Memory is one of the most important aspects of life.
Memory houses your joys, pains, hopes, and life experiences. It helps you recall important events and can also provide a sense of purpose that gives your life meaning.
When your memory is weakened or impaired, it can rob you of your ability to make good decisions and cause you to become disconnected from those you love. Memory problems can limit your success at work, steal your independence, and make you vulnerable to those who seek to take advantage of you.
How Memories Are Made
Though the biology of memory is complex, the more you know about it, the better you’ll understand how you can improve it. When linked with emotions, your senses – taste, sight, touch, smell, and hearing – are the raw ingredients for making memories.
Your brain processes your experiences to form memories, either by consciously focusing on something (like studying) or subconsciously creating associations (like attaching emotional significance to new information, like your first kiss).
With each new situation, your brain forms new connections and its wiring can change – an ability known as neuroplasticity.
Here are 3 ways memories are made:
- Encoding – This process occurs when your brain attaches meaning to experiences or determines why something happened. Studies show that we remember things better and retain them longer when we associate them with a purpose.
- Storage – Research suggests that the brain doesn’t store memories in complete, exact recollections that it can simply retrieve. Rather, memories are stored in small bits scattered in different areas of the brain. The hippocampus is a critical gateway to long-term storage for memories. If the hippocampus is damaged, you may have trouble recalling details and events from the past.
- Recall – During this stage, your brain reconstructs the memory from smaller stored pieces. When you remember something, it isn’t an exact replay of the experience. It’s more of a creative reimagining, like when someone exaggerates about the time they caught a 10-foot catfish. Memories can change over time. When your brain recalls a memory, it stimulates nerve pathways that were created when the memory was formed. Continuously working your memory strengthens it over time.
Forming memories requires an intricate dance between networks of nerve cells and the variety of neurotransmitters they make, especially glutamate and acetylcholine. Studies indicate acetylcholine activity can be lower in older people and such decline may be linked to memory challenges.
Types of Memory
Now that we’ve seen how memories are made, here are 5 types of memories.
Sensory Memory – less than 1 second (most are lost since they aren’t encoded)
Short-term Memory – less than 1 minute (such as a phone number)
Working Memory – seconds to hours (like cramming for an exam)
Long-term Memory – hours to months
Long-lasting Memory – months to a lifetime
Of course, the most well-known of the 5 types are short-term and long-term memory.
Short-term vs Long-term Memory: Effective Ways to Train Your Brain
Also known as active or primary memory, short-term memory relates to what we’re thinking about at a specific moment. Though often used interchangeably, short-term memory is different than working memory. While short-term memory temporarily stores information in memory, working memory manipulates and prioritizes information, some of which can subsequently become long-term memory.
It’s estimated that information is kept in short-term memory only for about 30 to 60 seconds. Also, it’s believed that we can store between 4 to 9 items in short-term memory.
Short-term memory storage is also prone to interference, especially if you’re in an environment where music or a TV is blaring in the background, or people are speaking within earshot.
Short-term Memory Tips:
It’s possible to hold on to short-term memories a little longer by saying the information (such as a license plate number or phone number) aloud or mentally repeating it.
Also, try breaking down the numbers, letters, or words into smaller units or bites, which should help you remember it better, at least in the short-term.
Most memory experts believe that memories must pass through short-term memory processing before reaching long-term storage. When you retrieve information, by bringing a memory into your conscious mind, you’re accessing long-term information. How quickly or accurately a person recalls the selected information may cause them to believe they have a “good” or “bad” memory.
In reality, there may be a number of things that influence how well you retrieve information. Perhaps you didn’t encode it properly in the first place because you were distracted at the time. Or, if you just remembered something that you tried to recall earlier in the day, it might be a sign that there’s a conflict between the encoding and retrieving stages.
Though getting older is commonly associated with a negative impact on memory, there are things you can do to slow down brain aging. These include many exercises that can help keep your memory sharp over the long-term.
