6 Strategies for a Better Memory—and the Science Behind Them

Although some individuals manage to maintain razor-sharp memories late into old age, most of us find ourselves struggling on occasion with everyday tasks, such as remembering familiar words or memorizing telephone numbers. Fortunately, researchers have identified ways to make these age-associated memory lapses less common.

“A number of recent studies suggest that using certain strategies to improve learning can help individuals improve their ability to remember information,” says Janet Sherman, PhD, a neuropsychologist at the MGH Memory Disorders Unit and Clinical Director of the Psychology Assessment Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Most of these strategies are focused on improving the ability to encode, or learn, information.

“The more effectively and deeply you are able to imbed information in your memory banks, the more likely you are to be able to retrieve it later.”

Memory boosters

Recent research suggests that the six memory strategies described below are especially effective.


  1. Engage all your senses: The greater the variety of sensory input attached to information you wish to re-member, the more likely you are to remember that information, research suggests. What’s more, it appears that certain sensory pathways may be better than others in making information memorable. In a study published online Feb. 26, 2014 in PLoS One, scientists tested a group of students on information they heard, saw, and touched, then compared how well they remembered the information after an hour, a day and a week. The results showed that participants did not remember things they heard nearly as well as things they saw or touched. Moreover, over time the ability to recall auditory information declined much more rapidly than the ability to recall information derived from sight or touch. The findings suggest that the brain may use separate pathways to process information and that it processes auditory information relayed, for example, through a lecture or verbal presentation, differently than tactile or visual information. “Listening is a passive activity,” Dr. Sherman points out. “Using vision and the sense of touch engages you in a more active way, which may make your experience more memorable.”
  2. Practice retrieving: Research suggests that learning may be more about honing the ability to retrieve information than intensely studying new information. For example, as opposed to re-reading an article several times, engaging in periodic self-testing, such as quizzing yourself after each paragraph or page, is significantly more effective in embedding information in long-term memory, studies suggest. In a recent study, researchers gave a group of brain-injured individuals retrieval practice by testing them periodically shortly after they learned new in-formation. The participants’ performance on measures of long-term retention were subsequently com-pared with their performance after they repeatedly restudied the information, but engaged in no testing. Practice retrieving was associated with dramatically better memory performance, according to the study, which was published in the February 2014 issue of Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. “Not only does practice testing help you identify information that you do not fully understand, but it also allows you to practice the skill of retrieving information from your memory,” Dr. Sherman says.
  3. Space out learning: Instead of spending an entire hour trying to learn new information, try breaking your learning session into a series of three 20-minute segments. After each segment, spend about 10 minutes distracting yourself with a pursuit that requires little mental activity—such as taking a walk or listening to mu-sic—then return to your learning task until you have completed the third segment. Repeat this spaced learning task on the following day, and perhaps again a day later. According to a study published Sept. 25, 2013 in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, compared to traditional intense learning sessions, this spaced learning technique greatly increased the speed at which study participants learned and improved their test scores, an indication of the transfer of information into long-term memory. “Spaced learning serves to im-prove your focus, and optimizing the amount of attention you pay to information will make it easier to remember later,” Dr. Sherman says.
  4. Rehearse before sleep: Abundant research suggests that memory is better when sleep occurs shortly after learning new information, rather than following many hours of wakefulness. A study published in March 2014 in Frontiers in Behavioral Science found that participants who learned paired words and then slept soundly were significantly better able to recall the words nine hours later than those who learned the words in the morning, remained awake, and were tested nine hours later. “Rehearsing information before bed takes advantage of the fact that memory consolidation occurs during sleep,” says Dr. Sherman.
  5. Clench your fists: As strange as it may seem, the physical act of clenching your fists may help you remember and retrieve information, according to a study published online April 24, 2013 in PLoS One. Re-searchers tested a group of volunteers on the memory effects of fist clenching for 90 seconds prior to memorizing or trying to recall a list of words, varying which fist was used (right or left) and when it was used in relation to the memory task. The researchers found that participants who clenched their right fist before memorizing the word list, and then clenched their left fist immediately prior to trying to recall the words performed significantly better than those who clenched their fists in a different manner or did not clench their fists at all. “The study suggests that certain motor functions may improve memory by activating connected brain regions that are associated with memory formation,” says Dr. Sherman.
  6. Drink champagne: An unlikely memory technique involves sipping the occasional glass of Champagne to boost your powers of recall. An animal study published Nov. 10, 2013 in the journal Antioxidants and Re-dox Signalling found that aged rodents that consumed foods laced with red-grape Champagne (blanc de noir, which is rich in phenolic acids) were significantly better able to remember how to navigate a maze than sim-ilar animals fed a normal diet. Examinations of the rodents’ brains after 6 weeks revealed that the Champagne rats had a 200 percent increase in proteins associated with memory storage in brain regions linked to memory function, such as the hippocampus and cortex. These proteins normally decline with age. Champagne also appeared to promote the growth of new brain cells and slow the process of cell death in the Champagne rodents. “A large body of research suggests that drinking in moderation may benefit the brain in healthy individuals, and this animal study suggests that Champagne might directly affect memory in a positive manner,” says Dr. Sherman. “However, further research involving human subjects will be necessary to determine whether drinking two or three glasses of Champagne per week will have the same beneficial effects in humans as those observed in rodents.”

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