33 Ways To Improve Your Memory
Illustration by Mr Donghyun Lim
If life is one long trade-off between youth and experience, then your memory is the tool that makes it all worthwhile. After all, what’s the point of making mistakes, learning new skills (or new friend’s names) if, later on, you can’t recall any of it?
Like any other part of your body, your memory is a muscle that can be exercised to become stronger. The key is to find a blend of activities you enjoy that fit into your busy schedule. Here are 33 scientifically proven ways to improve your powers of recall, from diet changes and lifestyle tweaks to fun new hobbies.
Vary your workouts
Everyone and their PE teacher knows “a healthy body means a healthy mind”, but a study reported in The New York Times this year proved it can also mean a healthy memory. Measuring how the intensity of workouts impacts people’s powers of recall, researchers discovered moderate exercise leads to better episodic memory (remembering a fun day out with your friends) while Hiit workouts lead to better spatial memory (remembering where you’ve put your keys). So, next time you’re in the gym, remember to mix it up a bit.
“Big Fish” has been marketing itself on the superfood status of omega-3 for years now, so it should be no surprise that salmon, trout, sardines et al are good for your brain. Does it help with memory specifically? You betcha, with several studies linking oily fish to a reduced risk of age-related mental decline.
Don’t give up coffee
The next time a colleague gives you a concerned glance as you down your fourth flat white of the morning and a mild panic attack forms in the corner of your eyes, tell them you’re doing it for your memory. Drinking coffee over the long term is linked with a reduced risk of neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, according to John Hopkins University.
Actually, do give up coffee
Alternatively, if you’re growing sick of the sight of your local barista (no one needs that many tattoos), one substitute worth considering is green tea, which gives you a similar energy hit but also has been proven to boost your working memory – handy doing sums, for example – according to the University of Basel.
“According to Harvard Medical School, we should think of yoga as ‘weightlifting for the brain’”
Go out for a curry
Since around 2019, turmeric has been a foodie trend, lauded by “wellness gurus” in countless excitable TikTok videos. To think all it took was waiting quietly on menus for 5,000 years of human history. Among the yellow spice’s magical qualities is curcumin, a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound that can help fight Alzheimer’s.
Take up yoga
According to Harvard Medical School, we should think of yoga as “weightlifting for the brain”: each downward-facing dog you do causes cells to develop new pathways, particularly aiding attention, awareness, thought, language and – you guessed it – memory.
Crack an egg
Advice on eggs has varied wildly over the years, but whether you’re a fried, scrambled, poached, boiled or raw-from-a-cup kind of person (chill out, Rocky), rest assured they’re packed with nutrients your brain will thank you for, including vitamins B6 and B12, folate and – in the yolks particularly – choline – which helps regulate mood and memory.
Keep a diary
Can’t remember what you were doing on 12 June 2003? Whether you’re simply curious or trying to dodge a murder case, there’s a special app for retracing your steps and it’s called a pad of paper. In addition to helping you remember what you’ve been doing with your life, writing out your thoughts at the end of the day is also proven to be good for your mental health.
“Just 20 minutes of quiet contemplation has been proven to increase blood flow to the brain”
Learn a language
Knowing how to speak a second (or third, or fourth) language isn’t just good for ordering food and impressing people at dinner parties. In fact, studies show it’s a superb way to strengthen what neurologists call our “cognitive reserve”, which is the brain’s ability to compensate for the loss of its functions with age. Très bien.
Make (a little) time to meditate
People tend to overcomplicate meditation, which is best attempted in a spirit of simplicity, curiosity and kindness to yourself (a nice cushion helps, too). Aside from helping you regulate your mood, just 20 minutes of quiet contemplation has been proven to increase blood flow to the brain, which in turn leads to a stronger network of blood vessels in the cerebral cortex, which helps with memory capacity.
Finally learn how to play chess
If you thought the only reason to play chess was to increase your sex appeal, think again. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a game that has more potential outcomes than there are atoms in the observable universe (a fact), players need a rather good memory to excel at it – and studies show those who play are better at remembering other things, too.
In news that will delight 13 year olds everywhere (OK, who are we kidding – us, too), research conducted by SAGE in 2015 found that playing video games positively impacts working memory, along with various other cognitive functions. And it’s not just puzzle and strategy games either – the report lists “action” games, which we’re taking to include Call Of Duty.
Dance like no one’s watching
Harvard Medical School might not be the first place you imagine people busting moves, but nevertheless, it reported in 2015 that dancing helps “develop new neural connections, especially in regions involved in executive function, long-term memory and spatial recognition”. Is this negated by drinking several martinis beforehand? Best not to ask.
Try out a brain training app
Lumosity, Elevate, CogniFit… there are many gamified apps that claim to keep your brain sharp and help pass those dreadful minutes when 5G drops out on the train. As Scientific American has pointed out, evidence of their long-term benefits is mixed – making it the only item on this list not backed by a scientific paper – but still, it has to be better for you than 10 more minutes on Instagram, doesn’t it?
“Dancing helps ‘develop new neural connections, especially in regions involved in long-term memory’”
Kick (bad) fats and sugars
Aside from the obvious impact on your waistline, a 2016 medical report showed that eating rubbish – ie, food full of processed fats and sugars – also causes inflammation in the brain, including areas that are crucial for memory.
