How To Make The Best Memories: Tips To Optimize Your Memory Abilities


How much did you study for the GRE this past week-end? For how many hours? Over how many sittings? What did you study and how did you study it?

Most importantly: how many breaks did you take and how long were they?

Time Magazine just published a fascinating little article: To Boost Memory, Shut Your Eyes and Relax. Go take a look at it. Don’t worry, I’ll wait. : )

gre memoryHas this happened to you? You have ambitious plans to study a ton of things this week-end. You get tired, but you’re determined to push through, so you keep studying. You begin to get a bit anxious because you feel you aren’t learning well (and you’re not!), so you study even more. You get even more tired, and that makes it even harder to learn. By the end of the week-end, you’re exhausted, frustrated, and demoralized.

You may have already heard me say this (many times on various forums or in blog posts!), but I’m saying it again because it’s so important: your brain makes better memories when it’s not tired.

The Time article quotes Michaela Dewar, the lead author of a new research study on this topic. She notes that we are at a very early stage of memory formation when we first start to study new information, and further neural processes have to occur after this stage for us to be able to remember this information at a later point in time.

The italics are mine. Note what Ms. Dewar has said: more stuff has to happen in our brains after we have studied this info in order for us to be able to recall that information later on.

The best part? The article indicates that this long-term memory consolidation occurs automatically, without people having to think about it. We just have to go do something else that doesn’t involve learning other new things. Eat lunch. Take a walk or exercise. Listen to some music while cleaning the house. Call your mom to say hi.

Also, get a good night’s sleep. As the article indicates (and as we’ve known for years), our brains continue to form new memories while we sleep each night. Interestingly, the article notes that sleep is especially helpful in developing what’s called procedural memory “ how to do something, such as solve a certain kind of GRE question.

How can we use this in our GRE study?

There are many ways to study, but for a significant study session “ one in which you want to cover a decent amount of material and learn multiple new things “ plan for 1 to 2 hours. If you can make it to 2 hours without getting too tired, go for it, but cut yourself off if you realize that you’re feeling significantly mentally fatigued. (What does that feel like? Have you ever experienced the panic stare? You just stare at a problem without doing anything, feeling paralyzed. Or you might start answering things really quickly, because you just want to be done, now! Maybe you read a paragraph and then realize you have no idea what you just read and you have to read it again. These are all manifestations of mental fatigue.)

Note: watch out for an all-or-nothing attitude (I can’t study for the full 2 hours “ either because I have a conflict or because I know I don’t have enough mental energy to last “ so I might as well not even start). That’s just a recipe for procrastination. You can do an effective review or skill-building activity in just 10 or 15 minutes, if that’s all the time you have!

If you hit that 2-hour mark, though, stop. You can study more today, if you want, but not right now. Take at least an hour break. My general rule is that I break for at least as long as I studied “ so if I studied for 2 hours, I break for at least 2 hours. During your break, particularly within the first 30 minutes, try to do things that do not require either learning something new or making difficult decisions. In other words, try not to do things that take much of the same type of brain power.

Next, if you plan to study on days that you also have work or class (and most of us do have to do this), see whether you have the flexibility to study before or during the class / work day. You could get up a little earlier than normal (warning: don’t try this if you’re a night person) or possibly arrange to get into work a bit later than normal a couple of days a week. You could study on your lunch break or take your books or laptop with you to class so that you can review between two classes. These kinds of sessions are less likely to be able to last for 2 hours, but that’s fine “ you’re just trying to get some studying in while your brain is still fresh.

If you’re a night person, and you work during the day, then you don’t have to worry about this as much because your brain will naturally be relatively alert at night. But if you’re a morning person, work hard to try to find some alternatives that will let you get at least some studying done earlier in the day.

Key Takeaways for Making Strong Memories:

(1) Don’t overload your brain. When you become mentally fatigued, your brain does a poorer job of making new memories.

(2) Know what mental fatigue feels like so that you can recognize it when it’s happening. It does not feel like physical fatigue and it can actually be hard to realize when you’re in the midst of it “ after all, the whole point is that your brain is really tired! Read the article I linked above (Too Many Decisions Drive You Crazy); it contains a good description of mental fatigue.

(3) Keep to a steady sleep schedule as much as possible. You can’t guarantee yourself a good night’s sleep every night, but the steadier your schedule, the more likely you will be to get good sleep. Also, if you have been in the habit of getting too little sleep during the week and making up for it on the week-ends, make an effort to change the pattern to a more steady one. Your body, your brain, and everyone you know will thank you.

  1. youtube January 2, 2013 at 6:00 pm

    Well I really liked reading it. This post procured by you is very useful for proper planning.

  2. brand December 24, 2012 at 5:23 am

    Agreed, very well written and cant wait for the second half.

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  4. brand December 21, 2012 at 5:47 am

    Aw, this was a really quality post. In theory Id like to write like this also – taking time and real effort to make a good article but what can I say I procrastinate alot and never seem to get anything done Regards

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  6. David Scott Lewis August 29, 2012 at 2:14 am

    I’d be interested in hearing from test takers who have used Lumosity (or a related conditioning exercise) for an extended period of time.

    Question: Did Lumosity help? (I’ve seen the PNAS study using a more difficult and more specific approach, but I’d like to hear from Lumosity users.)


    – David