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Scientific ways to improve your memory

Have you ever been in an important meeting, only for the name of your most valuable client to slip out of your head? What about being at a conference and bumping into someone who clearly knows who you are but you can’t for the life of you remember anything about them? If so then you might need to brush up on your memory skills.

According to science, the key to remembering a person’s name is to repeat it to someone else. That’s according to a 2015 study by Victor Boucher published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. All participants wore headphones playing white noise whilst being shown words on a screen. They were split into four groups depending on what they were asked to do next: say the word in their heads, silently repeat it whilst moving their lips, say it out loud, or say it out loud to someone else. They were later asked to pick out the words they’d seen from a longer list. Those who had said the words out loud to another person were the most likely to remember them. So if you want to get better at recalling someone’s name, perhaps consider using it in a sentence when talking to them. “Yes, Jane, I can do that for you,” has more chance of sticking than “Yes, I can do that for you.” Alternatively, be name specific when telling a partner or friend about your day.

That cup of coffee can help too. A 2013 study in Nature Neuroscience led by Daniel Borota found that caffeine can boost your ability to remember something up to 24 hours after it is consumed. Participants either received either a placebo or a 200mg caffeine tablet five minutes after studying a series of images. That’s about the same as 1-2 cups of coffee. The next day all participants were shown another series of images, some of which were the same as before, some similar and some completely new. The caffeine consumers were more likely to correctly identify an image as similar to the ones they’d seen, as opposed to incorrectly identifying it as exactly the same. Coffee, it seems, can sharpen the mind. As too can chewing gum. Researchers behind a study published in the British Journal of Psychology asked two groups of twenty participants to listen to a 30 minute audio recording containing a list of numbers. The group that chewed gum whilst listening recalled the numbers more quickly and more accurately.

Our last piece of advice is simple: doodle. If you’re tempted to chastise someone for drawing little stick figures during an important meeting, don’t – it aids cognitive performance. A 2010 study by Jackie Andrade and published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology revolved around playing a boring phone message to a group of 40 participants. The twenty who were asked to doodle at the same time remembered 29% more information.

This post is based on an excerpt from my book The Geek Guide to Life in which I present science’s solutions to life’s little problems. Peer-reviewed ways to get ahead in life, work, leisure and love.

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