Everyone wants their brain to work at its best - whether you need to stay sharp to keep up with your children or to come up on top at work. The exciting thing is that science now provides evidence for what works and what does not. So training your brain no longer has to be a case of trial and error.
Those who use their brain more efficiently tend to have better jobs, better relationships and happier and more fulfilling lives. And you can change your brain and, as a result, change your circumstances.
Reminders: There’s a lot you can do to improve your memory - and not one of the following tips requires a gadget
What’s your cognitive reserve?
Ever heard of cognitive reserve? It’s a buzzword in the scientific community. The theory is based on the idea that those who have a larger reserve of neurons and stronger cognitive abilities can tolerate some brain deterioration without showing symptoms. In other words, the more you use your brain, the greater your chances of avoiding symptoms of memory loss.
Talk fast and remember more
Speaking quickly can do wonders for your verbal short-term memory. The length of a word makes a big difference in how well you can remember it. Look at these words: refrigerator, hippopotamus, Mississippi, aluminium.
You’re more likely to forget them compared with words that you can repeat more easily, such as bus, clock, spoon and fish. The longer it takes to repeat or rehearse something, the harder it is to remember.
This is known as the wordlength effect, which means that longer words are harder to remember. To boost your memory of longer words, ask to look at a list, rather than just listen to it.
A list of words that are distinct (such as bus, clock, spoon, fish, mouse) are much easier to remember than a list of words that sound similar (rhyming words such as cat, mat, cap, map, can, man).
When things sound similar, you’re more likely to get confused. So if you’re trying to remember a shopping list, group your items by categories (dairy, meat, bread) rather than alphabetically.
Why does it take me so long to remember?
As you get older, you take longer to come up with an answer because you have so many more life experiences and it takes longer to sift through them all to find the right word or image.
It’s never too late to make a difference
I looked at working memory in people aged five to 85. This continues developing in your 20s and peaks in the 30s, and actually declines very little over the decades.
Working memory in those in their 60s looks like those in their 20s. Studies show that at any age, you can do something to make a difference to your memory. As you age, your brain shrinks by about two per cent every ten years, although it is unlikely to be noticeable until you hit your 60s.
Why 20s and 30s are the most memorable years
If you were to list your top 20 memories, you may find most are from your 20s and 30s. This is not unusual. People tend to try things for the first time during this period so often remember them more clearly.
This may include first loves, holidays and first mortgages. This period is known as the reminiscence bump, because there is a bump or peak in the number of memories you can easily recall from this time.
Banish the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon
Everyone struggles with the tip of-the-tongue phenomenon (TOT for short). This is when you can describe a word’s meaning in detail but you just can’t remember what it is.
Here’s how TOT works. I’m thinking of a fruit, I ate one for breakfast, it’s juicy and I can see it in my head but I just can’t remember what it’s called. Two hours later, the name pops into my head while I’m in the middle of a meeting - I was thinking of a pomegranate.
This example is simple - you more commonly search for words you say less frequently. So don’t get stuck in a rut, using the same words and same ideas every day. The more often you use language and seek out opportunities to use language creatively, the less likely you are to experience TOT.
Play a mental memory game with yourself or, alternatively, challenge someone else. Set yourself a target - for example, name as many animals as you can in 30 seconds. Try to name one animal per second.
Now make it harder - name as many animals as you can with names that start with the letter P in 30 seconds. Then try a different topic, with fruit or furniture. You can add time on if you find it too difficult, or pick harder letters.
The aim of this game is to challenge your mind to create connections between items in a category. You may even find yourself making a mental store of animal names when you read the newspaper.
The P game: Picking a letter and trying to name as many animals or items beginning with that letter will improve your memory.
Prepare your brain
Different parts of the brain show more activation just before a problem is presented. This means the brain gets ready and gathers information from different parts in order to generate a solution.
When you’re faced with a problem, the solution seldom comes from thin air. The answer is often the result of hours (and sometimes years) of preparation. So, the next time you have a problem to tackle, do your homework and prepare well. A creative solution will soon follow.
Sometimes talking about a problem that needs to be solved can ruin the creative process. Studies have found the creative process works best if you’re not constantly vocalising plans.
In many ways, the creative solution is an automatic process. So next time you’re trying to be creative, avoid talking about it and let your brain do the work.
Don’t lose your head: Stress can affect your memory too
Stress shrinks your brain
Scientists have found that high levels of stress can reduce the volume of the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for absorbing new information), as well as the anterior cingulate cortex, which is linked to controlling stress hormones.
Stress leads to hypertension and high blood pressure. In a group of almost 1,000 adults aged 65 years and older, scientists found that those with high blood pressure were at a greater risk of mild cognitive impairment.
This means that these adults found it harder to focus, had a hard time performing simple cognitive activities and reported that they forgot things more frequently.
You cannot use the excuse that you’re too tired to exercise. Scientists have discovered that 15 minutes a day can make a big difference to your sleep cycle. Exercise helps you get REM (deep sleep) and feel more awake during the day.
Change your route
A change of scene can make a big difference to your mental health. For example, if you take the dog for a walk in the same place every day, change your route.
You may not realise this, but looking at the same trees or flowers each day may be dragging you down. Finding somewhere new to go for a walk is a quick pick-me-up. You may be surprised by how energised you feel.
Why word searches are stress-free
Some people adore puzzles that allow them to play with words: crosswords, logic puzzles, riddles, word searches, word scrambles and so on. Some just seem to have the knack of solving them.
Others don’t have the knack at all and wouldn’t recognise the answer if it smacked them in the forehead.
So how do you get the knack? Start with something like a word search. Most of us will have done these in school to reinforce spelling and vocabulary.
The thing I love about word searches is that they’re really low-stress. If the word list is provided, I guarantee you can complete the search - no matter how large the grid or how many words you’re looking for.
How often in life do you get the satisfaction of knowing you’re going to get the right answers?
That fact, in itself, makes working word searches fun. Plus, they’re great puzzles for increasing concentration and blocking out the world for a while.
Training Your Brain For Dummies, by Dr Tracy Packiam Alloway