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5 Natural Ways To Improve Your Memory, According To Experts
“The brain is a use-it-or-lose-it machine,” says Sara Mednick, Ph.D., an associate professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. When we learn new things and then recall them later, we activate the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, areas of the brain intimately involved with memory. But when we rely on external sources, like our phones or the Internet, to remember for us, those regions of the brain can weaken.
The next time you’re struggling to name an actor, challenge yourself not to look it up. “Work through it and trust that your brain knows the answer—you just need to find it in there,” Mednick says. Similarly, try to make your way to a new address without using Google Maps—or if that’s too daunting, take a new route home from work. “It’s all about not living in automatic mode,” Mednick says. “The more you think things through or try novel approaches, the more you engage your brain to keep it healthier longer.”
2. Take a nap.
Quality restful sleep is nonnegotiable when it comes to thinking fast on your feet. As we progress from slow-wave sleep ...
... in the first part of the night to REM sleep in the early morning hours, our memories transform the material we learned throughout the day into actual working knowledge.
There’s no substitute for getting those seven to eight hours. But a strategically timed nap can come surprisingly close, says Mednick. “When we nap in the middle of the day, our time in each stage is more efficient,” she says. “In a 90-minute nap, you cycle through both slow-wave and REM sleep, but you do it in the same proportion as it occurs across a whole night of sleep.” Because of this, “a 90-minute nap can rival what you’d get overnight in terms of memory consolidation, creativity, and productivity.” Too tricky to fit 90 minutes into your schedule? A 30-minute nap can help lock in information too.
3. Get exercise every day.
Any time you move in a way that gets your blood pumping, you give your brain a boost. “Blood is filled with oxygen and nutrients that feed our brains,” says Gary W. Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Longevity Center and the author of 2 Weeks to a Younger Brain. Exercise also spurs the body to produce a protein that “acts like fertilizer for the brain, stimulating neurons to sprout branches so they can communicate more effectively,” says Dr. Small. When University of Illinois researchers asked 120 adults between 55 and 80 to spend 40 minutes three days per week either walking briskly or stretching and toning, they found that after one year, a memory center (the hippocampus) of the walkers’ brains was 2% bigger than in the stretching and toning group. That percentage may sound small, but it’s “enough to essentially reverse the brain shrinkage that naturally occurs with aging in the same period of time,” Dr. Small notes.
4. Don’t multitask so much.
Multitasking makes us feel productive, but the opposite is actually true. “The brain is not designed to focus on several tasks at once,” Dr. Small says. As a result, our brains feel stressed when we multitask, “and we make more errors, which has the ultimate effect of making us less efficient.” (A four-second interruption—the time it takes to glance at your phone—can triple your chances of making a mistake during a task.)
That stress, perceived or not, also triggers the release of hormones that interfere with short-term memory. That’s why if the phone rings when you’re in the midst of a conversation with someone, it can be tricky to remember what you were saying after you hang up.
5. Eat for your brain.
Nutrition has a striking impact on your day-to-day memory and focus, shaping your ability to retain information and more. Try these three science-based recommendations:
Berries and beets Naturally occurring free radicals are constantly forming in the brain over the course of day-to-day living. If allowed to linger, “they act like rust, causing your neurons to age faster,” says Lisa Mosconi, Ph.D., associate director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Berries are bursting with anthocyanins, antioxidant compounds with a unique ability to cross the blood-brain barrier, meaning things in those raspberries actually enter your brain, grab free radicals, and escort them out “like police officers trapping the bad guys,” Mosconi says. Even small amounts can help. Beets are rich in nitrate, which is converted to nitric oxide in the blood. Nitric oxide relaxes blood vessels throughout the body, enhancing blood flow. The more blood that reaches your brain, the sharper you’ll be.
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