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How to Make the Most of Your Memory Before You Forget

Plus Hacks to Improve All Types of Memory

With 86 billion neurons and trillions of connections, a human brain is already a remarkable machine. But what if you could hack into your mind to get the more from all types of memory?

It turns out; your brain is "plastic" -- it retains the ability to physically change in response to the things you learn and experience.

And thanks to many decades of research into brain injury, experts understand the concept of neuroplasticity better than ever.

You may be wondering: What does this have to do with memory?

​You can apply the best modern brain science has to offer by engaging in real-life brain training to improve your memory.

However, first, you need to know more about the different types of memory:



​​Types of Memory

Humans have been studying memory for over 2,000 years. Aristotle's On the Soul was one of the first written works to distinguish memory as a function related as much to the soul as to the brain. 

Memory is the scribe of the soul. Hippocrates Aristotle around 300 BCE

Human memory takes many forms. There are two main types of memory: short-term and long-term.

It sounds simple. However, when we dig a little deeper, we find there are even more complex types of memory.

​You can apply the best modern brain science has to offer by engaging in real-life brain training to improve your memory.

However, first, you need to know more about the different types of memory:



​​Short-Term Types of Memory

​Imagine if you remembered every perception and experience you encountered right down to the very sensation you felt. That would become overwhelming very quickly.

Fortunately, the brain applies a filter to help you make sense of this daily flood of information.

Fun fact:

brain x ray of a man

Image: by  VSRao, via Pixabay

Short-term memory is a "7 items or less" lane. That's right; it holds a maximum of seven pieces of information at one time. Furthermore, it retains the details for about 20 seconds.

So, THAT is why new passwords are so hard to remember!

Sensory memory

All memories begin with a perception or sensation. This information filters into your sensory memory.

It's the shortest of all memory stages.

This system allows you to recall sensations like tastes, visual patterns, sounds, and smells for a few seconds after you experience them.

However, after that brief encounter, the sensory memory is booted to the short-term working memory stage.

Trivia alert!

Visual memory is notoriously unreliable, say the experts. Maybe this is why the brain turns optical input into sounds or acoustics for storage in short-term memory.  

Working memory

brain tree

Image: by GDJ, via Pixabay

If you're into computers, this would be equivalent to high-speed memory or RAM. According to the Baddley Hitch Model," working memory" is sensory memory that grabs your attention.

Consider this! During a typical drive to work, you see and forget details about dozens of cars.

However, when a car swerves in front of you on the highway, you're likely to remember things like the make, model, and color of the car, and even details from the license plate.

The more attention you give the event, the more likely it is to become long-term memory.

Short-term memory tip

To recall a long password or number, break it into chunks. 

When you divide a phone number into three sections of numbers instead of 10 separate items, your short-term memory keeps it around just long enough to write it down or dial the number.

To cement it into your long-term memory, spend at least 30 seconds repeating the sections of the sequence.

brain head experiencing short term memory

Image: by kalhh, via Pixabay



​Long-Term Types of Memory

When your brain decides information is essential, it moves it from short-term to long-term memory.

The more you repeat or use it, the more likely it will end up in your long-term memory. That is why repetition while studying improves recall during an exam.

Long-term memories may last a few minutes or throughout your lifetime. Experts believe that long-term memories associated with strong emotions are remembered for longer durations and with greater clarity.  

Pop quiz:

If your brain was a computer, how much storage would you need to hold all your data? Scientists estimate around 2,500 terabytes or 2.5 million gigabytes.

That's a lot of space to fill!

Explicit memory

Declarative and explicit are types of memory we associate with the conscious recalling of names, places, facts, and events.

You use explicit memory all day long and every day.

There are two types of explicit memory: semantic and episodic.

Semantic memory

Semantic memory is a structured record of learned facts, concepts, and acquired knowledge about the world around you.

You recall these memories according to the context in which you learned them.

While semantic memories can have a personal context, it's not from real experiences. It's what is called "simple knowledge."

Therefore, semantic memory includes random lists of capital cities, customs, the functions of objects, vocabulary, foreign language, and mathematics.

Fast fact:

According to one study, left-handed people have better recall of memories tied to events.

Hence, the area of the brain that store these memories — the corpus callosum —  is larger in lefties than in right-handed people.

Episodic memory

Have you ever felt nostalgic? Nostalgia is a bittersweet sensation of longing for the past.

