Memory—it’s tied to everything that forms our person. The vivid images in our minds are how we recall our favorite moments, communicate with those we love, learn new information, and even perform routine behaviors. With memory involved in daily life, this cognitive skill is highly beneficial. There are many memory exercises to strengthen and improve all types of memory.
What is Memory?
Memory is a cognitive process. When applied, it is how the brain encodes, stores, and then recalls or retrieves information from the environment and previous experiences. Encoding is taking in information through the senses, learning it, and relating it to past knowledge. In the memory process, storing memory is retaining that information over time until retrieval, which is accessing the information as it is needed. Without memory, language, behavior, and personal identity are impossible because we would have no concept of recalling past events.
Types of Memory
There are three types of memory that can be divided into subcategories and improved in various ways!
- Sensory Memory—Information is taken in through the sense (i.e. sight, touch, hearing, taste, and smell), processed by the nervous system, and is stored for mere seconds after the initial stimuli are no longer present before being transferred to short term memory
- Short Term Memory—The ability to hold or store current information for a limited time (between 15 and 30 seconds) and capacity, meaning only several items can be held until they are forgotten or moved to long term memory
- Working Memory—The process of temporarily storing current information and then manipulating it for use
- Long Term Memory—The unlimited capacity to store any information occurring over a few minutes ago for an extended period of time; information is encoded and manipulated
- Explicit—Memory that is easily recalled unconsciously and unknowingly influences thoughts and behavior
- Implicit—Memory that is remembered intentionally with work like recalling a phone number
- Declarative—Recalling factual information like dates, events, concepts, faces, or words
- Procedural—How to perform a skill, action, or behavior
- Episodic—Remembering personal experiences and events
- Semantic—Remembering general facts
Why Should We Use Memory Exercises To Improve Memory?
Memory is involved in every facet of our lives. Essentially, it makes us who we are. So, to become the fullest version of ourselves, it is important to use memory exercises to prove memory. Memory naturally declines with age as the number of neural synapses (nerve cells and their connections) decreases. While genetics and environmental factors do play a role, practicing memory exercises can potentially prevent such a drastic reduction in memory skills.
Concrete or Abstract Memory Exercises: Which is Best?
Concrete and abstract are two types of thinking. Concrete thinking includes concepts derived from information taken in through the senses. It is literally and focused on the physical world as facts, objects, and definitions. Contrarily, abstract thinking is ideas that are not tangibly related to the physical world. It is a more complex manner of thinking that allows us to understand and make connections about the information processed through concrete thinking. Examples of abstract thinking are concepts such as freedom, love, and metaphorical language.
A combination of both forms of thinking is useful for memory exercises. However, concrete exercises are beneficial because they target specific goals. Abstract thinking cannot occur without real, physical experiences of the concrete.
Memory Exercises: Learn A Language
Memory is an integral component of learning. Learning a new skill is a memory exercise because it challenges the brain to recall information. It utilizes the brain’s neuroplasticity to do so, which is how the brain forms neurons (nerve cells), strengthens the connections between those cells, and repairs damage. One study of bilingual participants with Alzheimer’s disease demonstrates how learning multiple languages delays symptom onset like that of memory loss by up to 4.5 years.
Memory Exercises: Visualization
Visualizing is the act of creating images in your mind. The sense of sight is incredibly powerful—lingering in the memory more so than hearing, smelling, tasting, or the sensation of touch. Visualization trains short term memory by enhancing the encoding process. When visualizing, including information from all of the senses ensures the clearest, most vivid image. That also increases the likelihood of remembering. Visualization exercises can range from trying to reproduce a picture you previously observed, an object, a person, or a location. Begin by looking at the image you wish to recreate in your mind for one minute.
Memory Exercises: Numeracy Games
Numbers games foster logical thinking. Doing math, especially without pencil and paper, requires you to repeat and rehearse numbers in your head. That heavily relies on memory and is considered a memory exercise because of the amount of information held in short term memory necessary to complete the math problem. Examples of numeracy games are Sudoku or simply performing math equations such as choosing a number and adding or subtracting digits from that number multiple times to arrive at the correct answer.
Ex: 3(46 x 7 – 18)
Memory Exercises: Repeat and Recall
Repeat and recall may seem to be a simple practice, but it is an extremely effective memory exercise. This is one reason why you repeat a phone number in your mind to dial it later. The repetition of the repeat and recall process commits it to long term memory because short term memory can only hold the phone number for merely seconds. To train the brain, repeat and recall conversations, numbers, song lyrics, poems, or even books read. In conversations, repeat and recall exercises are beneficial for listening skills. Listening skills are often lacking, and repeating a conversation makes the main idea of the conversation more clearly.
