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Published on March 16, 2020

7 Proven Ways to Strengthen Your Long Term Memory

7 Proven Ways to Strengthen Your Long Term Memory

We’ve all had that experience where someone approaches us and says something like, “Hey, it’s so good to see you again!” And we suddenly turn into Dori from “Finding Nemo.” In an instant, our memory fails us. The moment we need our long term memory most, it’s nowhere to be found.

Long term memory, and memory more generally, can seem mysterious. You learn something, it goes somewhere in your brain, and then you hopefully remember it when you need it. However, we all know that memory isn’t as precise as simply storing and retrieving. After all, we’re not robots. Sometimes it can feel more like searching for a pair of tweezers in a hoarder’s basement.

Therefore, understanding a little about how long term memory works can give us some valuable tricks for how to strengthen our long term memory and improve the retrieval process.

Where Does Long Term Memory Happen?

Memory is broken down into three parts: encoding, storing, and retrieving. First, we perceive something, and it gets encoded in the brain as a memory. Next, the memory is stored in various brain regions. Finally, you retrieve or recall the memory when necessary.

Consolidation is the process of transferring a short term memory into a long term memory, and scientists have made some new discoveries about how this consolidation process occurs.

Until fairly recently, scientists thought that short term memories occurred in the hippocampus and were then consolidated to other brain regions, but new studies have given us another model for how long term memory works.

The old way of thinking about memory, called the standard model, says that memories get encoded in the hippocampus as short term memories and are later consolidated or transferred to the neocortex.

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But there’s a new model in town. Scientists have recently come up with the multiple trace model.[1] Instead of starting in the hippocampus, this model shows that memories start in the hippocampus and the neocortex simultaneously.[2]

Instead of transferring memories from one region to the other, the memory trace in the neocortex strengthens over the course of two weeks to become a long term memory, while the memory in the hippocampus weakens over that same time period.

This is an important distinction because, instead of trying to strengthen the transfer from short to long term memory (hippocampus to neocortex), we may actually be strengthening what started as a trace of a memory that’s already hanging out in the neocortex.

How to Improve Your Long Term Memory

Here are 7 scientifically proven ways to strengthen those trace memories in the neocortex and boost your long term memory:

1. Get Some Exercise

Studies[3] have shown that walking and running both help improve long term memory. The trick is to get that exercise during the encoding stage of memory. That means reading while on the treadmill or going over your speech while pumping iron. This helps boost your long term memory.

The good news is that even light exercise during encoding boosts long term memory retrieval later.

2. Get Some Sleep

Recently, scientists[4] have discovered that sleeping helps our brains clear out some memories, which helps strengthen others. It’s a necessary process that requires us to get a good night’s rest and plenty of REM sleep.

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In order to retrieve long term memories that we need later, we need that nightly downtime to discard less important memories.[5]

3. Drink Some Coffee

Good news for all you coffee addicts—caffeine can also help boost your long term memory. In one study, participants were given caffeine after their memory testing.[6] The results showed that caffeine helped with long term memory consolidation.

Think of it as strengthening those trace memories in the neocortex (if we’re using the multiple trace model). A caveat: scientists still haven’t been able to prove that caffeine helps with long term memory retrieval.

4. Pay Attention

Memory relies on the first step in the process; we have to encode information before it can be stored. That’s why it’s so important to pay close attention the first time we experience new information.

In one adorable study with toddlers, scientists tried to determine whether immediate imitation helped the toddlers strengthen their long term memory on later tests.[7]

What they found is that imitation wasn’t actually necessary for improving later memory retrieval. The key to successful long term memory retrieval was paying attention in the first place. It wasn’t essential that the toddlers parrot back the information, just that they paid attention to it.

So whether you’re repeating, taking notes, or just staring intently, the bottom line is that you need to pay attention to boost your future long term memory storage and retrieval.

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5. Quiz Yourself

Another way to strengthen your long term memory is to quiz yourself. Paying attention is important, but to really boost your eventual memory retrieval, periodically testing yourself to see what you remember is important.

The testing effect is the phenomenon that testing yourself improves retention.[8]. Think about just reading over your notes as compared to using flashcards to quiz yourself. When you skim over your notes, you aren’t paying attention to what you do and don’t know. You’re also not practicing your long term memory retrieval.

However, when you make flashcards, create a practice test, or cover the answers and quiz yourself, you are forcing yourself to confront what you do and don’t know and which memories are weaker than others. This forces you to practice your retrieval and strengthen your long term memory.

6. Practice Repeated Retrieval

Quizzing yourself is one thing, but if you want to take your memory-boosting to the next level, you need to try repeated retrieval. Instead of just quizzing yourself once, repeated retrieval is where you quiz yourself multiple times over a period of time.[9]. Since it takes two weeks to strengthen those trace memories in the neocortex, that’s the benchmark for repeated retrieval.

