15 Everyday Habits of People with an Impressive Memory
Need help with your memory? Even if you're not a memory genius, these common-sense strategies can help you remember things more easily.
It is possible to improve your memory
You probably know someone who seems to never forget a thing: Names, events, things that happened years ago can be recalled in seconds. How do these people do it? Yes, you can train your brain to have superhuman memory. Mnemonic tricks can be helpful, but more importantly, good lifestyle habits, as well as strategies for processing new information, can improve how your memory works. It’s not just about rote memorization—it’s about how info “sticks” in the brain to use later on. “Memorizing ‘stuff’ should not be the goal,” says Jennifer Zientz, MS, head of clinical services with the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas. “Using what you remember—combining memories with other knowledge to form new ideas and to make choices—is a more healthy way to use your brain, and will enhance your life more than worrying about your ability to remember ‘stuff.'” Read on for some tips on expanding your brain’s potential.
In order to free up your brain to remember new and important information, don’t waste energy trying to recall where you put your keys: It really is easier to find things if you get into the habit of always putting them in the same place. “Having a routine can be very helpful for memory,” Zientz says. “Routines help us attain efficiency so we don’t have to expend a lot of brain power on predictable elements of our day. Efficiency in everyday activities frees up time and brain power for more meaningful things in our lives.”
Use your senses
If you have to put something in an unfamiliar place, say what you are doing out loud: “I am putting my sunglasses on the table by the door.” Or when you meet someone new, repeat their name out loud. This is one of those memory exercises proven to keep your brain sharp. “Most of us learn better when we can take information in through more than one sense because it puts the information in a greater context,” says Zientz. By letting your ears register the information, 2017 research in the journal Memory found, you enhance your focus on it, increasing your chances of remembering it later.
It’s no surprise we can’t remember things when our attention is divided. “Today, we have access to an unprecedented amount of information,” says Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth. “It may seem counter-intuitive to slow down, but research has shown that the more people consume at once the shallower their thinking becomes. By taking in less information, you are better able to get meaning, develop knowledge, and actually build brain networks.” Filtering out these distractions improves the focus that leads to better memory, Zientz says. “The first thing we all have to do is put our cell phones away and stop multitasking,” she says. (Here’s how to fit mindfulness into your daily life.)
One way to laser-focus your attention to boost memory is to start meditating. Chapman says the first step to enhancing brain function is to “prime your brain” by quieting it—and meditation helps you avoid distracting, anxious, and stressful thoughts, which improves focus. One study in Psychological Science found students who took a mindfulness class and meditated for ten minutes a day did better on the GRE exam than students who didn’t.
Free up your working memory by using external aids to organize information. Set up reminders of what you need to do each day on your cell phone calendar. Better yet, a study in Psychological Science found the simple act of writing things down can reinforce information in your memory. So keep Post-Its in every room and leave handwritten reminders where you’ll see them, and write a list before you go to the store so you don’t forget anything. Jot down these notes when they’re fresh in your mind—planning ahead helps your working memory actually perform current tasks instead of thinking about what needs to be done later, per the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Go out in nature
This simple activity can boost memory by 20 percent. Similar to meditating, walking in nature may calm anxious and distracting thoughts that mess with memory, as well as give the brain a break from multitasking to improve its performance later on. In one 2015 study published in Landscape and Urban Planning, participants who took a walk in nature did better on memory tasks than those who walked in an urban setting. “Nature—even getting a mere glimpse of it—helps the brain calm itself and reset,” Chapman says.
Sleep on it
Research in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society indicates people who get seven hours of sleep have better memories than those who get less than five or more than nine. This may be just the right amount for their brain to go through the chemical changes needed to integrate new skills or facts into long-term memory. “Sleep strengthens connections between brain cells and different brain regions, and moves information into areas of the brain that are more efficient for storing it,” says sleep expert Richard Shane, PhD, creator of the Sleep Easy method. “Dreaming sorts and organizes information, makes connections, and even solves problems. All of this strengthens memories and improves recall.” (Don’t miss these simple ways to get smarter while you sleep.)
Take a nap
It’s not just nighttime sleep that helps solidify memory: A short daytime snooze can improve recall as well. “In one study, people were given pairs of unrelated words to remember, and after, one group took a nap and the other watched videos,” Shane says. “The group that took a nap had a five-fold improvement in associative memory—the ability to remember a link between items that are unrelated—compared with the group that watched videos.”
The physical and the mental are deeply connected, so exercise keeps your brain sharp by avoiding memory suckers like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. “Movement improves circulation, bringing blood, oxygen, and nutrients to the brain, which can help to ensure it is functioning at its peak,” says fitness and nutrition expert Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of 2 Day Diabetes Diet. “Studies have found an improvement in learning, memory, and concentration directly after aerobic exercise, so taking small movement breaks throughout your workday can be beneficial to your body and your mind.” Plus, when you shed pounds, you get smarter—science proves it.
