How can you improve your memory?

04 February 2020

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Question

How can you improve your memory?

Answer

Phil got an answer to his memory problems from neuroscientist Camilla Nord...

Camilla - So I want to know if he wants the bad news or the good news first.

Chris - I think he just wants you to hit him with the answer.

Camilla - Okay,okay, alright. So first I'm going to say I think bad news, which is that all those kinds of brain training apps and games are not proven to improve your memory on anything beyond that specific game. You can get really good at whatever they're training you on, but it doesn't actually generalise to other things, which is a bit of a downer. And similarly there is kind of a big community who are quite keen for using sort of brain hacking techniques like brain stimulation to improve their memory. And that can work in a sort of short term scenario. But similarly it tends not to generalise. And even if it did, it wouldn't kind of last to the extent that you'd hope to improve your memory. But there are a couple things that do seem to work. Two are obvious and one is cool. So obvious: sleep is a massive way to improve your memory. I've seen some really convincing work that even if you just take a quick rest, not necessarily falling asleep, just sort of closing your eyes, mindfulness type thing after trying to learn stuff, that makes you way, way, way better at remembering, which is kind of cool. And also exercise tends to make short term memory and other types of memory a bit better. But the surprising one is caffeine - not caffeine taken before you start trying to learn something as many people like to do - but actually caffeine taken right after. This is a paper from a couple of years ago in Nature Neuroscience that showed that if you give a caffeine pill right after trying to memorise something, it makes people better at remembering it.

Chris - But will paradoxically then stop you going to sleep, which might offset the effect of that wouldn't it?

Camilla - Hahaha, yeah, you'd have to balance the two!

Chris - Get the timing right. But you're dead right about the sleep because time and again studies have shown that if you give people a sequence of things to learn and then either sleep deprive them or encourage them to head off and have a good night's sleep, the recall and the performance, and not just the immediate recall and performance, but the long-term retention of the memory seems to be much better when people have had a chance to sleep on it.

Camilla - Yeah, and that's quite different from something like actually, something I didn't mention, like smart drugs where you can improve your performance on attention or how quickly you're working, but it doesn't at the moment seem to have those kinds of long-term improvements that people often want from a memory enhancer.

Chris - And one wonders whether, 'cause you mentioned exercise, whether that's just because when you take physical exercise you tend to sleep better afterwards. So it's whether the sleep is what is actually helping to consolidate the memory, or whether the thing that that emerged in the early days of studying these new cells that are born in the brain, which are born in the area of the hippocampus, which is involved in forming memories of course, and exercise as well as sex and antidepressants turned out to be a potent stimulus to make more of those cells. So one wonders which of these effects or all of the effects are at play?

Camilla - Yes, a kind of additional possibility is that the exercise-dependent effects on mood, which are really quite substantial, could themselves improve memory because having low mood tends to come with sort of worse short term memory.

Chris - So there you go, Matt now you know how you can, you can not only map out your solar system, you can remember the names of all the stars and planets as well.

Matt - That would be very useful.

 

 

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