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Whether you're a student trying to name the planets in order on a test or a senior trying to recall the name of a person met long ago, there will always be countless facts to remember. Traditionally, mnemonics such as easily remembered acronyms are one method that people use to help recall facts. However, there are numerous tricks and tips that we can employ to not only recall specific facts, but also to increase brain function in general—at any age.
According to Melinda Alcosser of the Connecticut Experiential Learning Center (CELC) middle school in Branford, "Learning by doing is an excellent way to remember what you've learned as it provides a way to learn something 'by heart.' It becomes yours!"
At CELC, the school motto is a Chinese proverb: "Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand." The basic idea is to engage students in a task that involves their senses: sight, sound, touch. By participating in a multisensory experience—and becoming engaged further by sharing that experience with others—the student is much more likely to retain the information.
"My math teacher once told me that math is like swimming—you cannot just read it out of a book to learn, you have to get into the pool!" said Alcosser. "I think that is true for most things in order to really retain and remember. Especially for young people, who are prone to movement as a way to release energy and engage in the world, being truly involved and immersed in learning gives it a whole new dimension that leads to making memories that matter."
As an example, Alcosser described one child who was trying to figure out how many vegetables she eats each year.
"She estimated 126 [vegetables] and then figured she'd divide that out by 52 weeks. Rather than doing that on paper, she was asked to take 126 actual objects and literally divide them amongst the 52 groupings," Alcosser related. "Once reaching a point that remainders became necessary, her understanding of division became that much more meaningful. Transferring that understanding onto paper then, is a way to remember a process based on an knowledge of experience and memory, rather than 'memorizing' a set of steps with no basis."
Touching actual objects made the student's experience much more meaningful. Whether it's touch, sight, sound, or even smell, engaging the senses helps make the experience meaningful and thus more memorable, too.
"The idea of smell certainly is a trigger for memories," Alcosser noted. "While I have not tried this, I am told that consciously using scents when, let's say, studying for a test can help retain information if you can then expose someone to that scent when trying to recall it. I've also used music as a way to remember—rhythm and song absolutely becomes embedded into one's memory and I've utilized this with a variety of topics."
Using sensory associations to aid recall is not the only way to improve memory. Certain activities can also increase the capacity for retention in general.
According to Mary Ellen Ierardi, executive director of The Shoreline of Clinton memory care community, taking care of the physical body is integral to brain health.
"We find that the key is to continue to encourage the elderly to eat well, exercise regularly, and be involved in activities that will help to keep their brain active," said Ierardi. "We find that daily routines of social, physical, and mental activities help to keep our residents focused, and more productive. A good night's sleep can be a huge factor in helping to keep seniors at the top of their game."
Brain exercises are another way to aid memory—but don't stop at a crossword puzzle. Games with a social aspect help stimulate mental activity.
"Simple writing exercises can stimulate the brain as well as keeping a puzzle or word game going," Ierardi said. "We do brain exercises such as Name 10. For instance, name 10 things you would bring to the beach with you or name 10 people you would see at the grocery store. Not only is this type of activity a stimulating way to keep your brain active, it also triggers other conversations about someone's trip to the beach or what they would buy at the store."
Finally, Ierardi, too, emphasized the importance of engaging the senses—in this case, touch.
"Getting outside and gardening and using your hands is something that most seniors have done in the past, and this helps to boost their longterm memories and brings back techniques and tips," she noted.
Whether you're a child digging in a sandbox or a senior digging out weeds, remember to stay physically active—both your body and your brain will thank you.
Basic Tips for Brain Health
According to Mary Ellen Ierardi, executive director of The Shoreline of Clinton, the following are a few basic ways to promote brain health:
1. Good sleeping habits
2. Physical exercise: walking, dancing, yoga
3. Good eating habits: good nutrition, non-fatty foods
4. Social activity: gathering with friends, attending a play or musical
5. Mental activity: puzzles, reading, gardening
6. Establishing daily routines
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