The latest research shows that exercising your brain and living a healthy lifestyle work together to enhance your memory. Medical imaging tests on the brain have shown that people who already have a balanced diet and exercise regularly and then use memory techniques on top of that, experience positive changes in their brain circuitry, along with a boost in their memory. Use these strategies and you’ll notice a difference within a week; keep it up and you’ll build protection for your brain in the long run, too.
Up-end daily routines
Challenge your brain by finding an alternative route to work, brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand, wearing your watch upside down – anything that requires conscious effort. Our brains thrive on lifelong learning, novelty and being challenged. “New learning stimulates the release of brain fertilisers which leads to neurogenesis,” says neuroscientist Dr Nicola Gates, author of A Brain For Life (ABC Books). Neurogenesis, she explains, is the formation of new brain cells, which enhances our ability to form memories and learn new information.
Minimise brain stress
Take 10 minutes to find permanent homes for everyday items such as your keys, purse, phone, glasses and shoes. You’ll avoid the stress of hunting for them and testing your memory unnecessarily. When you grab your keys each day, use the action as a cue to ask yourself an automatic string of checks: “Do I have my phone, glasses and fresh snacks?” Memory aids like this sharpen the brain by lessening the load it has to carry, explains Gates.
Tell yourself a good yarn
To remember your to-do list, come up with a rhyme, song or visual story to link it all together. The more creative the imagery, the more memorable it will be. For example, if you need to buy eggs and stamps and to pick up the dry cleaning, you might picture yourself holding a big egg with a stamp on it, and the egg slips, cracking on your pants, so you have to go to the cleaners. “Exerting that mental energy creates a cognitive framework that helps you retrieve the information later,” explains Alzheimers expert Dr Gary Small, director of the UCLA Longevity Centre.
Play to win
Try your hand at a brain training game. Over the past few years there has been an explosion of so-called ‘brain-training’ games and apps. And while researchers have yet to establish exactly how much brain training is needed to keep your mental powers limber, clinical trials have found these games can improve memory, even in people suffering dementia. What’s more, when subjects were measured several years later, they still enjoyed better brain function than the control group who hadn’t done any brain training. Alzheimers Australia has developed a free app, BrainyApp (visit brainyapp.com.au).
Make a mental picture
When you’re introduced to someone for the first time practise saying their name out loud and creating a mental picture that can help you remember their name. Saying the name helps to reinforce it in your memory. And a mental picture allows us to connect this new information with what we already know. For example, if you meet someone named Robyn, you could try imagining them as a bird with a bright red chest, or alternately you may associate the name with Batman’s sidekick. “Our memories live in neighbourhoods, so a neighbouring memory could trigger the word you’ve been looking for,” Small explains.
Practise total recall
In the morning, zero in on one article of clothing that your partner, child or colleague is wearing: it could be a shirt, tie, jacket, jewellery or shoes. Pay attention to the colour, the patterns, the texture and style and try to fix that visual image in your mind. Jot down these details (or take a phone snap) to check your memory later. Then, at night, try to recall all four details, and only then check your notes/photo to see how well you remembered.
Say ‘Yes’ to invitations, as socialising gives your brain a workout, explains Gates. “When we engage with others, multiple parts of our brain are working. We have to pay attention, comprehend what people are saying, remember information about them, plan our own responses, change focus and perhaps even add in humour,” she explains.