Get a good night’s sleep
As anyone with noisy neighbours or small children knows only too well, a poor night’s sleep (or several in a row) can play havoc with your memory. One scientific study found children with poor sleep perform 20 per cent worse on tests; another, that 68 per cent of nurses on night shifts scored lower on memory tests than those working during the day.
The past and future are mere concepts; all that ever truly exists is this exact moment in time. Which is nice. Practicing mindfulness – a good technique is to slowly observe your environment with your senses, one by one – isn’t just good for your mental health, it is proven to help with episodic memory, too.
Get a blood test
Having low levels of vitamin D is actually fairly common, particularly if you live in colder climes. And it’s been linked with age-related cognitive decline and dementia. One relatively easy way to improve your memory is to ask your doctor for a test and get some supplements in if needed.
Mix up your learning styles
Most people are visual learners; some pick things up easiest via audio; fewer still are kinesthetic learners (by experience). But your brain likes variety, so for a healthy memory, try and mix up all three. That means reading, yes, but the odd audiobook, too, as well as getting out there and trying something new hands-on.
“Making mental maps is a seriously good brain workout”
Pick up a sword
If you were to choose a sport purely on how well it can help your memory, you might just opt for… fencing. A study conducted in Rome in 2012 hypothesised that activities that require us to constantly move and adapt might help stave off age-related decay in memory and processing speeds. And nothing quite fits that bill like having a sword repeatedly waggled in your face.
Do a crossword
You knew it would come up at some point. The humble crossword, beloved of grandmas the world over, has seen off competition from young upstarts like Sudoku and Wordle in recent years to retain its crown as the supreme gentle memory exercise – at least according to a study from Columbia University.
Quite a lovely one, this. A 2015 study published in the National Library of Medicine found a link between multisensory experience and working memory: in short, stimulating our abilities to see, hear, smell, taste and touch at the same time can help us remember. The easiest activity to fit the bill? Cooking, of course.
Draw a map
London cabbies, famously, have superb memories that allow them to take you to obscure side streets while educating you on the big topics of the day. Part of the reason is that making mental maps is a seriously good brain workout, so if you want a better memory of your own, try physically drawing a map of somewhere you know.
“You’ve tried singing in the shower, but what about reading out loud in the bath?”
Read out loud
You’ve tried singing in the shower, but what about reading out loud in the bath? A 2017 study from the University of Waterloo found that the dual action of speaking and hearing oneself has something called the “production effect”, which benefits how well you remember things.
Use acronyms, abbreviations and mnemonics
If you want to be the GOAT of remembering stuff, try coming up with your own shorthand such as acronyms, abbreviations and mnemonics. It’s as easy as ABC, 123, etc…
A quirk of the way our short-term memories work is that breaking long bits of information down into bite-sized chunks makes them easier to remember, which is why, when someone asks for your phone number, you tend to reel it off in sets of two to four digits rather than read the whole thing out in one go. What do you mean, no one ever asks for your phone number?
Wait before you Google
The next time you can’t quite remember who the fifth member of Boyzone was (Mr Mikey Graham) or the name of that Mr Tom Hanks film where he plays that guy who does that thing (erm, Catch Me If You Can?), rather than slide your phone out to end the misery, stop and give your brain a chance to do its thing. It might take longer than Google, but at least it belongs to you. For now.
Don’t use GPS
Similarly, finding your own way from A to B rather than staring down at Google Maps as you bang into people on Oxford Street is way matter for your memory. The cool Spanish pub is down the alley on the left, by the way.
Manage your stress levels
That tense feeling you get when you’ve got too many deadlines or UPS has delivered your parcel to the wrong door (again) is a hormone called cortisol coursing through your body. Among many other things, cortisol has been shown to greatly impair our ability to retrieve information.
“Being just two per cent dehydrated impairs our mental performance”
There is a dubious TikTok trend at the moment for drinking five gallons of water a day. That’s a lot of swigging (and a whole lot of peeing). While few doctors would recommend this level of extremity, one thing they all agree on is the need to stay hydrated. In fact, studies have shown that being just two per cent dehydrated impairs our mental performance of tasks that require attention and immediate memory skills. Can’t find your wallet? Stop rushing and drink a pint of water first.
Clench your fists
File this one under strange but true enough to be reported by the BBC. A study in 2013 from Montclair University found that, in a test involving 50 adults, clenching your right hand for 90 seconds led to an improved performance in memory formation, while doing the same with the left hand improved memory recall. Worth a try – even if people might think you’re about to thump them.
Sniff some rosemary
A study into the effects of rosemary discovered that – aside from making your roast potatoes absolutely banging – the hardy herb can help improve your memory, confirming an old wives’ tales and giving you the perfect excuse to break out a lamb shank this Sunday.
Get into nature
Finally, a 2021 paper released by SAGE medical journal looked at the effects different environments have on our ability to concentrate and problem-solve. They found that while urban environments like cities are filled with “dramatically” distracting stimuli (cars, trains, angry drunks), nature is filled with “modestly” distracting stimuli (trees and stuff) making it easier to focus and make use of our memory functions. In short: get out there into nature, while there’s still some of it left.