Retrace your steps
This might not be the type of exercise that first comes to mind, but a 2019 study in Cognition found that actually walking backward helped participants better remember past events than walking forward or sitting still. And it wasn’t just the movement itself: Participants who watched a video of objects moving backward, or even imagined moving backward, remembered better. The researchers dubbed this the “mnemonic time-travel effect,” and although they’re not sure yet how it works, it could have real-world applications for the next time you’re trying to remember something.
Eat a Mediterranean diet
A review of research in Frontiers in Nutrition confirmed that eating the Mediterranean way—with lots of fresh veggies, fruit, fish, and whole grains—is linked with better memory, both working and long-term. “The Mediterranean diet promotes a healthy heart and improved circulatory system—when circulation is enhanced, oxygen and nutrients are more easily able to reach the brain, which can help to enhance learning and memory,” Palinski-Wade says. “This style of eating has been found to be associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s and mild cognitive impairment.”
You could also try the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay), a combo of Mediterranean and DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). MIND focuses specifically on foods shown to boost brain and memory health, including green leafy vegetables, berries, and nuts; while avoiding foods shown to lower cognitive function, such as red meat, butter, and sweets.
Cut down on alcohol
Studies have found that drinking too much alcohol is linked with greater loss of memory. “Moderate alcohol consumption can have a short-term negative impact on memory—and chronic, heavy drinking can have a lasting effect on the brain as it can cause a loss of gray matter, and have a long-term impact on memory and cognitive function,” Palinski-Wade says. “Excessive alcohol use, even occasionally, can lead to ‘hangovers’ which include dehydration. Since even mild dehydration can have a negative impact on mental functioning, limiting alcohol consumption may help to prevent this.” To keep your brain sharp, cut back on alcohol, and don’t drink more than one glass a day for women and two for men.
On the other hand, consuming a cup of joe might actually strengthen your memories. “Small amounts of caffeine can make you more alert, which can improve memory and concentration—one study even found that caffeine improved long-term memory,” Palinski-Wade says. Just be sure not to drink it later in the day. “However, excessive intake of caffeine can have a negative impact as it can reduce quality sleep, which over time can cause a decline in memory and concentration,” she says.
Review info afterward
When you learn something new, a great way to remember it is to go over the information later, honing in on the most important points. “Summarizing activates the brain’s frontal networks to do the ‘heavy lifting’ of synthesizing, or aggregating, different pieces of knowledge to create something new,” Chapman says. This can “pump up” your brain, she says. For example, in one study, participants who replayed a scene in their mind after watching a video remembered it better than those who simply went on to a new video, according to the Journal of Neuroscience.
While you’re going over the new information in your mind, you can also strengthen your chances of remembering if you form associations with things you already know. For example, if you meet someone who reminds you of a famous actor, use that as a memory hook to recall their name. “When we can attach some personal meaning, that is also shown to enhance our ability to remember,” Zientz says. You can also use mental pictures—for example, if someone’s last name is Baker, picture them wearing a chef’s hat, or if their name is Tiffany, picture diamonds. Even sounds and odors can form links that strengthen memories. “There is evidence that music and smell are both often associated with triggering deep-seated memories from the past,” Zientz says. Next, check out the strange things that can rewire your brain.
- Jennifer Zientz, MS, head of clinical services with the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas
- Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth
- PNAS: "Minds and brains of media multitaskers: Current findings and future directions"
- Psychological Science: "Mindfulness training improves working memory capacity and GRE performance while reducing mind wandering"
- Psychological Science: "The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking"
- Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: "Consider it done! Plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals"
- Landscape and Urban Planning: "The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition"
- Richard Shane, PhD, creator of the Sleep Easy method
- The National Sleep Foundation: "Improve Your Memory With a Good Night’s Sleep"
- Journal of the American Geriatrics Society: "Sleep Duration in Midlife and Later Life in Relation to Cognition"
- Neurobiology of Learning and Memory: "Nap sleep preserves associative but not item memory performance"
- Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of 2 Day Diabetes Diet
- Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience: "Shorter term aerobic exercise improves brain, cognition, and cardiovascular fitness in aging"
- ANNALS OF THE NEW YORK ACADEMY OF SCIENCES: "Impact of diabetes on cognitive function and brain structure"
- Cognition: "It takes me back: The mnemonic time-travel effect"
- Frontiers in Nutrition: "Adherence to a Mediterranean-Style Diet and Effects on Cognition in Adults: A Qualitative Evaluation and Systematic Review of Longitudinal and Prospective Trials"
- Alzheimer's Dementia: "MIND diet slows cognitive decline with aging"
- Neurology: "Alcohol consumption and cognitive decline in early old age"
- PLOS One: "Binge drinking during adolescence and young adulthood is associated with deficits in verbal episodic memory"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol"
- Nature: "Post-study caffeine administration enhances memory consolidation in humans"
- Journal of Neuroscience: "Consolidation of Complex Events via Reinstatement in Posterior Cingulate Cortex"
- Nature Communications: "Hippocampal projections to the anterior olfactory nucleus differentially convey spatiotemporal information during episodic odour memory."