How Memory Works and 6 Tips to Improve It

Why can't I remember where I left my car keys? Let's explore how our memory works and discuss some tips on how to improve memory.

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #201

Dr. Brenda Milner, one of the many neuroscientists to study H.M., conducted an additional experiment with H.M. where she asked him to trace the outline of a star while only being able to see his work in a mirror. His first few efforts produced very shaky results since the task requires moving in the opposite direction from what the mirror shows. However, after repeated attempts, H.M. finally mastered the task despite having no memory of the event of having practiced it before. Thus, while the making of our long term memories of people, places, or events may take place in the hippocampus, our motor skill memories must be housed elsewhere.

H.M.’s brain continues to be studied even after his death in 2008. In 2009, his brain was sliced into roughly 2000 pieces and digitally imaged down to the scale of individual neurons. The images are publicly available so that the research H.M. has inspired can continue.

How to Improve Your Memory

Here are a few tips on how we might improve our ability to remember information.

1. Assign an importance to a memory that you want to keep. We tend to remember things in proportion to how important they are. That’s why we are particularly doomed to forget where we’ve left our car keys. When we arrive home, the location of our keys is of very little importance so our brain doesn’t always remember where we’ve put them. Spending some time mulling over a particular piece of information can help make sure it gets converted to long term memory.

We tend to remember things in proportion to how important they are. 

2. Recent studies have shown that drawing a piece of information can help that memory stick around, although scientists are not completely sure why this happens.

3. One school of thought suggests that the brain works like a muscle that needs to be flexed and toned just like any other muscle in the body to function at its peak. The Mayo Clinic suggests doing crossword puzzles, using an alternate route to get to work, learning a new language or instrument, or volunteering with a new community organization – anything out of the ordinary that requires you to think in new ways and about new topics.

4. Sleep. Current theories suggest that during sleep, the brain is at work consolidating our memories for us, sorting what we need to keep from what we don’t.

5. Exercise. Physical activity increases blood flow to the brain which can help improve memory and even reduce our risk of dementia. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate activity spread throughout a week.

6. Be social. Interacting with our friends and peers is known to ward off depression and other stressors which have been linked to memory loss.  

Of course, we can also employ tricks to help us remember certain pieces of information: make lists, use mnemonics, limit multi-tasking, or link certain memories to colors. And speaking of colors, can you remember the colors we listed at the beginning of this episode?

Want to hear more about how the human brain works? Stay tuned for an upcoming episode highlighting the work of Carl Safina, award-winning author and expert in the way animal brains function differently from our own.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Image courtesy of shutterstock.


About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.

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