Train Your Brain: 11 Methods for Improving Long Term Memory
Whenever I tell people that I teach a course on memory, the response is always the same. “Oh my gosh, I need that. I have the worst memory!” My response, after years of hearing this, is also the same. “No, you don’t. You just don’t know how to use it.”
Though studies have shown that it’s nearly impossible to improve your working memory, it is very much possible to improve your long-term memory. (You can also improve your short-term memory, but that’s the topic of another blog post. Fortunately, many of the same principles apply).
In this post, I’m going to share how you can improve your long-term memory, no matter what type of learning task you are working on. Let’s dive in.
Last Updated January 2021
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1. Visualize, visualize, visualize
If you’ve read any of my previous blogs, you won’t be surprised to hear me say that the first tip for improving your memory is to leverage visualization. Because of how our brains evolved, we’re wired to remember visual information more than auditory information. For this reason, if you want to remember things long-term, it’s best if you visualize imaginary pictures in your mind’s eye.
While you’re creating images, go wild. Our brains thrive on novelty, and we have an easier time remembering whacky, sexual, or even violent imagery. These images are just for you, so go nuts!
2. Create connections
I always explain to audiences that our brains work a lot like Google’s innovative PageRank algorithm. When determining how important a piece of information is, our brains look at a few factors. First, they look to see how many connections there are between this piece of information and other pieces of information. Then, they consider the importance of those connected pieces of information. Based on these findings, our brains determine if a piece of information is worth remembering or not.
You may have heard the saying, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” That’s exactly what happens when you create more connections. Too often, when we learn something new, we treat it as completely new. We tell ourselves, “well, I don’t know anything about this subject. It’s all new to me!” Our brains take note of that — and promptly forget. Why wouldn’t they? You’ve just told yourself that this information isn’t related to anything you care about.
Instead, try to create as many connections as possible to things you already know when you learn something new. Compare and contrast the ideas to things you already care about. If it’s a new word in a foreign language, try to think of some words it sounds like in your own language. If it’s a historical date, connect it to other things that happened in that year.
The more connections you create, the more likely your brain will choose to remember. Plus, you’ll have an easier time navigating your way back to the memory if you forget!
3. Leverage spatial Memory
As I’ve written about in another post about how to develop a photographic memory, there is one mnemonic technique that reigns supreme. It’s used by every single memory champion and record holder on earth. It’s called “The Memory Palace,” or “Method of loci.”
It turns out that our brains are ridiculously good at remembering locations and their layouts. In fact, they do it automatically, without us even paying attention. So instead of just letting these locations sit dormant in your brain, use them!
To use a memory palace, you simply place imaginary pictures in a space you know. It could be your home, your office, or even a grocery store you frequent.
Simply by doing this, you’ll be able to recall information for much longer because your brain will deem it important. After all, it’s connected to things you care about, and it’s visual!
4. Spaced repetition
The earliest research conducted on memory was done by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. He discovered that simply by repeating nonsense syllables over and over again in increasing intervals, he could memorize them more and more effectively. Over time, this developed into a practice called “spaced repetition.”
The idea is this: If you don’t review something, you will forget it over time. But instead of reviewing constantly, you “space out” your review to do the minimum. You review it only when you’re about to forget it.
Each time you perform this review, you “push out” your curve of forgetting until it becomes effectively infinite.
Eventually, you get to a point where you don’t have to review the information at all. This one technique is not only great for improving long-term memory. It’s also a MAJOR time saver. Many students use it for medical school to save time on the huge amount of memorization they need to do. But you can use it for anything, from foreign languages to musical instruments and more.
5. Learn new things regularly
This might sound obvious, but you’d be amazed how many people complain about poor long-term memory, but don’t actively learn new things. The fact of the matter is, learning new things is quite good for our brains. (Though, despite the media frenzy, research has shown mixed results for combating Alzheimer’s disease with learning a language). Regularly learning can help keep our minds sharp, prevent memory loss, and uplift our spirits.
Ask yourself: when was the last time I learned something that challenged me? When was the last time I struggled to learn something new?
If the answer is “I don’t know,” it’s time to pick up some new learning tasks!
6. Get enough sleep
I know, I know. You’ve heard it all before. But the simple fact is, our brains cannot remember new information unless we sleep well and sleep enough. During sleep, our brains consolidate new memories from short-term memory to long-term memory. They flush out metabolic waste products. And they do maintenance and repair on our neurons and synapses.
None of this can happen if you’re not getting enough REM and deep sleep. While drinking coffee may make you feel that your brain is performing normally, there really is no replacement for shut-eye.
