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.
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.
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.
But there’s a new model in town. Scientists have recently come up with the multiple trace model.((Science Daily: Long-term memory stored in the cortex)) Instead of starting in the hippocampus, this model shows that memories start in the hippocampus and the neocortex simultaneously.((MIT News: Neuroscientists identify brain circuit necessary for memory formation))
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.
Here are 7 scientifically proven ways to strengthen those trace memories in the neocortex and boost your long term memory:
Studies((Behavioral and Brain Functions: Treadmill walking during vocabulary encoding improves verbal long-term memory)) 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.
Recently, scientists((PloS One: Sleep Improves Memory: The Effect of Sleep on Long Term Memory in Early Adolescence)) 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.
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.((Nature Neuroscience: Post-study caffeine administration enhances memory consolidation in humans)) 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.
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.((Journal of Experimental Child Psychology: Does immediate imitation influence long-term memory for observed actions?))
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.
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.((Psychological Science: Test-Enhanced Learning: Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention)). 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.
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.((Journal of Memory and Language: Repeated retrieval during learning is the key to long-term retention)). 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.
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.
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.