By Dr. Mercola
We all experience blips in our memory now and then, but wouldn’t it be handy to be able to recall information instantly whenever you need it? Forgotten names of colleagues or old friends, lost keys, and that item from your grocery list you forgot at the store… all would become things of the past.
It may be next to impossible to completely eliminate such blips from your life, but you can certainly ramp up your brain function to enhance your memory, cognitive skills, and more.
Your brain is actually a very moldable organ with the remarkable ability to reorganize pathways, create new connections and, in some cases, even create new neurons throughout your entire lifetime.
Much of this ability comes from lifestyle choices, like the foods you eat, your daily activity and exercise. However, some of it is driven by your mental activities (like learning and socializing). You can even boost your ability to recall information, both now and later, using these simple tricks compiled by TIME.1
Boost Your Ability to Think Better Now… and Later
1. Turn on Classical Music
It’s long been theorized that listening to music may boost your brainpower; you’ve probably heard of this with the “Mozart Effect,” which suggests listening to classical music can help make you smarter.
Recent research showed, in fact, that people who listened to Mozart’s classical music had an increase in brain wave activity linked to memory, understanding, and problem solving.2 Ironically, music composed by Beethoven showed no such effect. Researchers explained:3
“These results may be representative of the fact that Mozart’s music is able to ‘activate’ neuronal cortical circuits (circuits of nerve cells in the brain) related to attentive and cognitive functions.”
2. Sniff Rosemary Oil
People who sniffed rosemary essential oil performed better on memory tasks than those who did not, according to research presented at the 2013 Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society. Researcher Dr. Mark Moss told Science Daily:4,5
“We wanted to build on our previous research that indicated rosemary aroma improved long-term memory and mental arithmetic. In this study we focused on prospective memory, which involves the ability to remember events that will occur in the future and to remember to complete tasks at particular times…
[T]his is critical for everyday functioning. For example when someone needs to remember to post a birthday card or to take medication at a particular time.”
The aroma of peppermint has also been shown to enhance memory and increase alertness. Indeed, research shows that odors are especially effective as reminders of past experience, much more so than cues from other senses, such as sights or sounds.6
One reason this might be has to do with the way your brain processes odors and memories.
Smells get routed through your olfactory bulb, which the smell-analyzing region in your brain. It’s closely connected to your amygdala and hippocampus, brain regions that handle memory and emotion.
The close connection may explain why a scent might get tied to vivid memories in your brain, and then come flooding back when you’re exposed to that particular odor trigger. As noted by Psychology Today:7
“Interestingly, visual, auditory (sound), and tactile (touch) information do not pass through these brain areas. This may be why olfaction, more than any other sense, is so successful at triggering emotions and memories.”
When seniors watched a 20-minute funny video, levels of the stress hormone cortisol dropped and they scored significantly better on memory tests, according to research presented at a 2014 Experimental Biology meeting.8 Study co-author Dr. Lee Berk told Science Daily:9
“It’s simple, the less stress you have the better your memory. Humor reduces detrimental stress hormones like cortisol that decrease memory hippocampal neurons, lowers your blood pressure, and increases blood flow and your mood state.
The act of laughter – or simply enjoying some humor – increases the release of endorphins and dopamine in the brain, which provides a sense of pleasure and reward. These positive and beneficial neurochemical changes, in turn, make the immune system function better.
There are even changes in brain wave activity towards what’s called the ‘gamma wave band frequency,’ which also amp up memory and recall. So, indeed, laughter is turning out to be not only a good medicine, but also a memory enhancer adding to our quality of life.”
4. Learn a New Language or Engage in Other Creative Hobbies
Learning a new language provides a beneficial workout for your brain. Researchers found that when English speakers studied Chinese for six weeks, they had a more connected brain network, particularly when they were successful in learning the new vocabulary.10,11
This more integrated network would lead to a more flexible and efficient brain, which would make learning the new language easier. Other hobbies and learning activities can also boost your memory.
In a study of people aged 85 and older, for instance, those who engaged in artistic, craft, and social activities in mid- and late life, and who used a computer late in life, had a lower risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI).12
Another study, published in 2014, found that taking part in “cognitively demanding” activities was also beneficial. This would include learning to quilt or take digital photography, which researchers found enhance memory function in older adults.14
Meditation is another underutilized tool to optimize mental health. Not only is it helpful for stress relief and gaining greater self awareness (if not a more spiritual perspective of life’s ups and downs), it too has been shown to alter the structures of your brain for the better. As reported by Forbes:15
“The practice appears to have an amazing variety of neurological benefits – from changes in grey matter volume to reduced activity in the ‘me’ centers of the brain to enhanced connectivity between brain regions…
Skeptics, of course, may ask what good are a few brain changes if the psychological effects aren’t simultaneously being illustrated?
Luckily, there’s good evidence for those as well, with studies reporting that meditation helps relieve our subjective levels of anxiety and depression, and improve attention, concentration, and overall psychological well-being.”
6. Turn off the TV
Watching more than four hours of television per day is linked with lower measures of cognitive performance in middle age, according to research presented at the 2015 annual Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Washington.16
Previous research has also shown the risk of Alzheimer’s went up 1.3 times with every added hour of daily television watching among those aged 40 to 59 years.17 Part of this connection could be due to TV’s affect on your activity levels, as people who watch a lot of TV tend to be more sedentary overall.
