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Have you ever been in this situation? You’re sitting behind a desk and about to take the most crucial exam of your academic life (or at least that’s what it feels like). Everyone’s pens are busy scrawling while you’re staring at the questions on your paper blankly.
You probably know the answers to the questions; you just reviewed them last night. You know your brain is functioning, as you can instantly recall the menu items at your favorite restaurant. But you’re struggling to remember what you studied, and it’s frustrating.
This scenario might make you wonder: Why can I remember some things but not others? Well, here’s the answer. There are two types of memory, long-term and short-term, and they are stored very differently in the brain.
No matter how briefly a memory lasts, it must be stored in your brain. You are temporarily recording the succession of events in your life. Dr. Jim Cherry, a psychology professor at Boston University in Massachusetts, explains that short-term memory is actually important any time you are thinking. “It’s the same thing as what’s called working memory, which is activated when you [do things like] plan, work on a task, or simply pull up old memories and think about them,” he says.
According to the National Institutes of Health, short-term memory has a storage capacity of about seven items and each lasts only a few dozen seconds.
Imagine that you’re starting a new internship or job, and you’re introduced to everyone you’ll work with. You probably shake everyone’s hands, and then promptly forget who’s who. In a recentStudent Health 101 survey, more than 20 percent of respondents said that while they can remember facts and figures, they have trouble with people and places. Why might that be?
Though you may register the face of someone you pass on the street, or an address you overhear someone giving out, this information quickly disappears. That is, unless you make a conscious effort to retain it, in which case you can keep the piece of information in your short-term memory for a longer period of time. For example, you can repeat a telephone number over and over again, or use a “memory trick,” like setting the number to a tune.
Larissa B., a junior at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, says, “Saying a person’s name after he or she is introduced or picturing someone you already know with that name can help make it stick. [These techniques] saved me when I started going to a new church and met a bunch of new people each week.”
While short-term memories last only for about a minute, your brain’s capacity to store long-term memories is unlimited. Once you commit something to long-term memory, it can last anywhere from days to months to years-or even for your lifetime.
Long-term memory stores all the significant events in your life, and also allows you to retain things like the meaning of words and the physical skills you’ve learned. The reasons for this originate on the cellular level. Dr. Howard Eichenbaum, also a psychology professor at Boston University, explains, “Long-term memory requires brain cells [to make] new proteins. Conversely, in short-term memory, no new proteins are made. [This is a] key difference.”
There are several factors that influence the ease with which you retrieve long-term memories. For example:
- How long an event has been stored in your memory
- The last time you recalled the information
- Whether the memory is unique
- If the information resembles a current event in your life
Plus, sometimes facts become distorted, and memory becomes less reliable with age. “It’s funny. My mom tells me about things that happened when I was younger, and I remember [them] a completely different way,” says Shanelle D., a senior at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon.
We all know that exercise is good for our overall health, but did you know that it’s good for your brain, too? Science proves that it not only boosts your brain power (by increasing blood flow), but may also play a role in reducing your risk for Alzheimer’s disease and age-related cognitive decline.
According to the National Institute on Aging, studies suggest that physical exercise may increase the number of small blood vessels that supply blood to the brain and raise the level of nerve growth factor (a protein key to brain health) in an area of the brain that is important to memory and learning.
Abilities vital to healthy cognition, like being able to maintain old brain network connections and make new ones, also seem to be stimulated due to exercise.
Plus, exercise is an excellent stress-reliever. Isn’t it great how all of these things are related?
Get Plenty of Rest
Sleeping for eight to nine hours every night will help to increase your memory. Taking a nap if you need one, especially after class when you’ve learned something new, can help recharge your brain to keep it sharp for longer, too.
Converting Short-Term Memories to Long-Term
Here are some tips for implanting new information in your brain for the long haul-handy when preparing for tests:
- Revisit and recite information periodically over a lengthy period of time. Repetitions over a brief period will maintain the information only in your short-term memory.
- Decrease distractions and clear your mind before attempting to memorize anything.
- Divide and memorize information in small, distinct parts. This is easier than trying to absorb everything at once.
Improving Your Memory
Kourtney G., a junior at Oakland University in Detroit, Michigan, relates to the almost 35 percent of Student Health 101 survey respondents who said they remember all types of things very easily. “I do memory tests online with my friends and always score the highest,” she says. “Ever since I was young I’ve been good at memorizing and remembering events from the past.”
Not everyone is gifted with a memory like Kourtney’s, but there are many things you can do to improve your mental performance. It’s important to remember that the brain is an organ that in some ways is like a muscle. A strong memory depends on the health and vitality of your whole body, and exercising your brain regularly.
Here are a few tips to help strengthen your brain:
Try Something New
It’s important to challenge your brain by learning novel tasks and doing things you’ve never done before. For example, enroll in a music class, try your hand at sculpting, or even learn a new dance. Start a new hobby or learn a foreign language. (As a bonus, these will look great on your résumé.)
Exercise Your Brain
Reading, writing, and playing cards all offer your mind a chance to flex. Engaging in these activities daily keeps your brain active and can help to delay memory loss. Margaret K., a sophomore at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, says, “I’ve noticed that Sudoku has helped my memory. There are fun, free games for smartphones.” These activities can help you retain more information and can also reduce stress.
Manage Your Stress
Speaking of which, when you’re under a lot of pressure, your brain may not function optimally. According to the UWellness program at the University of Washington in Seattle, long periods of stress can “put you at increased risk [for] numerous health problems, including memory impairment.”
Allow yourself the time necessary to condense information and experiences, and you’ll remember more.
- Use “tricks” such as mnemonics to help you recall information.
- Review information multiple times, in small chunks.
- Feed your brain with healthy foods, such as lean proteins and fresh vegetables.
- Grab a friend and play brain-strengthening games.
- Make time in your schedule for physical activity and plenty of sleep.
- Use creative challenges to flex your brain.
Get help or find out more
National Institutes of Health, Mental Replay in Learning and Memory
Bucks Community College, Memory and theImportance of Review University of Utah, Improving Memory
Indiana University, Short-term Memory
Purdue University, Long-term Memory