Learn powerful strategies to improve memory backed by neuroscience. Adopt some of the evidence-based techniques discussed to start strengthening your brain and recall today.
In this podcast, neuroscientist Andrew Huberman discusses various research-backed techniques to improve memory through lifestyle adjustments and memorization strategies. He begins by explaining how memory is encoded in the brain at the neuronal level, involving processes like Long Term Potentiation (LTP). Good sleep, minimizing stress, physical exercise, and a healthy diet all promote optimized LTP and thus better memory.
Huberman then reviews specific memorization methods. The method of loci (aka the memory palace) turns memories into vivid mental images placed in a familiar location, like rooms in your house. Spacing out practice and retrieval of information over time is much more effective for long-term retention than cramming. Interleaving different types of problems or facts improves distinguishing between similar concepts. Explaining concepts to others or self-testing also strengthens memories.
Overall, the podcast provides a very useful overview of how memory works in the brain and memorization techniques rooted in cognitive science research. Huberman communicates complicated topics clearly and includes practical tips listeners can immediately apply. Some techniques may require more effort than others but adopting even a few suggested lifestyle habits and study methods could meaningfully boost memories over time. The information on this podcast will be valuable for students as well as anyone seeking to keep their brain and memory sharp.
Science, self-help, education, psychology, neuroscience, health, memoir, biography, nutrition, lifestyle, wellness
Imagine that you’re a child who’s witnessed an important historical event during medieval times – the King’s wedding, or maybe a great battle. Your parents want you to remember the event, so, sensible people that they are, they throw you in the river immediately afterward. You’re left gasping, choking and soaked to the bone. What would you gain from this experience besides a lasting distrust of your parents? Apparently, you’d gain an enduring memory of the historical event. Why? That’s a question best answered by Stanford professor Andrew Huberman on this episode of the Huberman Lab podcast.
- Both consistent repetition and emotionally intense experiences can form lasting memories.
- You can improve memory through emotions, or rather the neurochemicals that evoke them.
- A medieval practice of enhancing memory retention was throwing children into the river.
- Memory can be enhanced by adrenaline, and to a lesser degree by corticosterones that are increased by stress.
- Healthy lifestyle choices like daily exercise, meditation, naps and good quality deep sleep can enhance overall brain health and improve memory.
Both consistent repetition and emotionally intense experiences can form lasting memories.
Memory traces are more effectively activated and thus remembered when their underlying neural circuits undergo strong activation. This can occur in two primary ways: through repetition and intensity. Repetition strengthens the connections between neurons by repeatedly activating them in a specific sequence, making it easier to activate these circuits again in the future. Intensity refers to the strong activation of neurons, possibly even in a single instance, which can lead to robust memory traces.
“So again, both repetition, and I guess we could label it intensity. But what we really mean when we say intensity is strong activation of neurons can lay down these traces, these circuits that are far more likely to be active again, than had there not been repetition or not some strong activation of those circuits.”
The concept of the learning curve, derived from the studies of Hermann Ebbinghaus, highlights how repetition influences memory retention. Initially, remembering information requires more repetitions, but as the process continues, the number of repetitions needed decreases; so, less effort is required over time to recall the same information.
Explicit memories are those that we can declare consciously, such as factual knowledge. Implicit memories are subconscious and include learned skills and habits that can be performed without conscious awareness.
The hippocampus is essential for forming new explicit declarative memories. It’s where these memories are initially formed, but not where they are stored long-term. Neuroscientists became first aware of this through the case of patient “HM,” who could no longer form new explicit memories after his hippocampus was damaged.
You can improve memory through emotions, or rather the neurochemicals that evoke them.
Repetition is one way to form long-lasting memories, but it takes a long time. Emotions, on the other side, offer a shortcut.
“Emotion itself turns out to be the way in which we can enhance memories even if those are memories for things that are not funny, are not intensely sad, are not immensely happy or don’t evoke a really strong emotional response, or even any emotional response. And the reason for that is that emotions, just like perception, just like sensation, are the consequence of particular neurochemicals being present in our brain and body.”
While you cannot willingly make every learning experience emotional, you can mimic the effect of emotions through actions that involve the same neuromodulators such as epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol.
“It is the emotionality evoked by an experience, or to be more precise, it is the emotional state that you are in after you experience something that dictates whether or not you will learn it quickly or not. This is absolutely important in terms of thinking about tools to improve memory.”
It’s not the emotion itself but the resultant neurochemical state which can significantly improve memory retention by strengthening neural connections, often bypassing the need for repetition.
A medieval practice of enhancing memory retention was throwing children into the river.
In medieval times, when children witnessed a historical event, their community would throw them in the river afterward. Though medieval people didn’t have a grasp of the neurochemical consequences of the river dunk, they did know this: Children who were thrown into the river following an important event were more likely to remember the important event into old age.
“Existing neurons strengthen their connections through co-activation over and over, through repetition or – and this is a very important or – through very strong activation once and only once.”