Long-term Memory Tips:
If you’ve recently forgotten where you left your keys or glasses, one of three things may have occurred: 1. You may not have registered where you put them down, 2. You may not have retained what you registered, and 3. You may not be able to accurately retrieve the memory. To remember where you placed an object, ensure that these three stages of the memory process are working properly.
Using certain aids, like mnemonics, are a great way to improve your ability to remember things. For example, when memorizing a list, associate each item with the most humorous or ridiculous image you can think of to help you recall it later. No one sees the image in your mind, so be creative and have fun with it.
If you’re having challenges with your short-term or long-term memory, or if you just want to make sure your memory stays sharp over the long haul, here are some energizing exercises that can help improve your brain…
Some of the Best Memory-Boosting Exercises for 5 Regions of Your Brain
The best mental exercises involve acquiring new knowledge and doing things you haven’t done before. Even if your routine activities are fairly complicated, such as teaching a college course, reading medical/dental scans, or fixing a crashed computer network, they won’t help your brain as much as learning something new.
Whenever the brain does something over and over, it learns how to do it with less and less energy. New learning, such as memorizing zip codes or learning a new game, helps establish new connections, which can help maintain and improve the function of different areas of the brain.
The parts of your brain you use will grow and the parts you don’t use may atrophy over time. That’s instructive about how to exercise your brain. Just doing crossword puzzles or sudoku won’t give you the full possible benefits. That’s like going to the gym and leaving after doing right bicep curls.
Here are some effective ways to train your brain by each region:
Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) Exercises
- Language games, such as Scrabble (try to memorize as many words in the Scrabble dictionary as possible), Boggle, and Words with Friends
- Crossword puzzles
- Strategy games, such as chess and Risk
- Tetris (which also works the parietal and occipital lobes) can help decrease cravings for drugs (alcohol, nicotine, caffeine), food and drink, and activities (sex, exercise, gaming) after just three minutes
- Prayer and meditation may improve focus, executive function, judgment, and impulse control, which can result in more thoughtful and moral decisions
- Weight training and aerobic activity, when combined, these exercises can increase executive function – which encompasses complex thought processes such as reasoning, planning, problem-solving, and multitasking – in people with serious memory issues
Temporal Lobe Exercises
- 3D video games, such as Super Mario 3D World (but not Angry Birds and other 2D games) lead to enhanced hippocampal function, which can strengthen a player’s learning and memory
- Intensive learning, such as reading medical or law school texts, has been shown to increase hippocampal size after just 14 weeks
- Memorization of poetry and prose increases hippocampal size
- Memory and mnemonic training
- Learning to play new musical instruments strengthens the PFC, parietal lobes, and cerebellum
- Physical exercise also increases the hippocampus, so learn a new sport as you’re exercising for even greater benefit
Parietal Lobe Exercises
- Math games like sudoku
- Juggling, which also involves the PFC, temporal lobes (hippocampus), occipital lobes, and cerebellum
- Golf, 40 hours of training increases gray matter in the parietal and occipital lobes
- Learning to read and play music
- Map reading (without GPS assistance)
Basal Ganglia Exercises
- Synchronizing arm and leg movements
- Manipulating props like ropes and balls
- Coordination games like table tennis (which also involves the PFC), dancing (and learning new dance steps), yoga, and tai chi
Make Memory a Priority
Regardless of your age, mental exercise has an overall positive effect on your brain. One of the keys to aging well is to continually engage in new learning. Like a muscle – the more you use your brain, the stronger it gets.
Whenever you learn something, new neural connections are created. On the other hand, when you stop learning, your brain starts fading. Cognitive performance can start to suffer when the internal connections in your brain begin to break apart.
Research shows that you can significantly improve your brain health in just 15 minutes a day. Try devoting 15 minutes a day to a new hobby or activity like painting or playing a musical instrument. Or, learn a new subject or language.
Einstein once said that people who spend 15 minutes a day learning something new will become an expert within a year, so select one of the above exercises and start improving your short- and long-term memory today!
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