What I was younger, I had little trouble rattling off lots of information—phone numbers, names, random facts—but these days, remembering anything with that level of detail seems a lot harder. It’s easy to blame a forgetful mind on aging. The real culprit, however, may be a kind of neurological laziness: We have cell phones to save numbers, GPS to guide us down the road, and the Internet for everything else, making memorization much less necessary than it once was. As a result, the memory centers of our brain aren’t being exercised the way they used to be. But with more than 80 billion neurons and trillions of connections between them, your brain is capable of storing far more than you may realize. The key is to give your mental muscles the right kind of exercise. Here’s how:
Sip Some Coffee
In a study published this year in the journal Nature Neuroscience, healthy subjects were shown a group of pictures; they were then shown a second round and asked to identify images similar to the ones in the first group. Those who were given caffeine pills after the first round performed better than those who were given placebos. How can caffeine enhance memory? One theory is that it blocks a molecule in the brain called adenosine from inhibiting norepinephrine, a hormone that helps consolidate information for later.
Break a Sweat
A recent study found that among adults between ages 18 and 45, those who reported the most weekly aerobic exercise also had the most gray matter in the hippocampus, a brain region critical to memory. While studies have shown that exercise can increase hippocampal volume in children and older adults, this is one of the first to suggest that it may also have a positive effect in midlife, when brain volume is typically more stable.
Get a Grip
Squishy stress balls are great for working out your aggression, but they may also be useful for recalling something quickly. In a 2013 study, subjects squeezed a rubber ball in one hand and studied a list of words, then clenched the ball in the other hand and recalled the list. Those who used the right hand before memorizing and then used the left before recalling remembered more words than the group who did the opposite. The finding supports the idea that the brain’s left hemisphere (activated when using your right hand) is responsible for storing certain memories, while the right retrieves information.