Exercise Your Brain for Optimal Memory Training

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Your memory is central to your studying; it is, after all, where all of your knowledge goes. However, the brain is often poorly understood, and a little focused brain exercise can greatly improve your memory power, allowing you to do better in your studies as well as in other areas of your life.

Thoughts and sensory impressions (such as hearing a lecture) briefly pass through sensory memory before they reach your short-term or “working” memory, which is where you hold things briefly in mind. A good example of this is remembering phone numbers or e-mail addresses. Information in your short-term memory is permanently encoded in your long-term memory, where it becomes part of your general store of knowledge, although your ability to recall that information varies.

Exercise your working memory

  • Break down long items into smaller pieces. When you’re faced with a complex piece of information, try to break it down into small portions. Your short-term memory can hold between four and seven separate things at once. By leveraging this chunking technique, you can make each item carry more useful information. An example of this is found in telephone numbers: 5551234567 is difficult to remember at a glance, but by breaking it down into several pieces, such as “555-123-4567,” you will be able to remember it long enough to write it down or store it in permanent memory.
  • Play games that focus on handling information quickly and correctly. There are learning games online designed specifically to help you train your memory. Utilize several different kinds of games in order to exercise and develop various parts of the brain. Naturally, these games shouldn’t be used to put off your studying, but they are a fun way to relieve stress and train your memory at the same time. Many of these memory games are free online and have been proven to increase memory.
  • Provide yourself with different forms of stimulation throughout the day. Read a book, even if just a few pages. Stimulate your sense of smell by stopping to smell the flowers. Try different foods and spend some time looking at a natural landscape. Take time for regular social interaction with others. Listen to music; although any kind of music can provide auditory stimulation, some studies suggest classical is best. By reacting to all of these stimulations, your brain will stay flexible, which aids working memory.
  • Keep a handle on your stress levels, using the advice from the previous chapter. Stress is literally toxic to memory; the chemicals your body produces under stress interfere directly with the process of transferring information from short-term to long-term memory. Protect your brain by learning how to minimize the release of these stress chemicals.

Working out your recall

  • Practice active listening during class. You should listen attentively and write down summaries of the teacher’s concepts, ideas, and facts that are introduced, as well as connections that occur to you from other reading. By taking notes actively, instead of trying to write down everything that was said verbatim, you engage your memory and mind much more deeply. One effective association technique is to include a small personal note in your notebook for each class; something as insignificant as noting the weather, what you had for lunch, or what tie the instructor wore can spark a fuller recall of the entire lecture.
  • When you study your notes, introduce various review techniques. Don’t just read the text or your notes: Read them aloud. Consider rewriting them by hand if you usually use a laptop or tablet to take notes, or vice versa. If you are given sample exam questions, write out sample outlines or answers by hand while studying instead of just reading the subjects covered. These methods provide you with both repetition and variety; remembering the subject in connection with different acts will create more associations that will enhance your ability to recall information.
  • Make meaningful use of flash cards. Prepare flash cards on the subject you want to memorize, with the name (word, picture, concept) on one side and the answer on the other. Just writing them out is good practice, but don’t stop there. After shuffling them, go through them and quiz yourself. Put cards that you get wrong in stack A, and the ones you get right in stack B. Review stack A every day, moving the cards you get right to stack B. Review stack B every week, putting the ones you get wrong in stack A. This is a powerful tool when you need to learn factual information, like vocabulary terms, foreign languages, and historical events and dates.
  • Study regularly and often—but not always for long periods. Studying frequently will help you build long-term memories you can easily recall, as well as give you a positive, regular habit that builds your work ethic. What builds learning is regular repetition, more than sheer hours studied. Of course, you will need to study enough to cover the material in the class, but research indicates you’ll get more out of an hour a day over the course of a week than you would from five hours of intensive study.
  • Keep your brain fueled. Despite only weighing a few pounds, your brain uses about a quarter of your body’s energy, which means thinking is hard work. Eat regularly, and try to focus on protein and vegetables; fish, green leafy vegetables, and pinto and kidney beans are especially beneficial. Complex carbohydrates like whole grains, lentils, and brown rice give you sustained energy, as well. While you shouldn’t over-indulge, studies indicate that a little caffeine (especially coffee and green tea) or alcohol (particularly red wine) can help your long-term brain health, too.