Autobiographical long-term memories correspond with episodes in your lives. This type of memory serves four main purposes.

man with a robotic head

Image: by aytuguluturk, via Pixabay

  • ​Directive: Our memories serve as guides to success and failure. In this way, we use past experiences to direct our future behavior and choices.
  • ​Social: Sharing memories from your past helps you form stronger bonds with others. When you disclose personal stories, you create intimacy. And reminiscing with someone over shared experiences strengthens pre-existing bonds.
  • ​Identity: Over time, your self-memory defines the person you were at the time. These types of memory provide the continuity and stability needed to perform the necessary self-evaluation to change and grow as a person.
  • ​Adaptive: These types of memory are highly emotional. Episodic memory aides in healthy adaptation since you can recall memories that make you feel good and others that make you feel sad.

Did you know? You have a memory bump.

Most adults are able to recall their adolescence with greater detail than other decades. Scientists have dubbed this "the reminiscence bump."

Perhaps this is a survival mechanism which keeps us from repeating the bone-headed mistakes of our youth.

brain function memory labeled graphic of brain

Image: CC BY 3.0, by BruceBlaus, via Wikipedia

Implicit memory

Also called procedural memory, implicit memory is part of your subconscious.

Once you fully learn a skill, it becomes a long-term implicit memory. Your brain knows when you need the information and accesses it automatically.

There are two subsets of implicit memory. These are procedural memory and priming.

Procedural memory

​Most implicit memories are motor skills that your body performs without giving it a second thought -- or even a first thought.

This type of memory, lets you accomplish many everyday activities, like walking or riding a bike. It is no surprise that these types of memory form in the motor area of the brain called the cerebellum.

​Priming

​This is a subconscious memory process in which we make recollections based on an instant perception or association. Priming memory is useful to those interested in psychological influence like those in advertising.

Imagine that you see a particular shade of red and you automatically think of your favorite sport's team. Or if you see a familiar logo, you automatically recall the brand.




Parts of the Brain Involved in Memory

Most experts agree that the entire brain is important to the formation of memory. However, there are certain parts or areas of the brain that do more of the heavy lifting than others.

First, is the amygdala. The primary purpose of the amygdala is to regulate your emotions like fear and aggression through stress hormones.

Animal studies showed that this part of the brain chooses how and where to store some memories.

Next up is your hippocampus. This region stores relational and spatial memory. Specifically, it connects declarative memories together for added context and meaning.


Your cerebellum and prefrontal cortex play an important role in developing and storing implicit memories like procedural skills, motor learning, and conditioning.

Finally, neurotransmitters like dopamine, epinephrine, serotonin, acetylcholine, and glutamate are active in memory perception, storage, and recall.

Because these chemicals release in response to stress and emotion, they play a critical role in transferring short-term memory to long-term memory.



​Memory Loss Vs. Forgetfulness

Hey, it happens to everyone.

You forgot someone's name or where you left your keys. Oh, by the way, did you lock the door?

Forgetfulness is common. It occurs more frequently when you are stressed or overwhelmed.

Memory loss in a puzzle

Image: by Tumisu, via Pixabay

Your cerebellum and prefrontal cortex play an important role in developing and storing implicit memories like procedural skills, motor learning, and conditioning.

Finally, neurotransmitters like dopamine, epinephrine, serotonin, acetylcholine, and glutamate are active in memory perception, storage, and recall.

Because these chemicals release in response to stress and emotion, they play a critical role in transferring short-term memory to long-term memory.

questions of memory problems

Image: CC0, via NIH.gov

Causes of simple forgetfulness

Three things determine whether a memory is sticky. Distraction during any of the three memory processes creates forgetfulness
  • ​Registration
  • ​Retention
  • ​Retrieving
​Additionally, other events that may cause your forgetfulness are:
  • ​Lack of sleep - not getting enough sleep is the most common reason for memory failure.
  • ​New medication - common medications like beta blockers, antihistamines, and antidepressants negatively impact memory
  • ​Thyroid dysfunction - this disturbs sleep and cause depression and anxiety
  • ​Stress - heightened and prolonged stress causes you to feel distracted which leads to memory dysfunction

Signs of memory loss

There’s a difference between everyday forgetfulness and problems like memory loss. The most distinguishing factor is a pattern of recurrence.

Here are ten signs you may have more severe memory loss.

