Do you find yourself ransacking your brain in search of elusive memories and coming up empty? You may be having problems with your long-term memory, and, if so, you can do something about it.
“As people grow older, the formation and retrieval of memories becomes more challenging,” says MGH neuropsychologist Lauren Pollak, PhD, ABPP, an Assistant Professor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School. “But research suggests that older people who use memory strategies can maintain an ability to remember information that is comparable to that of younger people.
“Every memory lives in a pattern of information in the form of connections among brain cells, or neurons,” Dr. Pollak explains. “Through a process of physical changes affecting neurons, the memory is eventually consolidated in long-term storage, and the pattern of connections must be reactivated to bring back the memory.”
Factors That Inhibit Memory Formation
Long-term memories reside in the brain’s neocortex, which is the final depository for information that is brought in through the senses, processed as a memory trace (encoded), and then consolidated and stored for future recall. Learning new strategies to strengthen these stages of memory formation can help make retrieving a memory much easier.
To boost your ability to file away information in long-term storage, it helps to be aware of factors that can interfere with the initial process of memory formation, and take steps to avoid them if possible. These factors include:
- External factors, such as distractions caused by noise, commotion, visual distractions, uncomfortable temperatures, or inadequate lighting
- Physical factors such as lack of sleep, a medical condition or disease, pain, a reaction to drugs, or physical discomfort
- Mental factors, such as inattention, confusion, anxiety, depression, anger, or stress
Interference from information learned before or after a memory is encoded. The recipe you learned last year may become confused with one you’re learning now, or vice versa.
10 Memory Tips
Even when factors that might interfere with memory formation have been eliminated, you may find that remembering information becomes increasingly challenging, especially as you grow older. Research suggests that increasing age is associated with a greater tendency to become distracted, greater difficulty holding information in mind so that it can be processed, slower processing speed, and physical changes to the brain related to the effects of aging, among other issues.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
The better your physical condition, the better your chances of creating strong and lasting memory traces. To sharpen your powers of retention and recall:
- Eat a nutritious, low-fat diet
- Get regular exercise
- Minimize stress
- Get plenty of sleep
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Manage medical problems that can take a toll on memory, such as visual or hearing impairment, diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. Consult with your doctor if you feel your medications may be interfering with your memory.
The following learning strategies are effective ways to overcome some of these challenges and boost your memory ability:
Sharpen your focus. Learn to ignore distractions. Pay attention to one thing at a time—don’t multi-task. Be observant. Limit the amount of information you learn at one sitting. Regular practice of meditation is one very effective way to strengthen your ability to concentrate.
Make the information personally relevant. Think about what you’re learning and why you want to remember the information.
Simplify. Break down information into smaller parts, and tackle each part separately. Remember numbers by dividing them into manageable units: instead of 125833076, think 125-833-076.
Organize. Group information in a logical fashion. For example, to remember what’s on your shopping list, divide items into fruits and vegetables, dairy, and meat.
Link new information to established memories. For example, to remember the name of a new acquaintance, you might link it with your sister of the same name.
Use multiple senses. Say the new information out loud. Write it down. Read it over.
Engage your imagination. Form mental pictures or visualize an action to help you remember. For example, to remember the time of your 3 o’clock doctor’s appointment, see yourself entering her office as the clock strikes three.
Use memory strategies. Fix information in your mind by including it in a story, or using it in a memorable poem or ditty. Use other mnemonics, such as acronyms, outlines, or drawings.
Practice and review. Rehearse new information to embed it in your memory. Test yourself on it. Repeated exposure to information embeds a memory more deeply.
Plan ahead to remember. For example, put your empty prescription bottle by the front door as a reminder to pick up your medication.
If all else fails, you can help your flagging memory by using memory aids. Get in the habit of jotting down notes on complex or extensive information to help you remember. Use tools like calendars, journals, answering machines, and sticky notes as reminders.
How Memory Works
When we take in sensory information, a memory trace is transmitted by neurons across communication points among neurons (synapses) and distributed among regions of the brain associated with smell, taste, sight, hearing or feeling.
It was once thought that the memory trace was then relayed to the hippocampus, a key memory region. There it was accessible as a short-term memory until it was processed and sent on to long-term storage in the neocortex, where it remained per-manently available for retrieval.
However, fascinating new high-tech research has updated that theory. Scientists used light to turn individual memory cells, called engram cells, on and off in memory regions within the brains of mice to closely observe how memory circuits work. The research revealed that an incoming memory trace is actually deposited simultaneously in the hippocampus and the neocortex—as well as in the basolateral amygdala, a repository for memories’ emotional associations. While at first the memory trace in the hippocampus was accessible for recall, the trace in the neocortex remained “silent,” according to a paper published in the April 6, 2017 issue of Science. Over a period of about two weeks, the hippocampal memory gradually faded and became inaccessible, while the trace in the neocortex matured and became necessary for recall. The memory trace in the amygdala remained unchanged.
“The memory process is amazingly complex,” Dr. Pollak says. “Our understanding of this process keeps evolving, thanks to studies such as this one, but we still have much to learn. However, we do know that if the machinery of processing memory is broken, then the trace doesn’t get laid down or processed deeply. That’s when memory problems arise.”