The human brain is one of the most mysterious and powerful tools in the modern world. This magical organ interprets reality through synapses and neurons, forming subjective thoughts, qualities, and memories, which form our identities. Using up to twenty percent of the energy we consume, our brain is always working and always changing. As we grow, the connections between regions of the brain reinforce each other, fortifying our memory, until a certain age at which, either naturally, through “disuse,” or through memory loss diseases such as Alzheimer’s, we begin to lose control of our memories. But we are not necessarily doomed to forget our brief passage through this life before our brain finally shuts down: here are three ways you can enhance your memory through lifestyle changes.
Understanding how your brain makes memories is crucial to improving memory function. As you experience the world, the sensory information received is encoded through your short-term memory—visually, acoustically, and semantically—and stored in various regions of your brain with your working memory. Through the long-term process of recollection, your brain reconstructs the memory from storage, meaning that the more times you access a memory, the more likely it is to change (the opposite is true of “commonplace” memories which you rarely revisit, such as this morning’s shower, yesterday’s commute, etc.).
The act of recollecting is a helpful exercise in improving memory itself. What you notice in certain memories upon recalling them also affects their ability to be recalled. Becoming aware of what draws your attention to certain memories and choosing to focus on different points of view can force your brain to make new associations, thus strengthening your neural network and placing the memory in a context. Keeping a journal is possibly the best way to improve self-awareness, but literal self-awareness with mirrors, cameras, microphones, or audiences also improve the accuracy of memory.
Our memories fade with old age because our brain becomes less effective at encoding and retrieval as we discontinue learning. Learning and socialization arouse various parts of the brain—language, perception, problem-solving, motor coordination—all at once, and are undoubtedly the cornerstones of a bright, sharp, longitudinal memory.
2. Stress Reduction
Stress has a significant detrimental effect on memory formation. If any strong emotion is present during an event, the neurons active during this event produce strong connections with each other. When the event is recalled, the neurons will more easily and speedily make the same connections (which can be disastrous for those suffering from PTSD or drug addiction withdrawal). These memories also tend to be warped or focused on extreme details rather than the greater context of the scene—another way self-awareness can promote healthy memories.
Get plenty of sleep! Neuroimaging studies have shown activation patterns in the sleeping brain which mirror those recorded during the learning of tasks from the previous day, suggesting that new memories may be solidified through such rehearsal. Coupled with a nightly recollection of the day prior, or even a dream journal, sleep can be a very powerful tool for managing memories.
Meditation, a form of mental training to focus attention, also seems to increase the control over brain resource distribution, improving both attention and discipline. The changes are potentially long-lasting, as meditation may have the ability to strengthen neuronal circuits as selective attentional processes improve.
Playing music also improves various aspects of memory through abstract connections in the brain between acoustic, semantic, and language-processing regions. Research shows that children who participated in one year of instrumental musical training showed improved verbal memory, whereas no such improvement was shown in children who discontinued musical training.
3. Diet and Exercise
Exercise has been shown to improve cognitive performance on encoding and retrieval of information, and has been found to regulate hippocampal neurogenesis, which promotes the survival of newborn neurons and helps form new memories. Physiological activity also provides the brain increased blood-flow and oxygen levels, which, along with the right diet, keep the brain healthy.
There are many “brain foods,” but only a certain group of fruits and vegetables provide direct benefits to the facilitation and maintenance of memory processes—flavonoids. Flavonoids are photochemicals found in plant-based foods and valued for their antioxidant properties, and are found in onions, leeks, broccoli, parsley, celery, soybeans, citrus fruits, berry fruits, tomatoes, green teas, red wines, and cocoa. Glucose also plays an important role in improving memory, as it can pass from blood to the brain, providing energy and boosting neural metabolism.
Excess intake levels of fat and calories are harmful to memory function. Saturated fats and cholesterol are especially high-risk foods for the onset of Alzheimer’s, not to mention the myriad other health risks associated with these food groups.