, but the yoga group also showed an improvement in visual-spatial memory (where you left your keys, for example) as well as in signs of depression and anxiety.
“Yoga is not thought of as a cognitive exercise, but if you try to memorise a sequence of movements or breathe in a sequence, you are exercising the brain and invoking a type of memory,” said Helen Lavretsky, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s Geffen School of Medicine and one of the study’s authors. And while the study focused on older individuals, who may be more susceptible to conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Lavretsky says she believes that yoga-based interventions can help just about anybody improve memory.
“This yoga practice exercises brain regions that are responsible for cognitive functions,” Lavretsky says. “It doesn’t matter at what age you do it; it’s the same.”
We’ve long known that exercise works out your brain as well as your body. But it turns out that slipping off your shoes – or at least paying attention to where you put your feet – may improve your memory.
In a study published in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills, researchers at the University of North Florida tested the working memory – that is, memory that goes beyond rote memorisation and requires you to connect disparate pieces of knowledge – of 72 participants before and after a run. Some ran with their shoes on while others were told to remove them. A subset of participants was given further instructions to hit tiny targets spaced throughout the track, effectively forcing them to pay careful attention to where their soles struck.
The researchers found that barefoot runners who were told to hit these targets showed a roughly 16 percent improvement in working memory. This brain boost was not present in their shod peers nor in those who were barefoot but not asked to tap the targets. According to Tracy Packiam Alloway, a psychology professor at the university and one of the study’s authors, this effect may result from the combination of the increased blood flow that running produces and the forced focus that comes from hitting targets.
“A lot of people say they run to shut down or tune out, which is actually not helping your working memory,” Alloway says. “Barefoot running forces you to pay attention or focus on something so you don’t hurt yourself. It’s like a mini brain workout. You can’t not pay attention.”
Practically speaking, common sense and safety make it unlikely that many people will be able to completely kick their kicks. But if this hypothesis holds through further research, it’s not a huge leap to imagine that any activity that mixes cardiovascular training with deep focus and attention could help improve your memory.
In a 2008 study in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at the University of Michigan found that people who stepped outside into a natural or parklike environment showed improvement across a host of cognitive functions – including memory – compared with those who were stuck in a city. The researchers theorised that this effect comes from the attention required to navigate an urban environment in a safe manner (you’ll want to watch out for passing cars, for example), which makes it difficult for your brain to relax and replenish.
The paper’s most head-turning finding: This restorative effect doesn’t even require stepping outside, and it was also found after simply showing people pictures of nature as opposed to urban environments – giving you one more argument for decorating your office or desktop wallpaper with pictures from your last vacation.