How to train your brain to be smarter

Reader's Digest Editors

Want to be bright as a button and quick as a whip? Hone your wits by harnessing the power of words, languages and mnemonics.

How to improve your memory

In an age when your refrigerator can help you manage your shopping list and your phone can answer almost any question, there’s less pressure on our memories. Which makes the feats of memory champions—who can recall hundreds of names and faces, random strings of numbers or words, or the ­order of multiple decks of cards—seem more superhuman than ever.

"Memory champions' brain structures are essentially the same as the rest of ours"

But here’s a nifty little secret about folks with phenomenal recall. In a study recently published in the journal Neuron, researchers found that super memorisers don’t have unusually large cerebral regions that allow them to absorb and retain prodigious amounts of information. Their brain structures are essentially the same as the rest of ours.

Comparing brain scans of 23 memory champions (who had placed in the top 50 at the World Memory Championship) with those of 23 regular people of the same age, gender, and IQ, the scientists found only one difference: In the memory champs’ brains, the regions associated with visual and spatial learning and the regions associated with memory lit up in a specific pattern. In the regular people’s brains, these same regions were activated differently.

Why is that important? Because we learn by seeing, and the more we see, the better we remember. These super memorisers have perfected a method to convert items they want to remember (numbers, faces, cards, even abstract shapes) into pictures they “see” in their minds. It’s a process that’s called “building a memory palace”.

Here’s how it works: First, you transform your target items into an image—anything you’ll remember. For instance, to remember card sequences, Ed Cooke (recognised as a Grandmaster of Memory by the World Memory Sports Council) told American author Tim Ferriss that he assigns each card a celebrity, an action, and an object; each three-card combination then forms a unique image with the celeb from the first card, the action from the second, and the object from the third.

So “jack of spades, six of spades, ace of diamonds” becomes the Dalai Lama wearing Lady Gaga’s meat dress and holding Michael Jordan’s basketball. Cooke’s system is built on the idea that your memory hangs on to unusual cues better than mundane ones.

Then, mentally place that picture somewhere familiar to you: in your house or at some point along your commute, for instance. Finally, make up a story about the items, which will help connect them in the correct order.

 

Here are a few of our favourite tricks that can help you to remember things in your everyday life:

 

To Remember: New words

Technique:

Change routine In a classic study conducted at the University of Michigan in the 1970s, a group of students studied a list of words in two separate sessions. Some studied in a small cluttered room and some in a space with two windows and a one-way mirror. One group of studiers spent both sessions in the same room, while the other split the sessions between the two environments. During a test given in a completely different room, the students who studied in multiple places recalled 53 ­per cent more than those who studied in just one room.

Subsequent studies showed that varying other aspects of your environment (the time of day, the music in the background, whether you sit or stand, etc.) can also help recall. The theory is that your brain links the words (or whatever you are learning) to the context around you, and the more contextual cues you associate with the words, the more your brain has to draw upon when it’s trying to remember them.

 

To Remember: Your PIN 

Technique:

Count it out You could use your birthday, of course, or your phone number, but identity thieves have a way of ferreting those numbers out. Instead, try this tip from Dominic O’Brien, 
an eight-time World Memory Champion. Write a four-word sentence, then count the number 
of letters in each word. For instance, “This is my PIN” = 4223. 

 

To Remember: Facts & figures

Technique:

Give yourself time Mum was right, cramming isn’t the best way to memorise things. To learn and recall statistics (or pretty much any kind of factual information), reviewing the material periodically over a longer span of time is far more effective than repeating it in a shorter one.

"Remembering and recognising faces may be a special skill linked to personality"

This technique dates as far back as 1885, when psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered that he could learn a list of nonsense words if he repeated them 68 times in one day and seven more times before being tested the next day. But he could learn the same number of words equally well by repeating them a total of 38 times over the course of three days.

More recent research has demonstrated optimal intervals for study sessions. If your exam is in a week, study today and then again in a day or two. If it’s a month away, study today and then wait a week before your second session. Three months off? Wait three weeks to restudy. The further away your exam, the longer the interval between your first two study sessions. (A final review the day before the test is also a good idea.)

 

To Remember: A new language

Technique:

Read and listen In a study conducted at the University of Puerto Rico, 137 Spanish-speaking students were separated into two groups. One group read a book in English while simultaneously listening to an English audio version; the other just read silently. Each week, all the students took a quiz. Those who both read and listened outscored the reading-only group on all eight quizzes.

 

To Remember: Faces

Technique:

Focus on noses While some super memorisers specialise in associating names with faces, the memory-palace technique doesn’t work as well if the image of the face is cropped, normalised for color, or changed in any other way. Remembering faces and recognising them in different contexts may be a special skill linked to personality. Extroverts are better at recognising faces than introverts, for example. Rather than focusing on eyes, as most people do, focus on the centre or to the left of a person’s nose. This allows you to take in their whole face. 

