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The three steps of making a memory

The three steps of making a memory
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Quick: can you remember your last birthday party? The day your child was born? What you bought at the grocery store yesterday? What you decided to cook for dinner tonight? Every day our brains have to remember thousands of different pieces of information and even though it may look easy, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes, says psychiatrist, Dr David A. Merrill.

There are three steps when it comes to making a memory, he says. First, your brain needs to focus or pay attention to something. Next it will visualise it, making a mental image of it. Last, it will make associations with other memories to help put it in proper context. A break in any part of this chain can lead to you forgetting the thing or not even remembering it in the first place, Dr Merrill says. Learning how to maximise each of those steps is key in improving your memory. “Memory is not fixed; no matter how bad you think your memory is, everyone can improve!” he adds. The exception is those with later stages of dementia.

Pay attention

Pay attention
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“A lot of ‘forgetfulness’ is simply the result of not listening or concentrating properly in the first place,” says Dr Catherine Loveday, a psychologist specialising in the neuropsychology of memory. “If you really want to learn or remember something, then focus your attention.” If you keep losing your glasses, to improve your memory, start making a mental note every time you set them down. If you read an article about something you know you’ll want to tell friends about, spend an extra second on the juicy bits so they’ll stick in your head.

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Remember that practice makes perfect

Remember that practice makes perfect
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When you were a kid, did you ever have to recite a poem in front of your class? You knew it then, and it’s still true: to improve your memory, you have to practice to get information installed in your mind accurately. “Whether it’s learning to play the piano or remembering a lovely day out with a friend, we only remember by going back over things again and again,” Loveday says. You’re practicing when you tell your mum about the gift you’re planning on buying for your sister, or when you explain a recipe to your spouse – that information will be more permanently recorded in your brain because you’ve thought it through another time. “This strengthens the neural pathways in our brain,” Loveday says.

Read on for the hidden health benefits music lovers wish you knew.

Play brain games

Play brain games
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“When it comes to mental acuity, it really is a ‘use it or lose it’ situation,” Dr Merrill says. “You should be doing a daily memory workout for your brain, just like you do a daily physical workout for your body.” One way to do this is to play games that actively stimulate different parts of your brain. You can do memory games, crossword puzzles, Sudoku, logic games, wooden or metal 3D puzzles, jigsaws, or go high-tech with a brain games app or website. The key is to challenge yourself with different types of games to work different parts of your brain and different types of memory, he says

Check out these brain training games: riddles, brain teasers, puzzles and more.

Visualise memories

Visualise memories
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If you really want to remember something, try visualising it by making a mental image or mentally rehearsing it, Dr Merrill says. Visualisation is the main tool people with “super memories” use to do feats like memorising an entire deck of cards in under one minute. The more you visualise it, the stronger the connections in your brain and the more concrete the memory will be.

Write and draw in a journal

Write and draw in a journal
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In the meantime, another way to improve your memory by solidifying the storage of facts and events for the long term is to relive day-to-day events or details about important milestones in your life in a variety of ways – Loveday calls it mixing and matching. “The richer the learning experience, the more likely we are to remember it,” she says. “Read it, watch it, talk about it, draw it etc. The more ways we experience something, the easier it is to cue that memory later on.” Journaling can also reduce stress.

Don’t miss these everyday habits of people with an impressive memory.

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Get plenty of sleep

Get plenty of sleep
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The physical process of memory storage in the brain depends on sleep, so don’t skimp on it. Recent studies have started pinning down how it works: people who got a good night’s sleep did better on tests that measured both working memory and long-term memory, according to a study published in PLoS One. “A good night’s sleep is vital,” Loveday says. “Numerous experiments have shown that a lot of memory storage occurs while we sleep.”

Read on for the clear signs you’re not sleeping deeply enough.

Exercise

Exercise
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“Walk, run, swim,” Loveday says. “Anything that gets your muscles moving and heart working has a positive impact on overall brainpower, and there is evidence that it may specifically boost the chemical processes that enable the brain to learn.” Regular aerobic exercise can actually increase the size of the hippocampus, which may improve your memory overall, according to a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. But other research has shown immediate benefits to moving while learning: Subjects in a study published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Function who walked while they studied foreign-language vocabulary remembered what they learned better than those who sat while they studied. If you can, try working out at this time – some research found it could be the best time to exercise for memory improvement.

Check out these morning brain exercises to clear your mind.

Protect your mental health

Protect your mental health
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Depression, in particular, has been linked to both short-term and long-term memory problems, according to a study published in Psychological Medicine.  “Depression is related to volume loss in the brain, including parts directly associated with memory and memory problems can be a symptom of depression,” Dr Merrill says. So whether forgetfulness is a consequence of mental illness or a contributing factor, you should definitely make sure you seek treatment if you suspect that you have depression or anxiety – you’ll feel better and more functional day to day and improve your memory, he says.

Here are some everyday habits that could up your risk for depression.

Watch your medications

Watch your medications
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Certain drugs, including some antidepressants, tranquillisers, and blood pressure medications, have been linked to forgetfulness, Dr Merrill says. If you think a medication you’re taking might be making you confused or sedated, check with your doctor, because there are good alternatives to most of the common offenders. A 2015 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found evidence that long-term use of anticholinergic drugs – so named because they block the action of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine – is linked with dementia.

Caring for someone with dementia? Read on for some helpful tips.

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