Suppose you want to remember something for a very long time. How do you ensure memorization? There are many methods, which can be roughly divided into three categories: reviewing the notes (revisiting), actively using (speedwriting), and lifestyle choices (sleep, food, …). Here I want to deal with the lifestyle element. It is really simple to address, and the results are long-term and lasting.
Lifestyle factors affecting memory
Long-term memorization is an activity expensive for one’s body and mind. It has multiple stages and requires a lot of energy. When the organism is simply not ready to invest the resources the long-term memories do not form.
- Stress. Since stress is an activity where we avoid predators, we are less likely to be curious and remember details. There are exceptions. In especially traumatic moments we may experience so-called flashbulb memories: the memories which we remember with great detail and hunt our sleep. Otherwise, forget it.
- Depression. As depression is an evolutionary form of energy preservation, we are less likely to form new long-term memories. We may get a maniacal episode and remember everything, but these memories are likely to be unreliable.
- Bad food. If the food is too rich or not rich enough, or if it lacks critical fats and vitamins, our memory is affected. For example, most of us are not very effective immediately after a large meal. We are processing the physical food, not the food for the brain.
- Sleep. Here the connection is direct. We process memories as we sleep. There is a very clear connection between memory formation and all stages of sleep.
- Experiences. We need stimuli for our brain to function. If we get no new stimuli, our capability to memorize things is degraded. Moreover, new memories usually connect with prior memories. Rich experience enables better memorization.
- Age. The age starts to interfere above the age of 50 for procedural memory and above the age of 70 for declarative memory. All processes slow down, including memory processes. The effect is less dramatic than the other factors above.
Quality of life vs cost of living
A good lifestyle is almost free. If you have a dwelling where you can sleep safely, can walk, eat some fruits with rice, and have no serious worries, your lifestyle is good enough to form memories. You can be a cynic, live in a barrel, and eat donations from your neighbors – and have a perfectly tuned memory. On the contrary, the highly stressful life of a successful doctor, lawyer, or businessman will likely have a negative effect on your memory. Lifestyle in this sense is not about looking good and owning nice stuff, but about being open to learning. If you have plenty of money, you can partially negate the effects of your lifestyle and enjoy everything life has to offer. This requires some knowledge, awareness, and discipline.
Stress affects focus. We focus on immediate needs, sacrificing long-term benefits. If we need to run from a lion, we do not really need to wonder about the butterflies.
- Job. Stress usually means high demands and low control. This is a built-in situation in many prestigious jobs. Small variations in the job description can make it less stressful. Doctors are stressed, but dentists are not really stressed. Journalists are stressed, but technical writers are not so stressed. Managers are stressed, but engineers are not really stressed. Here is a list of low-stress jobs.
- Mindfulness. Meditative activities reduce stress. Something to do with the vagus nerve.
- Sports usually reduce stress. This is a natural reaction to a stressful situation. The mechanism of stress evolved so we can evade predators.
- Creative activities. If feeling stuck, making some bold creative moves can “unstuck”. Do extracurricular projects for a chance at another career. For example, many brokers paint and many doctors write fiction.
Sometimes even a simple vacation can reduce stress significantly.
Depression not only reduces the motivation to acquire new knowledge but also affects long-term memory. There are multiple underlying mechanisms.
Unlike stress, depression can mean many things.
- Some forms of depression are caused by bacteria in the guts. If probiotics work, you are lucky.
- Loneliness is a common reason for depression in big cities. If you cannot find love, find a hobby and join a club, consider dancing, or volunteer. We can be lonely even surrounded by people.
- If you have PTSD or panic attacks, there are effective treatments for those. Usually, it is a combination of NLP and CBT.
- All of us may feel worthless, no matter how accomplished. Try ACT techniques, with a focus on your strengths.
- Positive self-talk and optimism will not fix most problems but are very likely to help.
Possibly none of this will help. There are people with chemical balance issues that need cannabis or medication. Even that might not work… Not all forms of depression are treatable.
Food supplements and nootropics
Generating the perfect diet is something we can only dream of. The Mediterranean diet is pretty good from all perspectives. If you want more, you need food supplements. These supplements can be natural spices or chemical compounds. Quite often even pills are produced from food components.
The least of nootropic substances is endless. It starts with coffee and chocolate but may include exotic plants like ashwagandha, fish like omega oil, and chemical compounds like magnesium.
Good food is not more expensive food or more organic food. It is a portfolio of what you need without things you definitely do not need. If anything, it is very diverse.
Sleep: to hack or not to hack
Long-term memorization is attributed to deep sleep, with different effects activated per sleep phase.
Simply sleeping well on an ergonomic bed and waking up naturally is good enough. Most people need around 7 hours of sleep per day – the actual number may vary by age and personal predisposition.
There are sleep hacks specifically for teeth grinding, weight issues, and sleep apnea. These are common sleep issues. The hacks may include devices, sleeping poses, and training for handling specific issues.
Sleep can be further hacked by polyphasic sleep and lucid dreaming. Usually, you will need polyphasic sleep for lucid dreaming due to focusing on REM sleep phase. Polyphasic sleep ideally provides more sleep in less time, adding for example a short nap in the noon and a short active period in the middle of the night.
When done correctly polyphasic sleep can be wonderful. However, it introduces limitations that are not always socially acceptable. Not every country enables siesta.
Lucid dreaming enables more control over sleep and can be used productively to deal with real issues.
Experiences in and out of the comfort zone
We know that experiences may contribute to happiness. Some experiences involve stepping out of the comfort zone: traveling, extreme sports, and trying new hobbies. Other experiences are well in the comfort zone and can reduce stress: encounters with nature, gourmet food, massage.
Reading, watching TV, playing video games also create experiences – especially if you are emotionally involved. So I recommend quality entertainment even though it often feels waste of time. Most films, books, and games simply do not answer the quality criteria and should be avoided.
The most important experiences we totally control are our hobbies. It is useful to have several hobbies and change some hobbies every couple of years. When we learn to remember new things, we want to relate these things to what we already know.
It is never too late to learn
With age, there is a degradation in learning skills. The degradation is slow and not uniform. Reaction speed and mathematical skills degrade early, in the 30s. They are followed by procedural memory skills, like those required by mechanics. Only new skills form slower, and it happens around the 50s. In the 70s declarative memory skills also degrade – yet this degradation becomes strong only after 90.
Even though as we age our learning degrades it does not drop to zero. Simply we need to learn more and achieve less than before, or need to focus our learning ambitions on a different skillset.