And since you’ve probably heard all that before, I’ll add this. It’s likely that you need more sleep than you realize. The recommendation of “8 hours a night” is just an average. Plus, that’s 8 hours of actual sleep. If it takes you 30 minutes to fall asleep, and you wake up for a total of 30 minutes in the middle of the night, then you need an extra hour in bed to meet that goal.
Personally, I try to get as much as 9 hours of sleep, if possible, and I track my sleep to ensure I’m getting quality, not just quantity.
7. Cut down on sugar and carbohydrates
We all know that sugar, simple carbs, and processed foods are bad for our waistlines. But did you know that sugar and carbohydrates are also really bad for your brain?
Without getting into the nitty-gritty neuroscience, when our bodies can’t produce enough insulin, they are unable to break down the clumps of compounds that degrade our brain. This leads to Alzheimer’s and dementia in the long term, but that’s not all. Running your brain on a diet of sugar and carbohydrates leads to crashes in energy, decreased focus, and poor cognitive performance.
Instead, consider a diet that is higher in healthy fats, such as plant oils, medium chain triglycerides, fatty fish, and more. Your brain will love these high-quality fats — especially if you get into ketogenesis. In fact, did you know that your brain can function on a fat-only, “keto” diet? I’m not in a position to give you medical advice, but I can say this much: if you want to experience incredible focus, energy, and attention, try running on ketones for a few days!
8. Consume fish oil and other omega-3 fatty acids
It’s no surprise that our modern diet is unbalanced. But many people do not realize one of the key ways in which it is unbalanced. The modern, Western diet is higher in Omega-6 fatty acids, causing inflammation of our cells. To counterbalance this, the common medical advice is to consume a higher proportion of Omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA.
You can do this by consuming fish oil capsules daily, or by increasing your intake of fish. There really aren’t many other foods that contain DHA in meaningful quantities — so find a type of fish that suits you, and dig in!
I’m sure you’ve heard about the many benefits of meditation for improving your mood, reducing stress, and more. But did you know that it can also improve your cognitive performance and long-term memory?
Meditation has been shown to dramatically alter the structure and density of gray matter. In other words, meditators have healthier, younger, better-functioning brains.
So if all of the many other health benefits weren’t enough to get you meditating, this one should be!
10. Start a daily journaling ritual
When I began journaling, it was for purely emotional and professional reasons. I wanted to experience the benefits of a gratitude practice. Plus, I wanted to accomplish more of my goals and create some personal accountability. But I was in for a big surprise.
It wasn’t until I researched journaling extensively while creating my recent Udemy course that I realized just how many health benefits it offers. Did you know, for example, research has shown that journaling makes you physically heal faster? Not to mention, a journaling habit can help you improve your long-term memory by training your mind to reflect back on your memories from time to time. Not only will you gain a ton from journaling emotionally, but you’ll also begin to savor your life — and remember it — more.
11. Trust your memory
In my memory improvement course, Become a SuperLearner, I tell students about a novel phenomenon I discovered. I call it “The Memory Pygmalion Effect.” You see, for years, I would get rave reviews from students. Here’s one piece of feedback I appreciated:
“It’s only the first week, but I already feel my memory getting better! Thank you!”
The thing is, I didn’t understand how this was possible. The first week of my course is mostly foundational concepts and goal setting. There are no actual memory techniques learned!
That’s when I realized: We all spend so much time telling ourselves, “I have a bad memory,” that it becomes a reality. Our self-talk matters; our brains do what we tell them. If we tell them they won’t forget, then they won’t. This is often referred to as “The Golem Effect” in psychology. It’s the idea that if someone doesn’t believe in you, you will perform worse. If that’s true of managers and teachers, then it’s definitely true of your own self-talk.
Truthfully, this is of the “dirty little secrets” behind the success of my SuperLearner series. Just by giving students the confidence and faith in their own memory skills, I’m able to improve their long-term memory. Sure, we spend eight weeks diving deep into the powerful memory techniques I touched on below. But none of it would be possible without belief.
Today, my memory and I have such a great relationship that I rarely need to use mnemonic techniques. Unless I’m memorizing a long string of numbers, I can generally trust that I’ll just remember it.
So have faith in your memory. Remove the phrase “I have a bad memory” from your lexicon. Starting today, accept the fact that you have a fantastic memory — and you’re learning how to use it even better.
Would you like to join over 300,000 students and me in improving your memory using a proven, step-by-step framework? If so, I invite you to check out my Become A SuperLearner course, right here on Udemy.
Thanks for reading. Never Stop Learning!
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