Making the most of your brain’s memory

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How many of us have just been introduced to someone for the first time but can’t recall their name 10 minutes later?  Or come home from work, place your car keys down, and then don’t recall where you put them?  

We all have moments of forgetfulness and it is common with age for these moments to begin occurring frequently.  Starting in our 50s is when the majority of people will notice a difference. That’s when age-related chemical and structural changes can begin in brain regions involved with memory processing, such as the hippocampus or the frontal lobes.  These changes may slow processing speed, making it harder to recall familiar names or words.

Sometimes there can be other factors involved in slowing down memory – depression, anxiety, stress and lack of sleep can affect the brain’s retention and use of information.  Even medication side effects may be at play as some can have sedating side effects making the brain less alert and more sluggish.  This makes it more challenging for the brain to be able to retrieve and sort out steps of memory.

Use memory tricks to boost recollection

To improve your brain’s memory capacity and to lessen the likelihood of forgetting simple things, here are some strategies that may help provide a needed boost in making the most of how your brain works:

Repeat what you hear out loud

This trick can work surprisingly well – the next time you’re introduced to someone, say their name out loud at the time of introduction. This has a way of branding that person’s name and face in your brain making it more likely to recall it later on.  Repetition increases the chances you will record the information and be able to retrieve it when you need it.  Each time we repeat out loud, it gives your brain another opportunity to encode the information causing connections between brain cells to be reinforced. 

Take notes

All of us have numerous things to do each day.  By taking notes or making a list of people you need to call, errands to do or appointments to be at, helps with recognition improving you to recall what needs to be accomplished.  Think of note-taking sort of like cues or hints that can help you find the information you’re looking for or providing a needed nudge of what you need to do next.

Make associations between things

To help facilitate memory, it helps to associate it with something familiar.  For example, if introduced to someone named Sandy, imagine that person walking on a sandy beach.  Or for those who ever took music lessons, we all remember using the phrase ‘Every good boy does fine’ to help recall notes on a musical scale.  This was an easy-to-remember and clever association between you and the information that is to be remembered.

Other tricks to use with association can be visualization.  For instance, how many of us have walked into a room forgetting what we are looking for?  Before you start walking into a room, visualize what you want or need associating it with something familiar.  If you want to get a certain summer outfit from your closest, think of yourself wearing it to a certain event.  Doing so makes it more vivid and more memorable.

Create a mental memory tree

When trying to memorize a large number of facts, find a way to relate them in your mind visually with a memory tree. Construct big branches, then leaves.  Branches and leaves should carry labels that are personally meaningful to you in some way and the organization of facts – the leaves – should be logical.  It has been known that we remember “bits” of information better if we chunk them.  For example, it’s easier to remember 467890 as “467” and “890” than as six individual digits.

What if memory tricks are not working?

 All of us will have moments of forgetting something minor from time to time which is normal.  What is not normal is when memory changes interfere with day-to-day functioning.  This is when it is recommended to talk to your doctor if you find yourself making more mistakes than usual.  Particularly if these mistakes are affecting your job or home life such as paying bills on time, or completing tasks, cooking, emailing, or doing chores.  Don’t panic as more often than not there can be a temporary or reversible cause for memory slips.  But the sooner you have the problem addressed, the quicker you can get it resolved and get back to remembering all you need to do.