Repeated retrieval is also known as spaced retrieval. Companies using this technique have been around since the 1970s, but now, thanks to advances in technology, you can easily access spaced repetition tools online.

The concept is simple. You are asked a question. If you know the answer, it goes in one pile (virtual or real), and if you don’t it goes in another. More time will go by before you are asked the questions you got right than the ones you got wrong. The interval between questioning increases each time you get an answer correct until it is safe and sound in your long term memory.

7. Space out Your Recall

Instead of cramming, spacing out your recall sessions has been shown to improve long term memory. When you cram, you can just rely on the short term memory in your hippocampus, whereas spacing out your study sessions forces you to strengthen those trace memories waiting in your neocortex.

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Final Thoughts

Memory is imprecise, and there’s still a lot we don’t know about it, but recent studies have shed some light on the techniques that we can use to better boost our long term memory.

Knowing that memories are simultaneously encoded in multiple brain regions can help us think more about strengthening those trace memories instead of transferring them from one region to another.

Exercise, caffeine, and paying attention to the world around us can help with our encoding. Then, quizzing ourselves over time can help us store and retrieve those long term memories.

It’s important to think of memory as a gradual process that takes place over weeks, not moments. Also, it can’t be overstated how important sleep is to the memory process. Without a good night’s rest and regular REM cycles, the brain doesn’t have time to sift through which memories to keep and which to throw away.

Without these 7 strategies, our brains will be like that hoarder’s basement, so clean it out and create a retrieval system that you use regularly. After using these 7 techniques to strengthen your long term memory, your brain will be more like a library archive than a messy, musty basement.

The final piece of good news: you’re never too old to strengthen your long term memory, so get started today.

More Tips on Strengthening Memory

Featured photo credit: Tamarcus Brown via unsplash.com

Reference

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Clay Drinko

Clay Drinko is an educator and the author of PLAY YOUR WAY SANE (January 2021 Simon & Schuster)

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Published on October 22, 2020

What Is Analysis Paralysis (And How to Overcome It)

What Is Analysis Paralysis (And How to Overcome It)

Have you ever taken so long trying to solve a problem that you just ended up going around in circles? How about trying to make a major decision and just freezing up when the time to decide came?

You might have found yourself gathering too much information, hoping it will help you make the best decision—even if it takes you too long to do so. This probably led to many missed opportunities, especially in situations where you needed to act on time.

Nobody wants to make the wrong decision. However, delayed decision making can have a hugely negative impact on all aspects of your life—from your personal relationships to your career. Delaying important decisions can be the worst decision of all.

At one point or another, people get stuck at a decision impasse they can’t seem to overcome. This is due to a mental blindspot called information bias, informally known as analysis paralysis.

Analysis Paralysis and Stalled Decisions

Information bias, or analysis paralysis, is our tendency to seek more information than is needed to make decisions and take action.[1] It is one of many cognitive biases that cause us to make mistakes during the decision-making process.

A related cognitive bias is the status quo bias, which is our tendency to prefer that things stay the same and fear any changes.[2] Together with analysis paralysis, these two dangerous judgment errors pose a threat to our successful navigation through our rapidly-shifting world.

Consider what happened to Lily, a consulting client of mine who’s a mid-level manager in the UX department of a large tech company. Lily had been there for 5 years and was thinking about switching to a startup after a couple tried to recruit her.

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However, she had been taking a lot of time making a decision. In fact, before she contacted me, she had already gathered information and talked to a lot of people for 7 months. Realistically, more information won’t sway her decision, but she kept trying to gather more information.

And then, there was the technology company that came to me after their growth started to decline. The company had initially experienced rapid growth with a couple of innovative products. However, its growth started to decrease—unfortunate, but not unexpected.

Essentially, the company’s growth followed the typical S-curve growth model, which starts as a slow and effortful start-up stage. This is followed by a rapid growth stage, then a slowdown in growth, often following market saturation or competitive pressure or other factors. This is the point where the company’s existing products reach maturity.

However, even before a slowdown hits, forward-thinking companies would innovate and change things up proactively. This is so they could have new products ready to go that would maintain rapid growth.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case with this particular tech company. Not only did they not address the potential decline but once the company’s growth stalled, the leaders dug their heels in and stayed the course. They kept on analyzing the market to find the cause of the problem.

Worse, a couple of executives in the company proposed launching new products, but most of the leadership was cautious. They kept on asking for guarantees that the products would be a success, demanding more information even when additional information wasn’t relevant.