​1

​Memory loss affecting daily life

memory lost silhouette

Image: by Tumisu, via Pixabay

  • ​Forget new information
  • ​Rely on notes and memory aids more often
  • ​Ask the same question repeatedly

​2

​​Problems planning or problem-solving

an open notebook on a desk

Image: by sabinevanerp, via Pixabay

  • ​​Have trouble following instructions like a recipe
  • ​Rely on notes and memory aids more often
  • ​Ask the same question repeatedly

​3

​Problems completing tasks

puzzle piece not attach

Image: by wilhei, via Pixabay

  • ​Forget in the middle of ordinary activities
  • ​Failure to remember the rules of a favorite game
  • ​Increased reliance on family, friends or co-workers to help you finish tasks

​4

​Time and place confusion

time and megamicrophone view

Image: by pasja1000, via Pixabay

  • ​Caught off-guard by time passing
  • ​Unable to recall recent dates and time of events
  • ​Brief confusion about where you are/how you got there

​5

​Visual or perception

watercolor painting

Image: by Steve Johnson, via Pexels

  • ​Problems judging distance
  • ​Inability to recognize colors or contrast
  • ​Progressive inability to identify familiar objects or people

​6

​Difficult communication

employer communicating to his employee

Image: by rawpixel.com, via Pixabay

  • ​Avoid joining in conversations
  • ​Stopping mid-sentence and unable to complete thoughts
  • ​Struggling to find the right word

​7

​Losing track

man running on a highway

Image: by composita, via Pixabay

  • ​Can't retrace your steps
  • ​Seeing things in odd places
  • ​Accusing others of moving your stuff

​8

​ Poor judgment

boy having poor judgement

Image: by MMillustrates, via Pixabay

  • ​Bad financial decisions
  • ​Neglecting self-care

​9

​ Withdrawing

no in a hand print

Image: by geralt, via Pixabay

  • ​Stop participating in outings and hobbies

​10

​Other Behavioral changes

depressed woman

Image: by Free-Photos, via Pixabay

  • ​ Suspicion, fear, anxiety, or depression


​Brain Hacks to Boost All Types of Memory

Due to neuroplasticity, you can hack your brain to improve many functions such as memory. While our habits form well-worn groves in our gray matter, reconditioning is possible.

However, it all begins with intentionality. According to some experts, when you set out to intentionally remember something you wildly increase your odds of success.

Stay curious my friend

Curiosity is called the "wick in the candle of learning."

Curiosity comes from experiencing an information gap. This gap, a discrepancy between what you know and what you want to know, activates a less-active part of the brain, research shows.

We know that the more attention an event receives, the more quickly it commits to long-term memory. So, while curiosity may have killed the cat, it's a thirst that keeps your memories fresh.

question marks man woman drawing silhouette

Image: by geralt, via Pixabay, altered

Relate new information to old knowledge

To make the transition from short-term to long-term memory, find a way to associate the new information with a topic you know a lot about.

The brain finds it easier to group new information with long-term stored memories. This technique will also aid in recall.

Use memory devices

Eight-time World Memory Champion and author of 13 books on memory, Dominic O'Brien, offers many tips and tricks to improve your memory.

In his book, Learn to Remember, O'Brien suggests several devices that make the task of memorizing easier.​​Learn to Remember,

The Memory Palace

memory palace

Image: by shantanukashyap, via Pixabay

This is a technique where you associate a list of items you need to learn with a walkthrough of a place you are familiar with like your home. Assign each memory item to a landmark along the way.

Let's get physical

According to researchers at Harvard, physical activity helps memory and thinking through direct and indirect means.

Direct benefits of exercise include reduction of insulin resistance, reduction of inflammation, and stimulation of growth hormones — the chemicals that promote the production of healthy brain cells and growth of new blood supplies that rush oxygen to your brain.

Indirectly, exercising improves mood and promotes sleep. It also reduces anxiety and stress. As we've already discussed, issues like these frequently contribute to memory failure.

But how much exercise do you need?

One study showed major improvements in participants who walked at moderate intensity for 120 minutes each week.

man doing push up

Image: by Keiji Yoshiki, via Pexels

Get your ZZZs

Human studies show that quantity and quality of sleep impact both learning and memory. The research indicates that sleep aids memory in two unique ways.

First, if you are sleep-deprived, you cannot focus on learning efficiently.

Second, the sleep cycle itself plays a role in the stabilization and consolidation of long-term memory. This is essential for healthy memory and acquiring new information.

Furthermore, there appears to be a connection between dreaming, brain plasticity, and standard memory processing.

frustrated man

Image: by Nathan Cowley, via Pexels

Eat a brain-healthy diet (and lots of chocolate)

A new study from California's Loma Linda University sheds light on the benefits of dark chocolate and its positive effects regarding memory and recall.

Participants ate 1.6 ounces of 70 percent dark chocolate each day. The results prove that the antioxidants found in dark chocolate hack your brain's gamma frequency.

