Ten Tricks to Keep Your Memory Sharp
Dr. Andrew Budson shares tips on how to use mindfulness, imagery, and other strategies to improve your memory
By Dr. Andrew Budson | Professor of Neurology & Director of Education at BU’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center
We live in an age of multitasking and distracted attention, making it even harder than usual to store and retrieve memories. You may think that some people have good memories and others don’t, and that’s the way it is. However, the truth is that just about anyone can improve their memory using certain strategies. Dr. Andrew Budson of Boston University’s School of Medicine offers 10 tips to keep your memory sharp:
1. Practice active attention. To remember something, we need to pay attention to it. Mindfulness techniques are one way to practice active attention, making a conscious effort to be “in the moment,” paying full attention to what we are trying to learn.
2. Repeat information spaced out over time. Repeating information aloud or writing it down again improves your memory for any material. Start repeating the material once or twice after hearing it, then thirty minutes later, and again after an hour or two. Repeat it again the next day, the next week, and then the next month. Keep this process up and you’ll remember it for a lifetime.
3. Make flashcards and test yourself. When two popular methods for studying were compared, highlighting and rereading versus making flashcards and self-testing, students’ perceptions were that these methods were equally effective. When tested in practice, however, making flashcards and self-testing was much more effective. In fact, highlight and rereading gave individuals the illusion that they had learned the material, when, in actuality, they hadn’t.
4. Create visual images. You can create a picture anytime to help you remember information. How you will you remember you parked your car in lot B, row three? Picture three large bumblebees buzzing around your car — that’s an image you’ll remember!
5. Make connections. Our brains are wired to form connections between information. We can use this natural tendency by linking the new information we want to learn with something we already know. It is often helpful to pair this technique with that of creating visual images.
6. Put it in a location. The Greeks developed the method of loci more than 2000 years ago and it still works well today. In your mind, walk around your home and fill each room (or each part of each room, such as the table, chair, rug, and corner) with something that you want to remember, such as items on a grocery list. To retrieve the items, simply walk through your home in your mind and look what is in each room.
7. Learn the name well. Trouble remembering names? Make sure you learn the name well in the first place. Combine some of the above techniques. Repeat their name back to them (“It’s nice to meet you, Frank”). Create an image (picture Frank eating frankfurters). Make connections (“My uncle’s name is Frank”). Finally, repeat their name again at the end of the conversation (“Bye Frank”).
8. Don’t delay. One strategy to help you remember things is to take care of them right away — don’t delay. Whether it is an addition to your to do list, another grocery item you thought of, or an appointment you just made, record them right away — if you delay, you may forget.
9. Keep it simple. Avoid redundancy. Don’t have three calendars (one at work, one at home, one in your purse) and copy appointments from one to another — that’s a recipe for mixing up or forgetting appointments. Use just one. Simplicity reduces confusion.
10. Make it routine. Get into a routine of using memory strategies and memory aids including, lists, calendars, smart phones, and special places. For example, try designating a special place — perhaps a small table or a bowl near the door — to put your keys, glasses, wallet, and purse. Once you get into the routine of using it, you’ll put these things there automatically when you come in — even if you are tired, rushed, or distracted — and you’ll never need to hunt for them.
Whether you are a student studying for exams, a senior citizen struggling with names, or someone trying to cope with a busy schedule, memory strategies and aids can help everyone remember better.
For more information, see Budson’s new book, Seven Steps to Managing Your Memory: What’s Normal, What’s Not, and What to Do About It, published by Oxford University Press, 2017.
Andrew Budson is Professor of Neurology, Director of Education at the BU Alzheimer’s Disease Center, and Chief of Cognitive & Behavioral Neurology at the VA Boston Healthcare System.