Do you remember what the logo for the computer giant Apple looks like? Of course you do; everyone does. We see it every day, and it’s recognized all over the world. The Apple logo is simple, visually appealing and easy to remember.
Or is it?
In a study published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers tested the ability of college students, many of whom were Apple and others PC users, to draw Apple’s simple logo from memory. They were then required to pick out the logo from among eight variants.
Remarkably, only 1 percent were able to draw the logo accurately and fewer than half selected the correct logo from the eight options (Blake et al., 2015).
The researchers also rated the confidence levels of students before and after this memory task, and found that they did not correlate with their actual performance. After discovering that the recognition process was harder than they had expected, participants revised their estimates of its difficulty to align with their performance. When they discovered the true difficulty of the task after completing it, they then rated themselves as much less confident than they had before.
The study shows that we may not be paying attention even to visual cues we encounter every day, and that we may also retroactively revise our beliefs to fit our experience.
Memory is much less objective and reliable than commonly supposed. A new field of neuropsychology called “memory re-consolidation and extinction” is getting a lot of buzz in the scientific community. It finds that memories are “labile,” meaning that they can be changed under certain conditions.
One landmark study implanted a false memory in subjects about having been lost in a mall during childhood. Participants were given four narratives of actual events from their childhoods that had been supplied by other family members. Only the “lost in the mall” story was false, but 25 percent of participants came to believe that it was true. Even when told that one of the four memories was false, and asked to identify which one it was, 20 percent picked a memory other than the mall story (Loftus & Pickrell, 1995).
Given that accurate recall has multiple benefits, from remembering your wedding anniversary to recalling the names of new business contacts to whom you’re introduced, how can you improve your memory? Here are several simple evidence-based techniques that help:
1. Get a good night’s sleep.
One study showed that the neurons responsible for converting short-term to long-term memory actually trigger sleep, and that sleep and memory share common neurological pathways (Haynes et al., 2015). A different research team found that sleep deprivation produced distortions in memory (Frenda et al., 2014).
A study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that even while you sleep, your brain is processing information and consolidating memories, though you’re not consciously aware of the process.
So even though it’s tempting for high achievers to stay up late and try and get that extra bit of work done, you’re likely to gain much more traction on your goals by hitting the sack and letting your brain restore itself.
2. Take brief power naps.
Research shows that napping during the day can help boost memory. When a group of 41 people had to memorize 90 words and 120 pairs of words, those who napped did better than those who did not (Studte et al., 2015).
Another study found that the memory of infants was improved by naps, while it has also been demonstrated that if you nap soon after learning new information, your recall is improved.
3. If you have insomnia, try EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) acupressure to get back to sleep.
Three randomized controlled trials have shown that high levels of insomnia are normalized after fingertip stimulation of acupressure points. In one, published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, veterans received six treatment sessions, after which their insomnia levels normalized (Church et al., 2014).
The EFT routine takes less than a minute, and many insomnia sufferers report improvement after using it. Research demonstrates that even a single EFT psychotherapy session is often sufficient for lasting change, and that it lowers levels of your main stress hormone cortisol, which spikes during insomnia (Church et al., 2013).
4. Hit the gym or take a walk outside.
Research has shown that people with a low level of aerobic fitness are more prone to memory loss than their fitter peers. A study at Michigan State University found that college students who were out of shape measured much worse on tasks involving memory recall (Pontifex et al., 2014).
This effect was not confined to college-age people. Another study showed that in older adults, better cardiovascular health was associated with better memory, while a third showed the same effect in pre-teens. Walking six miles or more a week is associated with larger brain volume and improved memory over time.
5. Supplement your diet with superfoods.
Some of these, like turmeric, boost memory. A study found that a very small amount, just a single gram, improved working memory in people at risk of cognitive decline, and that the effect persisted for up to six hours after consuming the herb (Lee et al., 2014). The antioxidants found in cinnamon, blueberries, spearmint, rosemary, and garlic can also help.
6. Drink alcohol moderately.
One examination of men who were heavy drinkers, defined as more than 2 ½ drinks per day, found that their memory profiles were characteristic of people who were six years older than their chronological age (Sabia et al., 2014). The good news is that moderate alcohol use resulted in no greater cognitive impairment than abstinence. But if heavy drinkers are also smokers, they speed up their rate of cognitive decline.
7. Train your memory.
When you practice memorization tasks, your memory improves. Volunteers with depression who were trained to think of a specific event developed better memory than those who thought generally. Rather than contemplating a “party,” they thought about a particular party in detail. Over time this improved their memories (Morales et al., 2013).
You can also use techniques such as rehearsal, visualizing something in great detail, as well as challenging your brain by learning a new language, hobby, or skill. Bilingual children, for instance, have better working memory than those who learn only one language.
The bottom line is that there’s lots you can do to improve your memory, and many ways to cultivate mindfulness—the art of paying attention. Like any skill, it’s developed through use, and when you deliberately seek out ways of exercising the neural pathways responsible for attention and memory, their signaling ability improves over time.
- Blake, A. B., Nazarian, M., & Castel, A. D. (2015). The Apple of the mind’s eye: Everyday attention, metamemory, and reconstructive memory for the Apple logo. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 68(5), 858-865.
- Church, D., Hawk, C., Brooks, A., Toukolehto, O., Wren, M., Dinter, I., & Stein, P. (2013). Psychological trauma symptom improvement in veterans using Emotional Freedom Techniques: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 201(2), 153–160.
- Church, D., Yount, G., & Brooks, A. J. (2012). The effect of Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) on stress biochemistry: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 200(10):891-6. doi: 10.1097/NMD.0b013e31826b9fc1.
- Frenda, S. J., Patihis, L., Loftus, E. F., Lewis, H. C., & Fenn, K. M. (2014). Sleep deprivation and false memories. Psychological Science, 0956797614534694.
- Haynes, P. R., Christmann, B. L., & Griffith, L. C. (2015). A single pair of neurons links sleep to memory consolidation in Drosophila melanogaster. Elife, 4, e03868.
- Lee, M. S., Wahlqvist, M. L., Chou, Y. C., Fang, W. H., Lee, J. T., Kuan, J. C., ... & Pan, W. H. (2014). Turmeric improves post-prandial working memory in pre-diabetes independent of insulin. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 23(4), 581-591.
- Loftus, E. F., & Pickrell, J. E. (1995). The formation of false memories. Psychiatric Annals, 25(12), 720-725.
- Morales, J., Calvo, A., & Bialystok, E. (2013). Working memory development in monolingual and bilingual children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 114(2), 187-202.
- Pontifex, M. B., Parks, A. C., O’neil, P. C., Egner, A. R., Warning, J. T., Pfeiffer, K. A., & Fenn, K. M. (2014). Poorer aerobic fitness relates to reduced integrity of multiple memory systems. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 14(3), 1132-1141.
- Sabia, S., Elbaz, A., Britton, A., Bell, S., Dugravot, A., Shipley, M., ... & Singh-Manoux, A. (2014). Alcohol consumption and cognitive decline in early old age. Neurology, 82(4), 332-339.
- Studte, S., Bridger, E., & Mecklinger, A. (2015). Nap sleep preserves associative but not item memory performance. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 120, 84-93.