What was that?

Ways to make memory last


I’ve always been kind of scatterbrained, but now that I have a kid and work one full-time and two part-time jobs, it’s so much worse. I forget things I’ve read, what movies I’ve seen, what I ate for breakfast, what I’m supposed to do, people’s names and…. What was I talking about?

Memory is pretty important for, you know, getting through life – doing your job, doing well in school, from learning new things to remembering to put on your pants.

Good news: research out of New Zealand’s Auckland University actually shows that, in moderation, alcohol may improve short-term memory. Yay. It’s also been shown to stave off dementia and cognitive decline. Other things that may help recover your recall include green tea, exercise and (possibly) smelling rosemary.

There’s also the method of loci, or the memory palace:

you visualize a building with several rooms furnished with objects, attach the things you want to remember to the objects and recall them as you mentally walk through the rooms. (Oh, just google it!)

What the experts say

“The more imagery you incorporate into your learning experience, the more vivid the associations. Our brains latch onto things that are vivid and imaginative. Things like repetition are helpful, within reason. Research shows that in some cases repetition can actually hinder memory. For a technique I call ‘intelligent repetition,’ you repeat things but vary the context. You don’t always use the same exact words, or you change the context slightly. We retain conceptual information better that way.

We know from animal studies that two surefire ways to enhance and improve memory are sugar and coffee.”

MICHAEL YASSA, assistant professor of neurobiology and behaviour, University of California, Irvine


“We found that a drink with green tea extract enhances connectivity from the right parietal cortex to the frontal cortex during working memory processing, compared to a control drink without green tea extract.

Interestingly, the enhanced parietal-frontal coupling induced by green tea extract correlated with improvement in subjects’ task performance. These findings might provide a mechanism at the neural system level for the putative beneficial effect of green tea on cognitive functioning.”

ANDRÉ SCHMIDT, department of psychiatry, University of Basel, Switzerland


“I focus on the concept of learning efficiency. Memory improvement implies something for nothing: ‘Take this pill and you’ll be able to remember the entire dictionary in a few minutes.’ That’s not how learning works. You become a more efficient learner by practising retrieval and distributing your practice. Retrieval practice means that instead of re-reading material, we test ourselves. Thus, [trying to recall] the French word that means ‘dandelion’ is more effective than simply re-studying ‘dandelion/pissenlit.’

Distributed study means spreading learning over time. Thus, four 15-minute study sessions result in greater learning of that French vocabulary than one 60-minute session. Avoid distraction. Good sleep, good diet and exercise are all healthy things to do but have little direct connection with memory.”

BENNETT SCHWARTZ, professor of psychology, Florida International University, Miami


“We found that in older women with memory complaints and difficulties, walking at a moderate pace twice a week for approximately 40 minutes leads to improvements in memory as well as increased volume in the hippocampus.

The hippocampus is a brain structure critical for memory that typically shrinks with age. Shrinkage is associated with impaired memory and greater risk for dementia. Evidence suggests that regular physical activity is beneficial across your lifespan. For example, studies have shown that physical activity among children promotes learning and cognitive performance.”

TERESA LIU-AMBROSE, associate professor, Canada Research Chair, department of physical therapy, aging, mobility, Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute and University of British Columbia


“The most important way to improve memory or prevent memory loss is to get regular, restful and long-enough sleep, eight hours optimum. Practise sleep hygiene techniques such as going to bed at the same time every night in a quiet darkened room. Do not read or watch TV in bed, because the body will become too hot and will miss the perfect temperature at which it drops off peacefully into a deep sleep. Regular exercise and a healthy diet are also key for restful sleep. Boost memory and brain function with the herb ginkgo biloba and acetyl-L-carnitine, which supports acetylcholine, the primary neurotransmitter for memory and thought, and increases blood flow to the brain and nerve cell membranes.”

ZORANA ROSE, naturopath, Toronto


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