The following article by Lisa Bixler originally appeared in Prime Women magazine.
As kids, we were given all kinds of mnemonic tricks to memorize new material. Some that still come to mind are “Roy G Biv” for the colors of the spectrum, “Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally” for the order of operations in math and “My very educated mother just served us nine pizzas” for the distance of the planets from the sun. On television, the songs of Schoolhouse Rock helped us remember grammar, history and math.
These days, between juggling work and family responsibilities and living in an age of so much instant communication, sometimes it’s hard enough to remember why I just walked from one room into the next, much less process anything involving complex rules or new information.
It’s a known fact that our brains change as we age. Even the healthiest people have to make a greater effort to maintain concentration and focus, as it takes our brains more time than it did when we were younger to process and consolidate information. Life today forces us to multitask, and all the technology that surrounds us raises expectations even higher, making it extremely difficult to eliminate the competing distractions.
So what are ways to improve memory? Experts recommend starting off by writing down the things you don’t need to memorize. Doing this actually frees up the mind to focus on the things you do want to remember. After that, take a lesson from the kids in your life.
Do your homework.
Create regular habits that will help your mind learn to think differently. Give yourself active vs. passive cognitive stimulation, for instance going to a talk on a topic that interests you instead of watching a program about it on tv. Exploring new interests and using your mind in ways that you enjoy facilitates the growth of new brain cells.
We are all distracted by a combination of external and internal thoughts. Especially as women, our minds are often on multiple things simultaneously. Try repeating out loud what you are trying to remember, at different times throughout the day. Creating time for deliberate, conscious focus will allow the material to get into the hippocampus, the storage part of the brain.
Studies have found that playing 3D video games on a regular basis is one of the ways to improve memory because it slows down the aging brain. Engaging your mind in this way has multiple benefits: it increases the amount of gray matter in the hippocampus and cerebellum, reverses the atrophy that typically occurs as people get older, and improves spatial and short term memory.
Not to be minimized are the unscientific but equally important benefits of video games, like elevating your “cool status” with the kids and grandkids and offering you another way to bond with them.
Our visual memory is typically stronger than our verbal memory, and we tend to remember things that are more unusual or funny. Think of some of your favorite memories with family and friends over the years and the crazy stories that are often recalled when you get together. Using this natural ability of associating what you want to remember with images that are weird or absurd, even incorporating those images into a silly story or a song, will help you retain the information. Adding rhythm and rhyme, whether in a story or song, can further accelerate the process. Just as kids in school have an easier time learning subjects they enjoy, use your favorite interests as the basis for the stories or songs you create. Making associations that are personally relevant to you will enable you to retain the information faster and easier, as you will automatically engage more of your senses in the process. A golf theme may work for some, while for others references to fashion or cooking or pop culture do the trick.
Children tend to thrive in an environment that includes structure and balance, and the same can be said for our minds as we age. Cultivating lifestyle habits that balance physical activity with good sleep, our favorite food and drinks with good nutrition, and socializing with a regular spiritual practice can go a long way toward increasing our overall health and longevity.
To conclude this piece, I decided to practice the ways to improve memory by creating a way to memorize the above suggestions. I listed the main word from each of the four headings: Homework, Video games, Silliness, Discipline. Taking the first letter of each, I turned it into a phrase by adding a vowel beside each letter, coming up with HaVe SoDa. Not the most brilliant solution but it works for me, and it goes along with the theme of being a kid. If anyone else can up with a story or song on the topic instead, please let me know!