 

To Remember: A grocery list

Technique:

Engage your body How often have you written your list—and then forgotten where you put it? In this variation on the memory palace, picture the items on your list with different parts of your body. For instance, imagine balancing a package of cheese on your head, an egg on your nose, and a bottle of milk on your shoulder.

 

Why reading matters

Here’s a simple question—answer it honestly, because your response could boost the amount of pleasure in your daily life, delay dementia, and even help you live longer. How many hours did you spend reading last week?

This question has arrived in thousands of American homes every other year since 1992 as part of the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study (HRS). A minor item on a massive survey of 20,000 retirees, it had been long ignored in the analysis of elder brain health.

But in 2016, when researchers at the Yale School of Public Health dug into 12 years of HRS data about the reading habits and health of more than 3,600 men and women over the age of 50, a hopeful pattern emerged. People who read books—fiction or nonfiction, ­poetry or prose—for as little as 30 minutes a day over several years were living an average of two years longer than people who didn’t read anything at all.

Odder still, book readers who reported more than three hours of weekly reading were 23 per cent less likely to die between 2001 and 2012 than their peers who read only newspapers or magazines. If you’re reading this, it’s safe to ­assume you don’t need to be sold on the merits of the written word. You may already be familiar with recent findings that suggest children who read books with their parents several times a week score higher on intelligence tests, and land better jobs than nonreaders.

But recent research argues that reading may be just as important in adulthood.

When practised over a lifetime, reading and language-acquisition skills can support healthy brain functioning in big ways.

To understand why and what each of us can do to get the most out of our words, start by asking the same question the Yale team did. What is it about reading books that boosts our brain power whereas reading newspapers doesn’t?

For one, the researchers posit, chapter books encourage “deep reading.” Unlike, say, skimming a page of headlines, reading a book (of any genre) forces your brain to think critically and make connections from one chapter to another, and to the outside world. When you make connections, so does your brain, physically forging new pathways between regions in all four lobes and both hemispheres. Over time, these neural networks can promote quicker thinking and may provide a greater defense against the worst effects of cognitive decay.

Secondly, reading books, especially fiction, has been shown to increase empathy and emotional intelligence. One 2013 study found that participants who read just the first part or chapter of a story showed a noticeable increase in empathy one week later, while news readers showed a decrease.

"People who spoke two or more languages developed dementia an average of 4.5 years later than monolingual patients"

These findings may sound trivial, but they’re not. Developing social tools such as empathy and emotional intelligence can lead to more (and more positive) human interaction, which in turn can lower stress levels—both of which are proven to help you live longer and healthier.

That’s not to say that magazines, newspapers, and online articles are without merit. Reading anything that fills your mind and exposes you to new words, phrases, and facts seems to carry mental benefits. New research indicates that a large vocabulary may lead to a more resilient mind by fuel­ing what scientists call cognitive reserve.

One way to think about this reserve is as your brain’s ability to adapt to damage. Cognitive reserve helps your brain cells find new mental pathways around areas damaged by stroke, dementia and other forms of decay.

This could explain why, after death, many seemingly healthy elders turn out to harbour advanced signs of Alzheimer’s disease in their brains despite showing few signs in life. Researchers suspect it’s their cognitive reserve, that may allow some seniors to seamlessly compensate for hidden brain damage.

So how does one build up cognitive reserve? That’s more good news for word lovers. Vocabulary is ­notoriously resistant to ageing, and having a rich one, according to researchers from Spain’s University of Santiago de Compostela, can significantly delay the manifestation of mental decline. When the team analysed vocabulary test scores of more than 300 volunteers aged 50 and older, they found that participants with the lowest scores were between three and four times more at risk of cognitive decay than participants with the highest scores.

Learning foreign words also offers important cognitive nutrients. In fact, research shows that learning 
something new, such as how to play an instrument or speak a second language, is one of the best things you can do for your brain at any age. Remember that powerful network of brain connections we get from reading? Successfully learning a second language grows that network; polyglots have been shown to be stronger at multitasking, at memorising, and better at focusing on important information than monolingual speakers.

A 2013 study in Neurology discovered that patients who spoke two or more languages developed dementia an average of 4.5 years later than monolingual patients. And while a brain that learns a second language earlier in life will likely see more cognitive advantages than a late-life learner, it’s never too late. You don’t need to end up a fluent speaker, either. “Just having the basics of those linguistic connections can delay dementia,” Dr. Thomas Bak of the University of Edinburgh told the Atlantic.

Of course, learning a new language is no quick feat. Luckily, the payoff from just a single lesson can provide instant gratification.

Researchers from Germany and Spain had 36 participants read two sentences containing the same foreign word: “Every Sunday the grandmother went to the jedin” and “The man was buried in the jedin.” When asked what jedin means, the folks who correctly guessed “graveyard” showed reactions in the same pleasure-sensing parts of the brain you’d expect from food, sex, gambling, and other satisfying stimuli. Though when it comes to words, over­indulgence is encouraged.

Because it pays to increase your word power—today, tomorrow, and for the rest of your life.