As we get older, our memory decreases. This is an ingrained assumption in many of us, and yet, according to Richard Restakneurologist and clinical professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health (USA), decline is not necessarily inevitable.
Author of more than 20 books on the mind, Restak has decades of experience in counseling patients with memory problems. “The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind” (“The Complete Guide to the Mind: The Science of Straightening Your Mind,” Restak’s latest book, includes tools such as mental exercises, sleep habits and diet that can help improve memory.
Still, Restak ventures beyond this familiar territory, considering all facets of memory – how it is connected to the creative thinkingthe impact of technologyhow memory can shape our identity. “The aim of the book is to overcome everyday memory problems,” says the author.
Especially working memory, which lies between immediate memory and long-term memory, and is directly linked to intelligencea concentration and the conquests. According to Restak, this is the most critical type of memory, and exercises to strengthen it should be practiced daily. But the key to avoiding later problems, he adds, is to reinforce all the skills connected with the mind.
Memory decline is not inevitable with aging, argues Restak in the book. Instead, he points to 10 “sins” or “stumbling blocks that can lead to lost or distorted memories”. Seven of these hurdles were first described by psychologist and memory expert Daniel Lawrence Schacter – they are “sins of omission” such as distraction; and the “sins of commission” as distorted memories. To these, Restak added three others of his own: technological distortion, technological distraction, and depression.
Ultimately, “we are what we can remember,” he says.
Here are some Restak tips for developing and maintaining a healthy memory.
Pay more attention
Some memory lapses are actually problems with attention and not memory. For example, if you forgot the name of someone you met at an event, it could be because you were talking to several people at the time and weren’t paying attention when you heard.
“Inattention is the biggest cause of memory difficulties,” Restak said. “That means you didn’t code the memory correctly.”
One way to pay attention when learning new information, like a name, is to visualize the word. Having an image associated with the word, Restak said, can improve recall. For example, he recently had to memorize the name of a doctor, Dr. King (an easy example, he acknowledges). So he imagined a doctor “in a white coat with a crown on his head and a scepter in his hand instead of a stethoscope.”
Find daily and regular memory challenges
There are many memory exercises that you can integrate into everyday life. Restak suggested composing a shopping list and memorizing it. When you arrive at the store, don’t automatically pull out your list (or your phone) – instead, take everything according to your memory.
“Try to see the items in your mind,” he said, and only refer to the list at the end if necessary. If you don’t go to the store, try to memorize a recipe. He added that cooking often is actually a great way to improve working memory.
Every now and then, get in the car without turning on the GPS and try navigating the streets from memory. A small 2020 study suggested that people who used GPS more often over time showed a more pronounced cognitive decline in spatial memory three years later.
Games like checkers and chess are great for memory, but so is a simpler game, Restak said. For example, her “favorite working memory game” is 20 questions – in which a group (or a single person) thinks about a person, place, or object; the other person, the questioner, asks 20 questions to be answered with a yes or no. Because to succeed, he said, the questioner must keep all previous answers in memory to guess the correct answer.
Another of Restak’s tried-and-true memory exercises only requires a pen and paper or an audio recorder. First, remember all the presidents of Brazil, starting with Jair Bolsonaro and going back, say, to Deodoro da Fonseca, writing them or recording them. Then name only left-wing presidents and only right-wing presidents. Finally, list them in alphabetical order.
If you prefer, experiment with players from your favorite team or with your favorite authors. The goal is to engage your working memory, “holding information and moving it around in your mind,” Restak wrote.
Read more stories
An early indicator of memory problems, according to Restak, is giving up on fiction. “People, when they start having memory difficulties, tend to switch to reading nonfiction,” he said.
Over his decades of treating patients, Restak has noted that fiction requires active engagement with text, starting at the beginning and working through to the end. “You need to remember what the character did on page 3 when you get to page 11,” he said.
beware of technology
Among Restak’s three new memory sins, two are associated with technology.
The first is what he calls “technological distortion.” Storing everything on your phone means “you don’t know,” Restak said, which can erode our own mental abilities. “Why bother focusing, concentrating and putting effort into visualizing something when a cell phone camera can do all the work for you?” he wrote.
The second way our relationship with technology is detrimental to memory is because it often takes our focus away from manual tasks. “In our day, the greatest impediment to memory is distraction,” wrote Restak. Many of these tools were designed with the aim of hooking the person using them, and as a result, we are often distracted by them. These days, people can check their email while watching Netflix, chatting with a friend, or walking down the street. All of this impedes our ability to focus on the present moment, which is critical for encoding memories.
Work with a mental health professional if needed
Your mood plays a big role in what you do and don’t remember.
Depression, for example, can greatly diminish memory. Among “people who are referred to neurologists for memory problems, one of the biggest causes is depression,” Restak said.
Your emotional state affects the type of memories you remember. The hippocampus (or “memory input center” according to Restak) and the amygdala (the part of the brain that manages emotions and emotional behavior) are linked — so “when you’re in a bad mood or depressed, you tend to remember get rid of sad things,” Restak said. Treating depression – chemically or through psychotherapy – also often restores memory.
Determine if there is cause for concern
Over the course of his career, Restak has been asked by dozens of patients how they can improve their memory. But not all memory lapses are problematic. For example, not remembering where you parked your car in a crowded parking lot is pretty normal. Forgetting how you got to the parking lot in the first place, however, indicates potential memory issues.
There’s no simple solution to what should be cause for concern, Restak said. Much of this depends on the context. For example, it is normal to forget your hotel room number, but not your apartment address. If you are concerned, it is best to consult a medical specialist.