7. Exercise and Engage in Regular Daily Movement
According to John J. Ratey, a psychiatrist who wrote the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, there’s overwhelming evidence that exercise produces large cognitive gains and helps fight dementia. Research shows that those who exercise have a greater volume of gray matter in the hippocampal region of their brains, which is important for memory. According to the authors:18
“After controlling for age, gender, and total brain volume, total minutes of weekly exercise correlated significantly with volume of the right hippocampus. Findings highlight the relationship between regular physical exercise and brain structure during early to middle adulthood.”
Physical Activity Is One of the Best Ways to Bolster Your Brain Health
During exercise nerve cells release proteins known as neurotrophic factors. One in particular, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), triggers numerous other chemicals that promote neural health, and directly benefits cognitive functions, including learning. A 2010 study on primates published in Neuroscience also revealed that regular exercise not only improved blood flow to the brain, but also helped the monkeys learn new tasks twice as quickly as non-exercising monkeys.19
This is a benefit the researchers believe would hold true for people as well. In a separate one year-long study, individuals who engaged in exercise were actually growing and expanding the brain’s memory center one to two percent per year, where typically that center would have continued to decline in size. Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta also found that a mere 20-minute weight training session could improve long-term memory in the participants.
According to lead researcher Lisa Weinberg: “Our study indicates that people don’t have to dedicate large amounts of time to give their brain a boost.”
In this experiment, 46 volunteers were randomly assigned to one of two groups — one active, and one passive. Initially, all of the participants viewed a series of 90 images, classified as either positive, neutral, or negative. Afterward, they were asked to recall as many images as they could. Next, the active group was told to do 50 leg extensions at personal maximum effort using a resistance exercise machine. The passive participants were asked to simply sit and let the machine move their leg for them.
Two days later, the participants were again shown a series of images, including ones they’d not seen previously. Interestingly, even though it was two days since they performed the leg extensions, those in the active group had markedly improved image recall. To get the most out of your workouts, I recommend a comprehensive program that includes high-intensity interval exercise, strength training (especially super slow workouts), stretching, and core work, along with walking about 10,000 steps a day and sitting for fewer than three hours.
Boost Your Memory with Rhodiola
The perennial plant Rhodiola Rosea is known as an “adaptogen,” which can help your body adapt to physical, chemical, and environmental stress, and is used by many athletes for improving athletic performance and shortening recovery time between workouts. However, rhodiola is also energizing and may provide significant benefits to brain health. As reported by the Epoch Times:20
“Rhodiola also has a reputation for treating the mind. Studies show that it increases neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain. In the hands of an experienced practitioner, rhodiola can be used as a solo treatment, or to enhance the effects psychotropic drugs. [Dr. Patricia Gerbarg, assistant clinical professor in Psychiatry at New York Medical College, and author of The Rhodiola Revolution and How to Use Herbs, Nutrients, and Yoga in Mental Health Care,]… prescribes it to her patients for depression, and memory problems.
‘It is very helpful for conditions where there was impairment of cognitive function or memory, whether it was from aging or brain injury,’ she said.”
Dr. Gerbarg speaks not only as a scientist and psychiatrist but also from personal experience. She used it to overcome cognitive impairment and memory loss associated with a severe case of Lyme disease… and credits the plant with saving her life. She reported the herb started working to improve her memory within 10 days of first taking it. Dr. Gerbarg and her husband, Dr. Richard Brown, associate clinical professor in Psychiatry at Columbia University, were able to uncover research conducted on the herb by Soviet scientists during the Cold War.
They were looking for a product to enhance military performance and developed a three-herb formula, of which rhodiola was the main component. It was not only used among Soviet soldiers but also eventually for Russian cosmonauts and Olympic athletes. According to Dr. Gerbarg:21
“It was also used to improve the intellectual performance of their scientists, because it not only reduces physical fatigue it also reduces mental fatigue so that they could work long hours accurately.”
As for why rhodiola seems to work so well, it’s thought to improve cellular function and repair, which would be beneficial for those under chronic stress. Dr. Gerbarg also noted that rhodiola has an ability to strengthen and detoxify cells, which is what she believes allowed her own brain to heal.22
Are You Prioritizing Sleep? This Is a Must for a Quick Memory
Sleep is known to enhance your memories and help you “practice” and improve your performance of challenging skills. A single night of sleeping only four to six hours can impact your ability to think clearly the next day. The process of brain growth, or neuroplasticity, is believed to underlie your brain’s capacity to control behavior, including learning and memory. Plasticity occurs when neurons are stimulated by events, or information, from the environment. However, sleep and sleep loss modify the expression of several genes and gene products that may be important for synaptic plasticity.
Furthermore, certain forms of long-term potentiation, a neural process associated with the laying down of learning and memory, can be elicited in sleep, suggesting synaptic connections are strengthened while you slumber. Among adults, a mid-day nap was even found to dramatically boost and restore brainpower.23
As with most aspects of health, it’s not one factor but many that create or destroy a healthy brain. Just like your physical health, your mental health will flourish with a balanced healthy lifestyle of eating right, exercising, tending to stress, stimulating your mind, and, last but not least, sleeping well. For the latter, you can find 33 tips to help you get the shut-eye you need here.