Memory occurs when a specific neural circuit is strong enough to be replayed over and over. With that in mind, an easy definition for memory is “a bias in the likelihood that a specific chain of neurons will be activated again.” The human body is able to sense stimuli from the physical environment, including pressure or temperature, sound waves, light photons, tastes, and smells. Our senses convert these stimuli into chemical and electrical signals that our brains can interpret. You don’t perceive all the stimuli in your environment. If you did, you’d easily become overwhelmed. And of the subset of stimuli you do perceive, you’ll only remember a small fraction.
Repetition is the easiest and most reliable way to encourage memory formation. Consider your name. You may not remember the first time you heard your name, but you probably have a plethora of later memories associated with your name. That’s memory through repetition. The only way to forget your own name would be if the neural circuit associated with your name were interrupted somehow.
There’s nothing quite like repetition to cement a memory, but if there’s no chance for repetition – in the case of a historical event, for example – then emotionality and intensity is your next best bet. An experience’s intensity marks or imprints neural circuits in a way that makes it far more likely that they’ll be reactivated again in the future.
Memory can be enhanced by adrenaline, and to a lesser degree by corticosterones that are increased by stress.
Researchers James McGaugh and Larry Cahill did a series of experiments in both humans and animals to see how specific neurochemicals, namely adrenaline and corticosterones, would affect memory. One such experiment asked human participants to read either a boring paragraph, or an emotionally resonant paragraph. As expected, participants tended to remember the emotional paragraph better. But could McGaugh and Cahill find a way to strengthen memories of the boring paragraph? It turns out they could, using a low-cost, low-tech solution: ice water. After reading the boring paragraph, participants who plunged their arms into a vat of icy water remembered boring material just as well as emotional material. Blood tests showed that the ice water had increased adrenaline and certain corticosterones.
Does this mean that students should plunge themselves into icy water after every study session? Not necessarily. It’s not simply the presence or absolute amount of adrenaline that improve memory.
“Work from McGaugh and Cahill and others has shown that it’s not the absolute amount of adrenaline that you release in your brain and body that matters for enhancing memory. It’s the amount of adrenaline you release relative to the amount of adrenaline that was in your system just prior. Particularly in the hour or two prior. So again, it’s the delta, as we say. It’s the difference.”
It’s the disparity between the amount of adrenaline in your system while learning versus the amount released just after learning. So don’t chronically raise your adrenaline – aim to use it only when you really need it.
“The real key is to have adrenaline modestly low. Perhaps even just as much as you need in order to be able to focus on something, pay attention to it, and then spike it afterwards.”
You can also spike adrenaline using a pharmacological approach with exogenous chemicals like caffeine, Alpha-GPC or phosphatidylserine. Caffeine blocks adenosine, a molecule that makes you tired, while also increasing adrenaline and the effects of dopamine in the system.
Most people attempting to improve memory use caffeine and other exogenous chemicals before or during a study session. However, it’s best to begin consuming caffeine only late in the session or immediately after. Adderall, Ritalin, or other medicines prescribed for ADHD have also been used for learning and memory. These substances can be addictive, so it’s better not to use them if they’re not prescribed for you. If you do have a prescription for those medicines, remember that some are longer-acting, and some are shorter-acting, so you will have to decide whether to take them before, during or after a study session.
Healthy lifestyle choices like daily exercise, meditation, naps and good quality deep sleep can enhance overall brain health and improve memory.
While there’s not yet a perfect, peer-reviewed exercise protocol to improve memory, it’s clear that increased blood flow improves brain performance. Exercise completed one to three hours before a learning session can lead to an increase in osteocalcin release and blood flow, improving the function of the hippocampus – the brain region that helps encode information. Intense exercise just after a learning session can increase adrenaline. Remember that much of your brain mass is dedicated to movement. Don’t be like certain sea creatures that have a fairly complex nervous system at the beginning of their lives, when they’re most active, but then slowly lose brain mass during the next stage of their lives, when they attach themselves to rocks and stop moving. These languorous creatures digest their own brains because they don’t need them as much when they’re immobile.
“Try and get excellent sleep. Again, fundamentally important for mental health, physical health and performance. And we can now extend from performance to including learning and memory.”
One study entitled “Brief Daily Meditation Enhances Attention, Memory, Mood and Emotional Regulation in Non-Experienced Meditators” showed that just 13 minutes a day of meditation could improve attention and learning. The meditation involved a body scan, in which participants focused on sensations in various parts of their bodies. Participants who kept up a daily meditation habit for eight weeks saw significant benefits, but those benefits weren’t measurable at four weeks. When using meditation to enhance learning and improve memory, remember that the trick is consistency over time. Also keep in mind that doing a focused meditation too late in the day might interrupt deep sleep later that night, so try to do your meditation earlier in the day.
Finally, prioritize sleep. If you’re not using the adrenaline-spike method, consider having a nap just after learning. Naps of 20-90 minutes’ duration can enhance memory. And do what you can to increase your time spent in deep sleep during the night. Your brain uses deep sleep to reorganize neural circuits, helping you remember the things you learned throughout the day.
About the Podcast
The Huberman Lab podcast is hosted by Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and professor in the department of neurobiology, psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford School of Medicine. Watch the full podcast at Understand & Improve Memory Using Science-Based Tools | Huberman Lab Podcast #72