Why is memory so important? The mind will always refer to the past in order to determine how to act. In fact, you have memory so that you can better predict the future. If you can predict the future, you can prepare for it and ensure your survival. So it’s important not only that the brain is good at laying down memory but even more so, good at retrieving it.
There are many factors that can both positively and negatively affect your memory.
Everything you've been exposed to throughout your lifetime — from the experience of love and nurturance, nutrition, environmental toxins, cultural influences, world events, life traumas, and so forth, especially during early life and brain development — affect your brain, your self-perception, and how you interpret life.
For example, let's say you're not being supported by your boss at work. Your mind will refer to the past to see how you’ve handled similar situations. Additionally, let’s say your brain finds memories of never being supported by your father, causing you to feel more stressed and upset about the situation than usual. This in turn can lead you to act out perhaps, worry more, sleep less, or shut down your ability to access higher thinking and cognition.
The resulting elevated stress levels lead to higher cortisol levels, which can then destroy your memory. So not only do stress and fear alter what you remember but also how, and if, you remember.
Positive experiences in the past will have a different effect. If, for example, you had an experience in which you didn't feel supported but were able to work through it and find the support you needed, your stress response would be very different. Your memory would connect the situation with a positive outcome, both emotionally, psychologically, and physiologically, leading you to use the memory to expect good from the situation. This keeps stress levels down and dopamine levels up, a neurotransmitter that modulates the functions of the brain related to movement, reward, cognition, and likely also memory.
Interestingly, the experience of love seems to have an even more powerful effect, likely because love induces feelings of pleasure and security, leading to further feelings of positive belief. Love also stimulates oxytocin, a hormone that reduces stress response activity, protects dopamine neurons, and reduces anxiety. That means more access to your positive memories, higher cognition and thinking, and healthier memory.
What does this mean for you? Not only is it important for you to practice retrieving memory by actively using the neurons in your brain, but the more you can do to offset stress and access feelings of love, the better you'll serve your memory.
Here's more you can do to help your memory:
1. Move every day.
Every time you perform a mental or a physical task, the massive neural network in your brain is stimulated. Science tells us that physical activity improves cognition and memory by stimulating the growth of neurons and their synapses to continue to function well.
Find ways to move your body. You're best off if you find activities that often vary in their movements and function, but of course, it’s most important that you enjoy yourself so you go back for more.
2. Play and laugh.
Try to spend some extra time focusing on your friendships, having fun, feeling good, and making play part of your daily routine. We know that children learn better in playful atmospheres versus stressful ones, and the same applies to you.
I’m sure you've also heard the sentiment “Laughter is the best medicine." There is something to be said for that, and in addition, the more joy you experience, the more dopamine and oxytocin you'll likely have flying around your brain and body instead of adrenaline and cortisol.
Try to start some sort of meditation practice, beginning with a few minutes a day and working your way up to 20 minutes a day or more. Science does show that meditation can have lasting positive effects on brain function. A simple exercise is to practice a breath focus meditation:
- Breathe in and count 1-2-3.
- Breathe out, count 1-2-3-4-5.
- When you breathe in, focus on how the breath feels moving in.
- When you breathe out, focus on how it feels when the breath moves out.
- If your mind wanders, bring your focus back to counting on noticing the breath and how you feel.
4. Get restorative sleep.
Have you ever been sleep-deprived and found yourself feeling irritable and forgetful? Sleep helps your neurons and synapses function better.
Most people need seven or more hours of good sleep. How do you know you're getting enough sleep? You feel rested when you wake up in the morning, not after you’ve had your first cup of coffee. Try to avoid stimulants at night and use your bedroom only for sleep and sex. You may also benefit from doing a meditation prior to sleep.
5. Eat nature.
Our ancestors ate what was naturally available: fruits, vegetables, and wild game. You want to eat foods that occur in the natural environment that fuel your brain and keep it from getting inflamed, as inflammation and oxidative stress cause damage to the neurons.
Diets high in bad fat and simple sugars are harmful to the brain, inducing an inflammatory cycle, poor insulin regulation, and oxidative stress. Stick with healthy fats full of omega-3 fatty acids (as found in olive oil and nuts like almonds) or medium-chain triglycerides (as found in coconut oil). Eat foods that are high in phytonutrients and antioxidant properties found in colorful fruits and vegetables, especially dark leafy greens. Keep your starches to a minimum, going low on the grains and focusing on root vegetables like yams and sweet potatoes.
6. Last but not least, love.
Bringing more love into your life to get your oxytocin levels up doesn't mean you have to go find a romantic partner. More so, it means bringing your body and mind into the physiology of love by spending more time in nature, engaging in altruistic activities in which you help someone in need, spend time with friends, engage in a creative activity that brings out your passion, and do more things that bring out the love in you for you. This can include buying yourself flowers, luxuriating in a relaxing bath, or deciding to love yourself and only put nurturing foods in your body.