Many people complain that their ability to remember things declines with age. But the onset of ‘senior moments’ is not inevitable, as is sometimes suggested.
Being able to remember is a skill that can be improved by practice. It is perhaps more likely that the reason that memory declines with age is that we stop practising.
This page sets out some ideas to help you improve your memory skills, and explains what you can do to develop a better memory.
How Memory Works
The mechanism for memory is unknown, like much of the way the brain works. It does seem clear, however, that there are two types of memory, short-term and long-term.
Short-term memory is generally considered to be your day-to-day memory. Also known as ‘working memory’, it is where you keep information while you are using it, and until you either discard it or transfer it to your long-term memory.
Long-term memory is related to what you did in the past, sometimes going back years. But some of what is stored in your long-term memory may relate to more recent events. It is probably better considered a place where your brain stores information that it wants to keep.
Retain or recall?
There is a question about whether the problem with memory is in retaining the information, or being able to recall it.
Taking a common sense approach, the distinction is probably unimportant in practice. To produce the information, you need to have both retained it and be able to recall it.
Experts describe three types of long-term memory. These are:
- Explicit, requiring conscious thought, which is what most of us have in mind when we talk about memory;
- Implicit, relating to learnt activities that have become so natural that we no longer have to think about them; and
- Autobiographical, relating to specific parts of our lives, some of which seem to be easier to remember than others.
Keeping Yourself Healthy
Perhaps the most important thing that you can do to maintain your memory is to keep yourself healthy. Nobody can operate at their best if they are feeling tired and run-down.
Areas for attention include:
There are certain foods that have a reputation for helping to improve brain function, but the evidence for this is mixed to say the least.
Eating a healthy and balanced diet will, however, be good for your general health and well-being, and enable you to function at your best.
For more about this, see our pages on Diet and Nutrition.
The general consensus among scientists is that adults need about seven to nine hours’ sleep each night.
Of course getting less every now and then will not hurt you, but regular and serious sleep deprivation will seriously impair your mental performance, including your ability to remember important information. Scientists also think that sleep enables our brains to process events and help to turn them into memories, which is another reason why sleep is so important for good memory.
For more about this, see our pages: What is Sleep? and The Importance of Sleep.
The third aspect of physical health is getting enough exercise. As our page on Keeping your Mind Healthy explains, neuroscientists believe that exercise is crucial to brain health because of its effect on blood flow.
You may want to read more about the Importance of Exercise.
Alcohol, Smoking and Drug Abuse
It should probably go without saying that using chemicals that affect your mind, and this includes alcohol and nicotine as well as illegal drugs, is going to affect your memory. To keep your memory in good working order, it is as well to avoid excessive use of any such drugs.
As our pages on stress discuss, a little stress is good for you. But severe, prolonged stress can damage both your physical and mental health.
Exposure to the cocktail of hormones generated by stress will affect your ability to think more generally, never mind to remember. The phrase ‘My mind went blank’ is associated with stressful moments for a reason. Getting stress under control will help you to improve your memory.
There is more about all of these areas in our pages on Caring for Your Body and Keeping your Mind Healthy.
Everything that we have mentioned so far could be said to improve your general health, both mental and physical.
But there are also specific activities that you can do to improve your memory and, perhaps more specifically, your ability to recall information.
Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel, in their book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, suggest that memory is key to learning.
In other words, if you can’t remember something, you have not learned it.
They suggest that learning is more durable if it is harder. If you have to work hard to learn a new skill, it will stay with you for longer.
It seems likely that the brain is more prepared to retain something that has taken a lot of effort and energy.
The book contains some useful tips for improving your memory:
Retrieval: practise remembering the information or skill.
For example, when studying, a simple way to do this is to shut your eyes, and try to recite your notes or ideas, not simply read them over again.
Forcing ourselves to retrieve the information makes it easier to remember, because it is harder than simply reading it. It also strengthens the neural pathways associated with the concept.
Elaboration: expanding on what you know, and making connections.
Our brains really like connections between ideas. It makes them much easier to remember. This is one reason why it is easier to remember something that is related to a topic that you already know about, than a completely new idea.
It is therefore helpful to try to explain new ideas in your own words and/or describe how they relate to your existing knowledge.
Interleaving: working on various different subjects at the same time.
Thinking about different subjects, spending perhaps half an hour on each at a time, helps you to remember each better. This may be because it gives your brain a bit of a rest from each one, allowing your subconscious to work on it while you are thinking about something else. The authors of Make It Stick suggest that it goes back to our prehistoric past, and the need to assess a problem before you can find a solution.
Generation: working out the answer as you go.
Otherwise known as ‘thinking out loud’ or ‘making it up on the spot’, depending on your point of view, working things out from first principles helps you to remember them.
Reflection: review what happened.
Our page on Reflective Practice explains the benefits of thinking about and reviewing events more generally. But it seems that reflecting also helps you to fix the lessons from an experience in your mind.
Mnemonics: using tricks to trigger memory.
Mnemonics are phrases and tricks designed to trigger your memory. They include acronyms, such as ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’ to remember the colours of the rainbow or HOMES to remember the names of the Great Lakes.
Mnemonics can also be more complicated, such as making lists linked to images to assist recall.
Calibration: finding out what you don't know.
Calibration is a necessary part of learning. It is extremely difficult to learn anything if you don’t understand that you need to know it. Ways of calibrating include seeking out feedback, and taking tests.
You Don’t Need to Remember Everything!
Of course it is a good idea to improve your memory and recall, and the ideas on this page will help you to do so.
But it is as important to remember that you don’t have to remember everything in your head. Writing things down, for example, in ‘To Do’ lists, will free up your mind to remember the big things, and allow your memory to prioritise the most important.
See our pages on Note-Taking for more information.