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5 Key Paths to Improving Memory, Part II

This is the second part of a two-part “learn about” series on memory improvement. The first part covers sleep, physical exercise, and stress management. In this part, I take a look at diet and memory techniques.

Diet

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.

Memory Techniques

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:

Rehearsal

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.

Mnemonics

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.

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That’s it for my little “learn about” venture into the world of 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!

Jeff

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.

About the Author Jeff Cobb

I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.

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Leave a Comment:

3 comments
Cliff says

Hi Jeff,

I just read your 5 Key Paths to improving Memory Part 1-2. I found it very useful and definitely i will recommend this specially to my friends and families to take your advice. Thank you very much!

Reply
ZivonBagge says

I really like the way to improve himself with practice of Sharpe the mind.
I need to learn more languages for my hobbies. But can you tell me Learn How to Speak Russian with more efficiency.
Thanks for blog.

Reply
self improvement says

Great post. Particularly liked your analogy of comparing content creation to healthy, well rested brain, vs SEO to rest of the memory techniques. Couldn’t agree more. Learning new stuff is another thing that keeps the grey area working, and that helps in improving memory.

Btw read an article today about some British research that says using Facebook improves memory, where as using Twitter has the opposite effect! Interesting stuff!

Thanks for your very informative pieces on memory.

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