Both Lily and the tech company remained paralyzed by too much information when they should already have taken action. While this situation isn’t unexpected, it is totally avoidable.

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As I told both parties when they consulted me, all they needed to do was to face analysis paralysis head-on and make a decision. But they had to follow the best decision-making process available first, didn’t they?

8-Step Decision-Making Process to Avoid Analysis Paralysis

I told Lily and the leaders at the tech company that we should never go with our gut if we want to avoid disasters in our personal and professional lives.[3] Instead, I advised them, as I advise you now, to follow data-driven, research-based approaches, such as the one I’ll outline below.

From hiring a new employee, launching a new product, selecting a Zoom guest speaker for your annual video conference to deciding whether to apply for a higher-level position within your company, the following steps will help you fight analysis paralysis and make the best decisions possible.

1. Identify the Need to Launch a Decision-Making Process

This is particularly important when there’s no explicit crisis that cries out for a change or decision to be made. Such recognition is also applicable when your natural intuitions are keeping you from acknowledging the need for a tough decision.

Remember that the best decision-makers take the initiative to recognize the need for decisions before they become an emergency. They also don’t let gut reactions cloud their decision-making capacity.

2. Gather Relevant Information From a Wide Variety of Informed Perspectives

Listen especially to opinions you disagree with. Contradicting perspectives empower you to distance yourself from the comfortable reliance on your gut instincts, which can sometimes be harmful to decision-making. Opposing ideas also help you recognize any potential bias blind spots, and this allows you to come up with solutions that you may not have otherwise.

3. Paint a Clear Vision of Your Desired Outcome

Using the data gleaned from step 2, decide which goals you want to reach. Paint a clear vision of the desired outcome of your decision-making process. You should also recognize that what seems to be a one-time decision may turn out to be a symptom of an underlying issue with current processes and practices. Make addressing these root problems part of the outcome you want to achieve.

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4. Make a Decision-Making Process Criteria

Make a decision-making process criteria to weigh the various options of how you’d like to get to your desired outcome. As much as possible, develop these criteria before you start to consider choices. Our intuitions bias our decision-making criteria to encourage certain outcomes that fit our instincts. As a result, you get overall worse decisions if you don’t develop criteria before starting to look at options.

5. Generate Several Viable Options

We tend to fall into the trap of generating insufficient options to make the best decisions, and this can lead to analysis paralysis. To prevent this, you should generate many more options than you usually would. Generate several viable options that can help you achieve your decision-making process goals. Go for 5 attractive options as the minimum.

Keep in mind that this is a brainstorming step, so don’t judge options no matter how far fetched they might seem. In my consulting and coaching experience, the optimal choice often involves elements drawn from out-of-the-box options.

6. Weigh These Options and Pick the Best One

When weighing your options, beware of going with your initial preferences. Try to see your preferred choice in a harsh light. Also, do your best to separate each option from the person who proposed it. This minimizes the impact of personalities, relationships, and internal politics on the decision itself.

7. Implement the Option You Chose

For implementing the decision, you need to minimize risks and maximize rewards, since your goal is to get a decision outcome that’s as good as possible.

First, imagine that the decision completely failed. Then, brainstorm about all the problems that led to this failure. Next, consider how you might solve these problems, and integrate the solutions into your implementation plan.

Next, imagine that the decision absolutely succeeded. Brainstorm all the reasons for success and consider how you can bring these reasons into life. Then, integrate what you learned into implementing the decisions.

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Finally, develop clear metrics of success that you can measure throughout the implementation process. This will enable you to check if you’re meeting the goals you identified in step 3. It will also help guide your goal-setting process—something to keep in mind when you use this decision-making technique again in the future.

8. Set a Reminder to Use the Process for Future Decisions

Regularly check if it’s time to employ the decision-making process once again. As discussed in the first step, there may be times when there’s no explicit crisis that cries out for a change, even though underlying issues might already be signaling that it’s time for a tough decision.

Setting a reminder—perhaps a visual one such as a note on your desk, or even just a scheduled alert on your phone—will ensure that you can catch decision-making cues before they’re due.

While Lily and the tech company initially had to fight off a lot of discomforts when using the process, they were ultimately rewarded with sound decisions they were immensely satisfied with.

This battle-tested method will do the same for you. It will certainly propel your decision-making and, at the same time, help you thwart analysis paralysis and avoid decision disasters.

Conclusion

Nobody wants to make the wrong decision, but you also don’t want to take too long and miss opportunities. By using a data-driven and research-based approach to decision making, you can nip analysis paralysis in the bud and make the best decisions.

More Tips to Overcome Analysis Paralysis

Featured photo credit: Muhmed El-Bank via unsplash.com

Reference

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