- Author, Laura Plitt
- roll, BBC News World
As the years go by, remembering things seems harder and harder. Where did I leave the car keys? What is the name of that distant cousin’s daughter? What was the name of the actor in that movie I loved so much?
But this process of memory erosion is not inevitable. The one who guarantees it is Richard Restak, a neurologist and professor at the School of Medicine and Health at George Washington University Hospital, in the United States. He is the author of about 20 books on the human mind.
The renowned scientist is 81 years old, with gray hair and an impeccable memory. And he says that if we exercise our memory every day, in the same way we do with the body, it is possible to keep it active and in full shape.
Speaking to BBC News Mundo (the BBC’s Spanish-language service), Restak offered fundamental advice for training and enhancing our memory.
1. Read fiction books
Non-fiction books are a great source of knowledge and information, but novels are much more useful for triggering the memory.
“Non-fiction books, like the last one I wrote, don’t require much of the memory. You can read the table of contents and focus on what interests you, for example,” says Restak.
“But fiction is much more demanding in terms of memory, especially when it’s a complex novel,” explains the professor. “There, characters appear and disappear. You can meet someone in the second chapter who will only appear in chapter 10.”
Retaining the thread of the story, the connections between characters, and the details of the plot requires more memory effort compared to non-fiction books.
2. Turn the words into pictures
This is a basic principle. Restak suggests, for example, that if you are introduced to someone with the last name Greenstone – Pedraverde, in Portuguese – you should visualize a bright green stone in your head.
This simple strategy will help your mind to remember this adjective without any problem.
“If you don’t do that and stick with the words, you might not remember later if it’s Pedrazul or Pedrapreta, for example,” he explains.
Another trick the expert uses is to create a mind map of places you are very familiar with, such as your neighborhood, to associate them with things you want to remember.
If the goal, at some point, is to remember to buy milk and bread, Restak maps the words to two points on his map to compose dramatic images that are hard to forget.
“I imagine my house turned on its side, with milk coming out of the chimney (as if it were a milk carton) and spilling onto the street,” he describes. “And when I walk past the library and look out the window, I imagine the shelves are filled with slices of bread instead of books.”
One of Restak’s favorite games for parties or family gatherings, which is a great memory exerciser, is the so-called “20 questions” game.
The game consists of one player (or team) thinking of a person, thing or place, while the other player (or team) has to guess what or who it is by asking up to 20 questions that can only be answered with “yes” . or not”.
The difficulty of the game lies in the fact that both sides must remember both the questions and the answers, so as not to give false clues, not to repeat questions and arrive, by elimination, at the correct answer.
If you’re single and a sports fan, for example, try to remember all the players on your favorite team. Once you have them in mind, start alphabetizing them and list the players in that order.
4. Use technology (smartly)
Carrying a list of products we want to buy at the supermarket or a photo of something we’ve never bought but want to try on our phone isn’t necessarily a bad idea.
Using cell phones and similar devices weakens our memory, but we can use technology to our advantage.
When you go to the supermarket, for example, Restak recommends that you first try to remember what you went to buy and only then consult the list, so you don’t forget something.
It’s the same with new products: try to remember what they look like, and once you get it, confirm it with a photo to see if it’s right.
The idea, according to the professor, is “not to replace the memory with the device, but to use the brain first and then test its performance.”
5. Take a “siesta”
In some countries, the siesta is not well known, but several studies have shown that the short nap is necessary to help memory. Restak takes a nap every day and claims it helps absorb information, consolidate and encode memory so it can be accessed later.
“In fact, when we took two groups of students and allowed one to take a nap after studying and the other not, we noticed that the group that got a little nap learned much better,” says Restak.
The teacher’s recommendation is to sleep for 20 to 40 minutes. “If you pass the time, you will interfere with the night’s sleep. So turn on the alarm clock or ask someone to wake you up.”
6. Improve your diet
More than specific foods, Restak says the main thing is to avoid certain foods, such as hyper-processed foods – those that contain too much fat, salt, preservatives, etc.
“These foods are not good for memory because, in the long run, they reduce blood flow to memory-related areas and cause hypertension and diabetes,” he explains. “These are factors that can cause dementia.”