When someone says, ” You must remember this,” they are asking you to access your long-term memory. Maybe you remember the event. Maybe not. When someone says, “I just told you that two minutes ago,” they are telling you that your short-term memory seems to have discarded something they told you.
The older my family, friends, and I get, the more interested I become in how memory works. In particular, I want to know how and why we lose memories and if there is anything I can do to help retain them.
I wrote elsewhere about the three stages of memory, but the stage that interests me here is short-term memory.
Brain science came up with the analogy of how memory works by comparing it to how computer memory works. It’s a useful comparison, but flawed.
Short-term memory is like your computer’s RAM (Random Access memory), which provides working space for short computations. You reboot the computer and it’s gone.
Long-term memory is like your computer’s hard drive, where data is stored permanently. Well, we all know that hard drives fail and so do brains and sometimes they lose some data or just totally crash.
With the advent and rise of artificial intelligence and robots, we have confirmed just how phenomenal the human brain is and that there are things it can do that probably will never be done artificially. That’s not to say that computers can’t do some things – like math calculations – better than a human brain.
With all the research, we still don’t fully understand exactly how memory works or where memories are stored.
Short-term memory (also called working memory) is critical to all of it. I feel like my working memory isn’t working that well. For example, I discovered about halfway through the writing of this article that I had written an earlier piece here about forgetting what I have already written. There is a kind of circular humor to this that I would laugh at if it wasn’t scary. I’ll give myself a pass because I write a lot online here and elsewhere but, yes, I forget. I have a friend that is a pretty big deal author and he admits that if you ask him about his early novels he has forgotten much of the plot.
I had found research that we could only store seven pieces of information in short-term memory and wrote about it, but this week I found newer research that only four pieces of information can normally be remembered at one time. Things are getting worse.
The label “short-term memory” has been used for a longer time than “working memory” which was coined in the 1960s. I suspect the latter term emerged along with the idea that a computer is like a brain.
It does appear that working memory also organizes and manipulates items.
Search on memory enhancement topics online and you will find many, many results. There is no shortage of supplements that are supposed to improve memory. I see TV commercials and online ads for these all the time. I have tried a few and my unscientific results are totally inconclusive.
Here is my collected possible wisdom on things that might help your memory, particularly that critical short-term memory stage. many of these things are good advice for being healthier in general. Maybe that is the answer. Be healthy overall and your memory will be healthier.
- Eat a healthy diet high in unprocessed foods and low in processed foods and sugar. The Mediterranean diet is often given as being close to that.
- Get proper sleep. What’s “proper?” I see 7-8 hours mentioned most of the time. Researchers who found that we can remember about 4 bits of information at a time, also found with a lack of sleep that number decreases to 1 or 2. During sleep, your brain consolidates memories and literally repairs and creates new brain cells. It seems that this is when some memories move from short-term to long-term.
- Regular exercise helps memory. This can be as simple as 20 minutes of walking or yoga.
- Mental stimulation is also important. Some people advocate “brain games” like sudoku, crossword puzzles, chess, etc. The one thing that I keep reading is that this mental activity needs to be “novel.” That means that doing the same things regularly isn’t as useful as introducing new things. That’s why you’ll find suggestions to learn a new language or a musical instrument. Those are very big things to take on but variety seems to be important.
- Avoid things that drain the brain. Stress is a big one and that’s not easy to remove from your daily life.
If supplements don’t seem to help you, and you can’t do the Mediterranean Diet, consider a few foods that are thought to help memory.
- Eating some chocolate sounds like a great food choice for memory improvement. There are brain studies that show the benefits of cocoa for general cognition, attention, processing speed, and working memory. Dark chocolate has the most brain health benefits.
- But be careful because a lot of chocolate candy is full of sugar. You should definitely minimize white sugar which increases brain inflammation, damages neurons and alters your brainwave patterns.
- Ginger is a traditional way to treat memory loss and dementia.
- Caffeinated beverages improve both short-term and long-term memory and reaction times.
- Drink lots of water. I have read that not only are most Americans are sleep-deprived but also a majority of us are chronically dehydrated. Even mild dehydration causes measurable brain shrinkage.
- Ginkgo biloba is one supplement I have tried because it has long been reported to significantly improve short-term memory. I was looking for improvement and couldn’t measure that but maybe the positive effect was that my memory didn’t decline while taking it.
- The other things that I find written about and included in my of those supplements you can buy are things I can’t endorse due to lack of evidence or personal experience. Those substances include Magnesium L-Threonate (not magnesium sulfate), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and other omega-3 essential fatty acids (often as fish oil), curcumin (which is in tumeric), American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius, more than Panax ginseng AKA Asian ginseng).
I was surprised to see nicotine as a cognitive enhancer since smoking is such a horrible thing, but these studies were with nicotine ingested apart from smoking which appears to be safe.
Recreational drugs and alcohol in any excess hurt short-term memory. Prescription drugs that may be necessary for people to survive day-to-day can have negative side effects on memory. Anti-anxiety drugs, narcotic painkillers do all kinds of bad things to brain chemistry.
You probably can’t do all these things consistently. I have tried to improve my sleep in all kinds of ways, but I have sleep apnea, so 8 hours of sleep is only about 6 or 7 hours of quality sleep. If my brain isn’t getting adequate oxygen while sleeping, I am also losing brain cells in the hippocampus.
And there are lots of little tips for memory. Avoid multitasking. Try meditation to improve focus. Write things down rather than typing them.
This is a fairly long post for this blog. If you made it this far, do you remember how it started? Yeah, I know. Memory is a harsh mistress.