Maybe you can still recall, verbatim, long Shakespearean speeches learnt at school, but you can’t remember where you put your mobile phone. Don’t worry, lapses like this are not unusual.
According to many experts, there are three types of memory – sensory, short-term and long-term. Sensory memory registers information, like where your mobile phone is, but only very briefly and the memory of it can decay in micro-seconds. If the initial piece of information is encoded by your brain, it will make it into the short-term memory. This has a limited capacity of about seven pieces of information (that’s why it’s hard to remember long phone numbers instantly or shopping lists). These memories are either dismissed or, if significant enough, moved into the long-term memory where they will be retained and become embedded though not necessarily retrievable.
Neuropsychologist, Dr Joanna Iddon, co-author of Memory Boosters, says of absent-mindedness:
“In a recent study of healthy adults, the average number of memory slips, like putting the coffee jar in the fridge, was around six per week, irrespective of age, gender and intelligence,” says Dr Iddon.
“In fact, it was the younger, busier people that were the most absent-minded.
“Remembering is an active process and making the most of your memory involves paying better attention, planning and organising.”
We all know people who claim to have a photographic memory, but there’s no scientific proof that such memories exist, although there are undoubtedly people with phenomenal memories.
However, most of us could improve our memories, so here are some tips and exercises:
Focus – If you want to remember something, it has to get beyond the sensory memory stage, so focus on what you’re trying to remember and stop thinking about several other things at the same time. That way, you have a much better chance of remembering where you put your mobile phone because it has become a short-term memory.
Brain Health – Memories are made in our brains so improving brain health should have a positive impact on memory. Brain-stimulation activities – reading, crossword puzzles, Sudoku, for instance, are known to keep the brain sharp.
Use your senses – Touch, smell, sight, hearing and taste, all play a part in memory and can help a memory to be encoded.
Repeat information – As long as you don’t try to cram too much into your head, repeating information over and over again can work well.
Bite-size information – Organise large pieces of information into chunks.
Mnemonics – These are useful tools for remembering. Make up a sentence with each word using the initial letters of the information you need to remember, whether it be the periodic table (yes, there’s a mnemonic song to help you remember that!), Henry VIII’s six wives (A big secret concealing her past – Aragon, Boleyn, Seymour, Cleeves, Howard, Parr), or the planets (My very eager mother just served us nine pizzas – Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto). You can make up your own.
Learn the way you want – Say it out loud, write it down, record it, sing it; whatever works for you.
Physical exercise – Studies have shown that aerobic exercise improves brain function and is particularly good at enhancing memory. Exercise is thought to encourage the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus – an area of the brain important in memory and learning.
Eat well – A diet low in red meat and dairy and high in omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish and nuts, can help memory. Eating chocolate can improve your memory, say Oxford University scientists, who tested 2,000 volunteers. A separate study at Northumbria University found people given large amounts of flavonols, a compound found in chocolate, found mental arithmetic much easier. Scientists have also found that adults who consumed dairy products at least five or six times a week did far better in memory tests compared with those who rarely ate or drank them. At the very least, drink regularly, preferably water.
Stop smoking – Researchers at Northumbria University found that when 69 students aged 18 to 25, were asked to memorise a list of tasks, those who had never smoked did best, remembering to complete 81% of the tasks. The smokers – on an average of 60 cigarettes a week – managed to get through only 59%.
Sleep – A lack of sleep boosts the formation of beta amyloid, the toxic protein that clogs up the brain, according to a study in the journal Science. “Disturbed sleep delays storage of memories and makes us forget sooner,” says Professor Chris Idzikowski, director of The Edinburgh Sleep Centre.