Sleep and memory are inextricably linked. And yet, about one in three adults in the U.S. report not getting enough sleep or rest every single day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Our memory is incredibly sensitive to even short-term sleep deprivation. So what can you do to boost your memory while supporting your sleep? Newsweek spoke to an expert to find out.
“The role of good sleep for cognitive fitness cannot be overstated,” Bernhard Staresina, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Oxford in England, told Newsweek. “We know that the brain keeps working on memories during ‘offline’ periods, i.e. when you seemingly disengage from learning. For example, naps are amazing memory boosters.”
Staresina said that he tries to get seven to eight hours of sleep every night. But what other lifestyle factors can support your cerebrum?
“Exercise is known to boost our mental capacities, including memory,” Staresina said. “It doesn’t take running a marathon every day—just a bit of regular exercise to get the blood pumping. [Also], I try to eat as cleanly as possible, avoiding processed foods in general and especially avoiding heavy meals in the evening, as those tamper with sleep quality.”
Another lifestyle factor that can seriously affect our sleep is screen time.
“Avoid screen time before going to bed, as this has been shown to have all sorts of detrimental consequences for sleep quality and hence for memory,” Staresina said.
However, while a healthy lifestyle can support your memory, it also needs to be maintained.
“Like language or physical fitness, memory obeys the ‘use it or lose it’ principle,” Staresina said. “Regularly exercising your memory, for example, trying to memorize your shopping list or commit a new phone number to memory, helps and so does relying a bit less on our phones for navigation.
“Overall, the more effort you put in, the longer your memory will last.”
You can improve your chances of remembering a specific piece of information by cross-linking it with other memories or sensations.
“Most memories are associative in nature,” Staresina said. “Thus, the better you can weave new information into your pre-existing knowledge base, the more likely it will stick…Using as many senses as possible when learning new information is very helpful [as] this lays down multiple access routes when later trying to recall those memories. Taking regular breaks during learning is vital too.”
Exercises like the memory palace method can help maintain these associations. However, Staresina said that new experiences and enrichment can also help strengthen your memory.
“Staying curious, reading, socializing and travelling are in my opinion more effective in maintaining cognitive fitness throughout life,” he said.