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5 Key Paths to Improving Memory, Part I

Ever wish you were just a little bit better at remembering the things you would really like to learn?

You can find plenty of memory improvement tips out there, and a whole industry has grown up around the concept of “brain training,” but figuring out what’s worthwhile and what’s not can be an extremely confusing process. I won’t claim to be an expert, but I decided to go “learn about” in an effort to cut through all the confusion and come up with some practical wisdom to put to work in my own life. Having now sifted through a wide range of writings on the topic, it seems to me that improving your memory boils down to five key areas.

Here are the first three: sleep, physical exercise, and stress management. The next two –  diet and memory techniques – are covered in part two of this series.


If you are like me, you know from practical experience that your memory doesn’t tend to function as well when you are sleep-deprived. As it happens, a wide range of scientific studies support the idea that sleep is necessary for helping to “consolidate” memory, or at least certain types of memory. And a study published in Cortex, suggests that sleep may more do than just preserve memories: it may make them much more accessible to us, ensuring that we are actually able to remember when we need to. (More on this study here.)

The bottom line: Sleep is important; get enough of it if you want to make sure your memory is functioning properly.

Of course, that begs the question: what is enough? Unfortunately there is no “one-size-fits-all” answer to that question. The safest bet seems to be to aim for at least the standard 7-8 hours a night recommended for most adults and to pay enough attention to how you feel and act based on that amount of sleep to adjust up or down as needed. For more information on sleep needs from infants up to adults, I recommend an article on sleep requirements from Parenting Science.

Physical Exercise

Physical exercise is a somewhat grayer area than sleep when it comes to memory, but there seems to be a reasonable body of evidence suggesting that physical fitness and cognitive fitness are linked. At a minimum, a short-term effect of exercise, and in particular aerobic exercise that is continued over a period of at least 30 minutes, is an increase in blood flow and corresponding oxygen supply to the brain. This can help boost cognitive function, including memory. A regular exercise habit can help to improve circulation in general and also ward off stress and depression – two established enemies of optimal cognitive function.

Research also suggests that physical exercise may directly benefit the hippocampus – an area of the brain that is essential to memory. A study published in the journal Hippocampus, for example, showed that “elderly adults who are more physically fit tend to have bigger hippocampi and better spatial memory than those who are less fit.”  As one of the lead researchers on the study puts it, “Basically, if you stay fit, you retain key regions of your brain involved in learning and memory.”

So how much exercise should the average person be getting? There’s plenty of debate on the topic, but one reasonable starting point is the Center for Disease Control’s “How much physical activity do you need?”

Stress Management

As noted above, stress is known to have an impact on cognitive function, and this includes memory. For starters, stress can interfere with sleep, which we have already identified as important to memory. But stress also impacts the brain more directly in both positive and negative ways.

On the positive side, when we are presented with problems or challenges, our bodies are stimulated to produce norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that is essential to memory. This can be a good thing when studying for a test or preparing for some other challenge. But too much stress over too long a period takes its toll. The work of neurologist Robert Sapolsky and a range of other researchers have shown that chronic stress can, over time, lead to degeneration of the hippocampus, thus interfering with our capability to process and store memories. (see Memory and Stress).

So what are some approaches to managing stress? Getting enough sleep and exercising regularly are an excellent starting point – and these come with the memory benefits already noted. Additionally, there is some evidence that meditation and other well-known relaxation techniques may have a direct impact on the hippocampus – at least in the elderly.  At a minimum, long-term practice of meditation or other relaxation techniques helps ward off chronic stress, an established enemy of memory. If you don’t feel like meditation is right for you, you might consider the simple breathing exercises advocated by alternative health practitioner Andrew Weil.

If you are getting the sense that promoting and maintaining good memory is largely a matter of good lifestyle choices and habits, you are right. Stay tuned for more on that as well as some practical memory techniques in part two of this series.

Go to part two of this series >>


P.S. – If you are really interested in memory – and, particularly, in memory improvement – I recommend Scientific Secrets for a Powerful Memory from The Great Courses.

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How to Improve Concentration and Focus: 7 Tips « Elevic Pernis – Cogitations says

[…] of sleep – I’ve written before about the important role it plays in memory. And having sufficient sleep is also likely to positively impact your attitude towards […]

Jeff Cobb says

Fran – Thanks for commenting. It’s taken me longer to get to part two than I would have liked, but it is mostly written now and I expect to post it this Wednesday. I share the skepticism re: brain exercises, though I am not familiar enough with the research to actually bash it. I plan to focus on more tried and true techniques like mnemonics in the techniques section. I’ll definitely take a look at your site for input and inspiration on that! – Jeff

Francis O'Reilly says

Good list, stressful physical factors certainly take their toll on me for one, when I’m trying to remember stuff. Also good to see you’ll be covering memory techniques in your next post – I especially am interested in mnemonics as evidenced by my website – I’ll make sure to drop by when Part 2 is published!

However I would be highly skeptical of the current rash of Workout-My-Brain type exercises (you know the ones). These have been very heavily criticised in Ben Goldacre’s book “Bad Science” as being largely ineffective and without any evidence to back them up. In my own opinion, there is nothing more important to trying to remember something than your own level of *motivation*.

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