Memory Exercises: Physical Exercise
Physical exercise does not solely exercise the body. It works out the brain too! Aerobic exercises are particularly helpful for memory. Firstly, the body’s physiological response to exercise serves as a protection against memory loss. As one exercises, the blood flow increases the amount of oxygen available to the brain. When the brain has more oxygen, the body is less susceptible to cardiovascular disease and various forms of dementia which both impair memory. According to leading neurologists at Harvard University, exercise also boosts neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers in the brain. Studies suggest that those who avidly exercise have more volume in the regions of the brain that control memory and cognition.
Memory Exercises: Teach A Skill
They say practice makes perfect! The same concept applies to memory. Teaching a skill is a memory exercise because it gives the opportunity to practice the skill being taught. As a teacher, you have to refine your own technique as you are explaining it to somebody else. This repetition trains the memory.
Memory Exercises: Change Your Routine
The brain needs diversity. Sticking to the same routine day after day does not challenge the brain. Altering your routine, however, does. The hippocampus is the area of the brain that stores long term memories. Changing your routine in any way, like working out in the morning instead of the evening, going out for lunch rather than staying at the office, or taking a new route to class stimulates the hippocampus to improve memory.
Memory Exercises: Observe Details
Details are in everything—the people we surround ourselves with, the places we go, the movies we watch. Observing these details can be an effective memory exercise. For the observation exercise, intentionally observe and note at least four details of a stimulus in your environment. For example, committing to memory that the restaurant you are dining in has checkered floors, red walls, six tables, and a green jukebox in the corner. Later, try to recall those details. This is referred to as passive memory training. It trains the memory not only to retain information but to easier access the details stored in memory.
Memory Exercises: Social Connections
Humans are social creatures. Research analyzing the social connection patterns of patients with Alzheimer’s disease establishes a connection between patients with active social lives and those who remain more isolated. Published in the American Journal of Public Health, “women with the larger social networks were 26 percent less likely to develop dementia than those with smaller social networks” (Crooks et al., 2011). Daily connection is key, as the chance of developing dementia is then lowered by nearly half. This is because the brain is stimulated as we respond to others. Additionally, group activities that bring about socialization (i.e. exercise) encourage healthy behaviors and lend emotional support during times of trial. A contented emotional state is imperative for building strong brain connections for cognitive skills such as memory.
Memory Exercises: Eat Breakfast
Diet is linked to memory function. Starting the day with a healthy breakfast is the first step to successful memory exercise. To retain information, pay attention, and perform other cognitive skills related to memory, the brain requires a balance of protein, carbohydrates, and antioxidants. It cannot function optimally without energy to do so. Foods with high levels of vitamin E are also essential to building memory function. These include nuts and seeds, eggs, and green leafy vegetables like spinach and broccoli. The typical breakfast foods like sugary cereals, processed meats, and pastries do not provide the brain with enough nutrition for optimal brain function.
Memory Exercises: Read
Reading is a memory exercise most beneficial in old age. It stimulates the occipital and parietal lobes, which are the areas of the brain associated with visual information and reading comprehension. As the occipital and parietal lobes are “exercised,” the brain can more effectively process visual information of other stimuli in the environment that we store to memory.
Neurobic Exercise = Memory Exercise
Each of these memory exercises is known as neurobic exercises—the idea that cognitive skills like memory can be maintained and enhanced through exercising the brain. They reflect how actions like reading a book, taking up a hobby or having a conversation potentially train the brain with minimal effort.
Crooks, V.C., Lubben, J. Petitti, D.B., Little, D., & Chiu, V. (2011). Social Network, Cognitive Function, and Dementia Incidence Among Elderly Women. American Journal of Public Health, 98(7). DOI: https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2007.115923
Diament, M. (2008). Friends Make You Smart. Retrieved from https://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/info-11-2008/friends-are-good-for-your-brain.html
Harvard Health Publishing. (N.d.). Exercise can boost your memory and thinking skills. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/exercise-can-boost-your-memory-and-thinking-skills
Cheyanne is currently studying psychology at North Greenville University. As an avid patient advocate living with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, she is interested in the biological processes that connect physical illness and mental health. In her spare time, she enjoys immersing herself in a good book, creating for her Etsy shop, or writing for her own blog.