As they put it:

 “The brain's gamma frequency is up-regulated, enhanced, turned on by the chocolate antioxidants.”

But dark chocolate isn't the only food that supports the brain by improving memory:

dark chocolate heart shape

Image: by congerdesign, via Pixabay

​Omega-3 fatty acids

Oily fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel are abundant in the healthy omega-3 fatty acid known as DHA. Experts agree that DHA is essential to healthy functioning neurons.

​Vitamin E

This vital nutrient occurs in dark green leafy vegetables, sunflower seeds, peanut butter, and avocados.

Research shows that Vitamin E helps treat and prevent age-related memory loss and associated conditions such as Alzheimer's disease.

​Resveratrol

These powerful antioxidants found in red wine and berries help prevent and treat memory deterioration.

Skip the stress

As any student can attest, a small level of stress motivates learning and memory.

However, lots of stress creates obstacles to learning and memory. Stress inhibits the natural way you retrieve or recall memories and impairs your ability to record memories accurately.

When you experience stress, it's harder to form short-term memories. This is because there is a disruption in moving memories from the sensory stage to the working memory stage.

Animal studies suggest this could be due to a release of stress hormones that interfere with your brain's processing.

Finally, stress leads to fatigue. The result is cognitive impairment including distraction.

stress woman

Image: by Kat Jayne, via Pexels

One study found that patients combating stress-related exhaustion also experienced problems with memory.

Unfortunately, the same research indicates that most memories lost during the period of extreme stress do not return.

Managing stress effectively looks different for everyone. Sleep, diet,  and exercise all play a role -- as we have discussed previously. Additionally, here are some tips to help lower your stress level and improve all types of memory function.

  • 1
    ​Lower your intake of stimulants like caffeine and tobacco
  • 2
    ​Seek professional counseling
  • 3
    ​Try aromatherapy -- scents like lavender, rose, and chamomile calm the mind
  • 4
    ​Keep a journal

Pro memory tip:

Avoid drinking alcohol if you are having memory problems.

The reason you can't remember what happened during a night on the town or after playing a drinking game is due to Alcohol Amnesiac Disorder which prevents the transferring of information from short-term to long-term memories.

Talk to your doctor

If you notice a pattern of memory problems or other cognitive and behavioral issues, it is time to talk to your healthcare provider.

Make a list of your concerns -- so that you don't forget. Take the opportunity to go over your symptoms and any related health history -- including any relevant family history.

Bring along a list of medications you are taking. Be prepared to talk openly and honestly, and be willing to listen.

​Did you know?

​There is a pill that erases bad memories. A popular beta blocker medication prescribed for heart problems also erases painful memories, research shows. This is especially useful in treating patients with PTSD and other types of traumatic memories.


​Don't Forget This About Memory

hands holding photographs

Image: by Lisa Fotios, via Pexels


A popular meme bears a quote that says "a happy life relies on a poor memory."

That's just sad.

Your memories are complex and unique creations. They reflect a lifetime of curiosity and learning.

Aristotle said:

Remember, time slurs over everything, lets all deeds fade, blurs all writings and kills all memories. Exempt are only those which dig into the hearts of men by love.

But the romanticism aside, memory plays a vital role in your health and well-being.

In humans, various types of memory relate to the processes and structures in the brain that coordinate and filter through the massive amounts of information you take in each day.

Without functioning memory, you'd be helpless to complete even the simplest of tasks.

Some types of memory form your identity. Other memories allow for self-evaluation and growth. Without memory, we would be doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over.

man doing electric circuitry with his hands

Image: by David Cassolato, via Pexels


Like the operating system on your computer, most types of memory run in the background. It allows you to perform everyday tasks without thinking.

The efficient filing system your brain uses enables you to recall practically anything you committed to memory in the past.

Nevertheless, you may find that some days your memory is better than others.

Any number of problems like stress, inactivity, health problems, medications, age, and mental health impact how accurately your brain perceives, encodes, and recalls memories.

With age comes some degree of memory loss. Some people feel embarrassed to admit they are experiencing problems recalling.

However, it's important to talk to your doctor about any disruptions in memory including memory loss or frequent forgetfulness. Early intervention is critical to spotting underlying problems.

How to Make the Most of Your Memory Before You Forget

Like the operating system on your computer, most types of memory run in the background. It allows you to perform everyday tasks without thinking. The efficient filing system your brain uses enables you to recall practically anything you committed to memory in the past. Nevertheless, you may find that some days your memory is better than others. Any number of problems like stress, inactivity, health problems, medications, age, and mental health impact how accurately your brain perceives, encodes, and recalls memories.

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