Most of us wish we had better memories. If only we didn’t get to the shop, knowing we must buy three things, but only remembering two. If only we didn’t go upstairs, only to forget why we went up there. If only we could read information and take it all in easily, instead of it disappearing quickly from our minds.
There are plenty of tried and trusted memory techniques, some of which have been around for decades – such as the use of the mnemonics and memory places. But what are scientists looking at now? More research will be needed before we can be certain of the best ways of putting these in practice, but what can the newest research tell us about the kinds of techniques we might see more of in the future?
1) Walk backwards
We might think of time and space as very different things, but even in the way we talk there is more crossover than we might realise. We put events “behind us”. We “look forward” to the weekend. The exact way we do it varies with culture, but in the Western world most of us think of the future as stretching out in space in front of us while the past stretches out behind us.
Researchers at the University of Roehampton decided to exploit this link in our minds between time and space to find a way to help us to remember events better.
They showed people a list of words, a set of pictures or a staged video of a woman’s handbag being stolen. The people were instructed to walk either forwards or backwards 10m (33ft) across a room in time with a ticking metronome. When they were tested afterwards on their memory for the video, the words and the pictures, in each test the backwards-walkers remembered more.
It was as though walking backwards in space encouraged their mind to go back in time and the result was that they could access their memories more easily.
It even worked when they just imagined going backwards, rather than physically doing it. This 2018 research fits in with some intriguing research done with rats in 2006. When rats learn to navigate their way around a maze, neurons called place cells fire at each location. The researchers found that as the rats pause in a maze, the neurons associated with each location they’ve learned along the route, fire in reverse order. So going backwards in their minds helps them to remember the correct route.
And now brand new research has shown that when we humans remember a past event we reconstruct the experience in our minds in reverse order. When we first see an object we notice the patterns and the colours first and then work out what it is. When we try to remember an object it happens the other way round; we remember the object first and then, if we’re lucky, the details.
2) Do a drawing
How about drawing your shopping list instead of writing the items down? In 2018 a group of younger and older people were given a list of words to learn. Half were asked to do a drawing of each of the words, while the other half were instructed to write the words down while they learned them. Later the people were tested to see how many words they could remember. Even though some of the words were very tricky to draw, such as “isotope”, the act of drawing made such a difference that the older people became as good as the younger people at recalling the words. Drawing even made a difference in people with dementia.
It’s been known for some time that aerobic exercise such as running can improve your memory
When we draw something we are forced to consider in more detail and it’s this deeper processing that makes us more likely to remember it. Even writing a list helps a bit, which is why when you get to the shop and realise you’ve left your shopping list at home, you can still remember more items than if you hadn’t written a list at all. Doing a drawing takes it one step further.
And if those of you who are good at Pictionary are thinking this technique might work even better for you, you’ll be disappointed. The quality of the drawing made no difference.
3) Do some exercise, but get the timing right
It’s been known for some time that aerobic exercise such as running can improve your memory. Regular exercise has a small general effect, but when you want to learn something in particular then a one-off bout of exertion does seem to help, at least in the short-term.
But research suggests that if we get the timing just right, the memory boost might be even stronger. People who did 35 minutes of interval training four hours after learning a list of pictures paired with locations were better at remembering the pairs than those who did the interval training straight away.
In the future researchers will be working out exactly when exercise is most beneficial which might vary depending on the kind of things you’re trying to remember.
4) Do nothing
When people experiencing amnesia as the result of a stroke were given a list of 15 words to memorise and then given another task to do, 10 minutes later, they could remember just 14% of that original list of words But if instead they sat in a darkened room doing nothing at all for 15 minutes, their score rose to an impressive 49%.
The same technique has been used in various studies since by Michaela Dewar at Herriot Watt University. She found that in healthy people a short break straight after learning something even made a difference to how much they could remember a whole week later. Now you may be thinking, but how do we know that the people didn’t spend that 10 minutes in a darkened room cunningly repeating the words to themselves so they didn’t forget. To prevent this Dewar cleverly had people memorise hard to pronounce words in a foreign language which they couldn’t possibly repeat to themselves.
If walking backwards, drawing, exercising or even taking a break sounds too much like hard work, how about taking a quick nap?
These studies show us just how fragile new memories are, so fragile that even a short break can make a difference to whether they hang around or disappear.
5) Take a nap
If walking backwards, drawing, exercising or even taking a break sounds too much like hard work, how about taking a quick nap? Sleep is thought to help consolidate our memories by replaying or reactivating the information we’ve just learned and that sleep doesn’t have to happen at night. Researchers in Germany found that when people were given pairs of words to memorise, they could recall more of them after a sleep of up to 90 minutes then after watching a film.
But very recent research suggests this technique works best in people who are accustomed to regularly taking a nap in the afternoon. This led Elizabeth McDevitt and her team at the University of California Riverside to wonder whether it was possible to train people to nap. So for four weeks the non-nappers took to their beds for a daytime snooze when they could.
Unfortunately for these people the naps still didn’t boost their memories. So maybe a longer training period is needed or perhaps there are some people who just need to walk backwards, draw, run or simply do nothing instead.