Eat five almonds a day.
That was the first and instant recollection of many in my professional circle while we were discussing what boosts memory. It appears as if all our mothers and grandmothers would give us several almonds to eat in the morning for breakfast and told us the same thing, “You’ll have a good memory if you eat almonds.” One mournfully said, “I ate several almonds every day. I still don’t have a great memory.” A lengthy debate ensued on the subject, with many firmly maintaining that they’ve continued the tradition of eating almonds adamantly in the morning.
Nevertheless, these aren’t old myths; there’s strong evidence to back it up. A 2016 study conducted by American researchers asserted that these nuts are an important source of nutrients and can delay or prevent the onset of age-associated brain dysfunction. Moreover, they’re a rich source of Vitamin E, which is an antioxidant. As our brain is vulnerable to oxidative stress that can damage brain cells over time, it leads to a decline in memory and cognitive function. So, nuts, particularly walnuts, pecans and almonds, which have significant levels of antioxidants ensure brain health, says the study.
According to another recent study published in the US-based journal Clinical Nutrition, the daily consumption of almonds benefits blood flow and verbal memory in adults.
So, your mothers were right. But enough about almonds. Let’s see other ways to strengthen your memory.
‘Backward review of the day’
What if you revisited your entire day in your mind before you sleep?
This is referred to as the backward review of the day, explains Marian Alonzo, medical expert at The Farm, San Benito. “It’s like a reflection activity done right before sleeping. You go through your activities for that day but in reverse order, from the time you lie on your bed to brushing your teeth, your dinner to afternoon activities, to lunch, morning rituals, till the time you open your eyes that morning. It takes effort to do it backward thereby enhancing brain pathways while at the same time serving as an unwinding activity,” she says.
Backward review is like a reflection activity done right before sleeping. You go through your activities for that day but in reverse order. It takes effort to do it backward thereby enhancing brain pathways while at the same time serving as an unwinding activity..
There is a reason why it takes such an effort to recall your day backwards. In 2019, a study conducted at the University of Birmingham showed that when we remember a past event, the brain reconstructs the experience in reverse order. The research showed that the brain focuses first on the ‘gist’ and only later recalls specific details. During the course of the study, participants saw images of specific objects, and then learned to associate each image with a unique reminder word, for example the word ‘spin’ or ‘pull’. The participants were later presented with the reminder word and had to reconstruct the associated image in as much detail as possible.
The participants retrieved the abstract information, such as whether they were thinking of an animal or an inanimate object, shortly after they heard the reminder word. “It was only later that they retrieved the specific details, for example whether they had been looking at a coloured object, or a black and white outline,” Maria Wimber, senior author of the study had earlier explained.
So, when you do this ‘backward’ process of recall before sleeping, you work on remembering all the details of your day, backwards, and even the hazy details, though it is a struggle. This helps with mental power, explains Alonzo.
Moreover, sometimes replaying an event can help in strengthening your memory. Replay whatever you would like to remember for 40 seconds. This method of rehearsal, according to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, is like tracing a series of steps. So, there’s more chance that you will remember what you rehearsed. This rehearsal effect is linked to process in a particular part of the brain, called the posterior cingulate.
You didn’t just think it, you heard it.
According to a 2010 study published in the US-based Journal of Experimental Psychology, if you ever say the words out loud, you have a chance of remembering them better. The researchers and neuroscientists assert saying something out loud distinguishes it from just your thoughts. This helps your cerebral cortex to retain the information longer.
The lifestyle fixes and being mentally active
According to Carolyn Yaffe, counsellor and cognitive behaviour therapist at Dubai-based Camali Clinic Medcare, a person needs to assess their lifestyle, which includes their sleep patterns and diet. You need a balanced diet that is rich in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids. Engage in activities such as puzzles, reading, or cognitive games that keep your brain sharp, adds Yaffe. Try learning a new language, or a new instrument. Keep learning skills as that keeps the brain active. "Learning something new daily or as often as possible keeps your brain young. It allows brain neuroplasticity, which forms more neural pathways and allows electrical impulses to travel faster across them," says Natasha Rudasenko, the founder of Health Nag. The combination of these two things can help you learn better, she adds.
Physical exercise and workouts won’t hurt you either, as it promotes better memory and cognitive function. It stimulates the renewal of cells in the brain. Yaffe advises switching off devices on returning home, as you are not absorbing information from social media. "It's just surface learning, and you are not retaining much," says Yaffe.
Engage in activities such as puzzles, reading, or cognitive games that keep your brain sharp. Try learning a new language, or a new instrument, and focus on physical exercise and workouts. Physical activity stimulates the renewal of cells in the brain.
Mindfulness and meditation go a long way too, says Yaffe. Referred to as “offline waking”, you close your eyes and daydream for a while. Clear your mind. This lack of focus helps in strengthening memory consolidation, as you just momentarily shut off from the external world. Otherwise, if you keep going from one thing to the next, your brain can’t keep up.
The prediction game
It sounds a little incredulous, but this is said to actually work. According to several studies, especially one published in 2011 Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, if you just ask yourself whether you can remember something, it helps the odds that you will remember, sometimes as much as by 50 per cent. It’s a little unclear why this works, but neuroscientists believe that perhaps the act of predicting is like quizzing yourself, which can accelerate the learning process.
Practise memory retrieval
"The brain is a muscle and it needs to be trained also," explains Rudasenko. "You need mental challenges in order to keep your mental capacity in tip-top condition. Think of it as a mind gym. Make a list, grocery items, things to do, or anything else that comes to mind and memorise it. Make the list as challenging as possible for better mental stimulation," she says.
The power of acting and learning dialogues
How do actors memorise their dialogues and scenes?
For Dubai-based actor and director Rashmi Kotriwala, an acting class is a sure shot at strengthening the memory. It can be a hobby that is directed towards one’s memory, learning and cognitive skills, even if they don’t want to be an ace actor, she says. Drawing from her own experiences, she says, “Memory and ability to learn and delivery are essential to the actor's skill set, and a crash course in acting could be a first step for many,” she adds.
Theatre is about acting under imaginary circumstances and in another person’s shoes. So, actors need to first imagine the character’s situation and understand the content of their actions, explains Kotriwala. “The dialogues, inflections, tonality and mood depend on the context. This is how the cognitive abilities are bolstered,” she says.
However, it is not simple rote learning. According to the research papers by cognitive psychologist Helga Noice and cognitive researcher, actor, and director Tony Noice from Elmhurst College in Chicacgo, actors engage in a process called ‘active experiencing’, where they essentially live through their character. This process of active experiencing allows actors to understand their characters’ intentions, why they say, what they say and how that translates into action.
Noice’s research also showed that physical movement helped actors memorise better. They discovered in one study that lines memorised while walking across the stage were better recalled than lines that were not paired with some kind of action. In a way, the physical movement supported the memory consolidation process for actors.