Many people, myself including, wish they had a better memory. There are two set of recommendations addressing the issue. One is a number of cool techniques you can use to memorize things better. We will talk about them in one of the next posts here, but in case you want it all and you want it now, I would recommend one of the best books on the subject, The Memory Book: The Classic Guide to Improving Your Memory at Work, at School, and at Play by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas.
This post is about general memory skills, what you need to do to make sure your memory capacity and reliability are at their best.
Most of us are afraid of declining ability to keep things in mind when we grow older, and, unfortunately, these expectations usually prove correct. The problem, though, that this fear and expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Yes, older people tend to have worse memory than younger ones. However, significant part of this impairment is a result of self-stereotyping, found Becca Levy of Harvard University, who conducted a number of human studies in the field.
In one of her studies, 90 people, aged between 60 and 90, were exposed to different sets of words. Half of them was given an assignment to generate a number of phrases consisting of “senile” words (like “dementia”, “dying”, “confused”, “decline”). Another half got the same task but the words given were quite positive (e.g. “alert”, “wise”, “sage”, “astute”). In psychology, this exercise is called priming.
Participants’ memory skills were carefully tested before and after the priming described. The analysis of the tests found that those primed by “positive” words showed significant improvement in their memory. They were able to keep more pieces of information in mind, and recall them faster and with better accuracy than people exposed to “senile” words.
The same researcher conducted a similar study among younger people, aged between 18 and 35, which did not find the same trends: younger people’s memory was not so susceptible to senile priming.
Two studies confirmed that older people in general actually have worse memory even when they are optimistically primed, but in some aspects, namely, so-called “immediate recall” (an ability to reproduce a pattern of dots on a grid studied within 10 seconds immediately after the drawing was removed) older people, primed positively, did better than the most of the youngsters!
I believe anyone, regardless of the age, can benefit from those studies. They actually say that in order in have a good memory it makes sense to be confident that you already have it. Doubts and self-reprimands will only make it worse. Hence the first advice: be positive about your own memory. That does not mean you do not need to write things down, but not worrying about your memory is one of the best things you can do to make it actually better.
Another advice is get enough sleep. In the recent post I painted a scary picture of consequences of sleep deprivation, and working memory decline is just one of them. Seven to eight hours of sleep is what you need to remember stuff better.
The last scientifically proven way to being able to memorize things easy is to be physically active. The positive effect of exercise has been repeatedly explained biologically and studied statistically on both lab animals and humans. Coupled with other benefits of physical activity, this one should make you move in case you still do not.
Have nice memories!