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How to improve your memory and concentration

Far too often we forget just how important our memory is

A young woman types on her laptop
A young woman types on her laptop

In an age where we’re surrounded by constant stimulation and access to technology, our need to remember the small details has never been lower; anything we need to know can be found at the tap of keypad or smartphone. However, memory which is intrinsically linked to learning, creativity and intelligence, is something of a ‘use it or lose it’ scenario.

Just like you need to exercise your body to keep fit, the more you exercise your brain, the better.

What is memory?

The boffins at the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI), University of Queensland explain memory as being "the process of encoding, storing, and retrieving experiences and knowledge" – a description that belies just how intrinsic it is to everyday living.

There are two key types of memories according to QBI - the first is ‘explicit’ and these are the types of memories that are easy to recall. These can range from remembering a great restaurant you enjoyed a meal at with a friend, the time you slammed your finger in the car door or a character’s name in a TV show - or even more basic, that dogs have ears and wag their tail.

Then, there are our ‘implicit’ memories. These are the subconscious memories that allow us to do things; for example, your brain uses motor memory to allow you to move your lips and tongue automatically when you talk. These implicit memories enable us to grow from helpless newborn babies into functioning adults.

In short, memory is responsible for everything from recognising danger and making it to work on time (not to mention, recalling where you work), to remembering your ‘story’ – who you are and how you got to where you are today.

A senior woman examines documents

How the internet has impacted our ability to retain information

One of the benefits of having the internet in the palm of our hands is being able to access a broad range of resources at the tap of a finger. This means we’re becoming increasingly skilled at scanning high volumes of information quickly and efficiently.

However, this ‘flick and ditch’ approach also means we are not retaining information the way we used to.

Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the University of Illinois found each time we rely on the internet rather than use our own memory, the likelihood we’ll do it again increases.

But given the speed and accuracy with which Google provides us with answers, you might ask “so what?”

Well, besides the fact that Google might not always be around, relying on the internet can also impact our learning.

According to a study in the Journal of Digital Information, when we read webpages dotted with hyperlinks or pop-ups (or our email or phone pings at us as we scroll) our brain will switch from reading the info to asking “do I click this link?”

While going Google-free is unrealistic, there’s value in resisting the urge where you can

This interrupts our memory’s process and means the information doesn’t move from your working, or short-term memory to your long-term memory. As a result, your brain won’t assimilate the information in a meaningful way, creating fewer connections between other memories.

Our long-term memory isn’t just a storage centre for random facts, it’s also home to the ‘schemas’ that organise thoughts and concepts and help you learn.

What are the ways I can improve my memory?

While going Google-free is unrealistic and unnecessary, there’s value in resisting the urge where you can – next time you want to know what other films that actor is in, at least give your brain a pass at it first! Here are some other ways to strengthen your memory:

  1. 1

    Work up a sweat
    Exercise increases neurogenesis, so get double the workout at your next gym visit by changing up the types of exercise you do. Combine your cardio session with a yoga or dance class or add a hike into your weekly workout to get some mental stimulation. Trying new things helps keep your noggin nimble.

  2. 2

    Get enough sleep
    The hippocampus replays recent events to the neocortex during slow-wave sleep, over and over. If you’re not getting your slow-wave sleep, this process doesn’t take place which interferes with the consolidation and therefore strength of long-term memories.

  3. 3

    Brain training
    Rote activities that go easy on your brain are less likely to boost attention and learning, and therefore memory, than those that force it to work. Stuck for ideas? Learn a new language (try taking notes on paper rather than relying purely on online programs), head to trivia, or get stuck into a challenging board game.

While the internet and smartphones have become the ultimate ready reference, there is still value in exercising your memory muscles where and when you can, so take the time to use it before you lose it!