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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 memory boils down to five key areas: sleep, physical exercise, stress management, diet, and memory techniques.


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 improving 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.


As suggested in Part I of this series, habits that keep your body functioning well tend also to help your mind – and by extension, your memory. Diet is no exception. As with so many things related to diet, there is plenty of blather out there about what works and what doesn’t – and a supplements industry happy to sell you anything you are willing to buy. Definitely apply your critical thinking skills before ingesting anything that is supposed to help your brain.

One of the better sources I have found on diet and cognition is an article published in Nature in 2008 highlighting the research of Fernando Gomez-Pinilla. Here’s the full text. I highly recommend it, but here are a few highlights for the time challenged:

  • Food is like a drug in many ways – it contains specific substances that can impact how the brain functions;
  • Omega 3 fatty acids – found in fatty fish, like salmon, flax seed, and walnuts – appear to help the brain function properly and may even slow cognitive decline in the elderly;
  • On the other hand, saturated fats – found in dairy products, meat, and still too often in oily snack foods – can have a negative impact.
  • Flavenoids – found in cocoa, dark chocolate, green tea, citrus fruits, and wine – may also improve cognitive function, particularly in combination with regular exercise.
  • With respect to memory, Gomez-Pinllia specifically mentions B vitamins as having positive impact on memory in women and choline – found in egg yolks, soy, beef, chicken, veal, turkey liverm and lettuce – as potentially reducing memory impairment caused by seizures.

Gomez-Pinilla’s article features a great chart that summarizes the effects of different types of food on the brain. While doing research for this post, I also found that the Happy Healthy Long Life blog has included the chart in a great summary it offers of Gomez-Pinilla’s article. As the author notes, it’s worth printing out and putting on your fridge.

Techniques for Improving Memory

In the world of blogging, experts will always tell you that content comes first if you want to attract an audience. Techniques like search engine optimization are secondary – they don’t matter very much if you don’t have a solid base of good content. I think a similar logic applies to memory techniques and all of the brain training hype that is out there these days. They may help, but you should concentrate first on maintaining a healthy, well-rested brain by following the first four paths described in this series.

So, assuming you’ve got a healthy, well-rested brain and are looking to turbo charge it, what are some techniques you can use? Here are three that seem to show up again and again:


Back in the days of old when I taught Russian, we would always tell the students that “Repetition is the mother of learning.” The old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall (punchline: Practice!) is cut from similar logic. Simply going over something again and again – whether the something is a vocabulary list or Bethoven’s 9th – greatly increases the chances that you will retain it in memory. Naturally, this approach requires time and work, and as a result, often gets pushed aside for supposedly quicker fixes that are rarely as effective.

Use of multiple senses

If we hear something, we may remember it. If we hear it, see it (whether in reality or through use of our imagination), and write it down, our chances of remembering it jump dramatically. It’s well worth both taking notes and revisiting those notes both because this is a form of repetition (see above) and because these activities engage multiple senses. Even if you tend to never review your notes – or you always leave that shopping list sitting on the kitchen counter – the simple act of searching through the fridge and cabinets and then writing items down makes you more likely to remember them when you get to the store.


When I took my first guitar lessons as a kid, I can remember that the teacher’s technique for helping students remember the six strings on the guitar didn’t go over all that well with Southern Baptists. I can also clearly remember his technique – and the strings – to this day: Easter Bunnies Get Drunk At Easter – E-B-G-D-A-E, from the bottom up.

That’s a classic mnemonic device. The teacher used the notes associated with each string to create an acrostic that was much easier to remember than the letters by themselves. “Mnemonic  device” is simply another (and much more Greek) way of saying “memory aid.” At the core of all mnemonic devices is the concept of associating one object or idea with another. Weaving vocabulary words into a simple rhyme, story, or song is one example. Visualizing a rose to help you remember the name of a woman named “Rose” is another.

I won’t try to cover all of the possibilities for mnemonic devices here. A simple Google search turns up many great resources, and you may want to check out 9 Types of Mnemonics for Better Memory as well as Fiona McPherson’s writings about mnemonics at About Memory. Here, however, are a few classics American readers may recognize (I welcome examples from other countries in the comments!):

  • “I” before “e” except after “c”
    or when sounding like “a”
    in neighbor and weigh
  • In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
  • Albania, Albania… Coach makes up a song to help he and Sam study in this classic Cheers episode.
  • Conjunction Junction, what’s your … If you are of a certain age, you almost certainly know how to finish that sentence. Here’s the classic Schoolhouse Rock segment that taught so many of us about “hookin’ up words, and phrases, and clauses.” This is a bit elaborate as far as mnemonics goes, but it was a fun one to dig up.


That’s it for my little “learn about” venture into the world of improving memory. It is an area where I hope to continue building knowledge. And, of course, I hope to practice better what I preach with respect to improving my own memory.

How about you? What have you found useful for maintaining and improving your memory? What are some resources other readers might appreciate knowing about? Please comment and share!


See also:

3 thoughts on “5 Key Paths to Improving Memory, Part I”

  1. Pingback: How to Improve Concentration and Focus: 7 Tips « Elevic Pernis – Cogitations

  2. 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

  3. 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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