Wouldn't it be great to have a better memory? To remember things you've read, recall names more easily, and never forget where you put your keys?
Sadly, scientists haven't yet discovered a magic pill to help you remember things. And many tools often touted as memory enhancers — like various foods, brain-training games, and calorie restrictions — still don't have enough solid evidence behind them.
But there has been enough research about memory that you can glean some tips. Here's a look at things we know currently help boost memory — and a look at some futuristic technology that may be just around the corner.
1) Sleeping better definitely helps boost your memory
There's a lot of strong evidence that more sleep leads to better memory. Indeed, it's safe to say this is the strongest finding about improving memory that exists. Study after study has shown that sleep is especially important for making memories stick in your brain — and for reinforcing important details while discarding irrelevant ones.
In some studies, scientists give volunteers something to remember and then have them sleep in a laboratory. (The subjects are hooked up to an EEG device so that researchers can see what phase of sleep they're in.) They then wake them up at various stages and test their memories the next day.
Over time, this type of research has found that many different sleep stages seem to be important for helping us strengthen certain memories and discard the stuff that's not as useful. (After all, you wouldn't want to remember every single thing that happened every day.) Sleep helps us recall not just facts and emotions, but also things like how to perform a new physical task.
Indeed, changes in sleep may be one reason why older adults often have memory problems.
And it gets weirder. A few lab studies have suggested that being exposed to scent or sound cues while learning and then again while sleeping might have a memory-boosting effect. It's hard to know how to use these facts in everyday life, but it's an intriguing place for further study.
But why can't we consolidate memories like this while we're awake? One major hypothesis is that the brain needs to do these tasks without interference. And the synaptic-homeostasis hypothesis posits that the connections between neurons need to pretty much reset themselves every night.
2) Exercise also helps you remember things better
You probably already know that you should be exercising. Here's one more reason to do it. A whole host of studies have found that exercise generally seems to boost memory, although the details are still being worked out.
A few recent studies have shown that exercising while studying leads to better recall days later, though not immediately after. Another demonstrated that exercising vigorously right after learning leads to immediate improvements in memory.
Gretchen Reynolds at the New York Times has been following these studies closely, and I'd recommend looking at her stuff if you want to dive in more deeply.
Several other papers have shown that exercise — particularly aerobic fitness — can help older adults deal with memory problems. For example, one recent study found that older women with mild cognitive impairment who were told to walk or weight train for six months ended up improving on memory tests.
Lab rats also have better memories if they're allowed to exercise regularly. Researchers are looking into how that might happen. One factor might be the protein BDNF, which helps brain cells survive and grow in both rats and people.
3) Caffeine might give your memory a jolt
If you're already a coffee fiend, this one will make you feel good about yourself. In January 2014, an intriguing study showed that caffeine might have effects on memory. The experiment demonstrated that consuming the caffeine equivalent of about two cups of coffee after learning some material improved people's recall of it the next day.
A lot more research will need to be done to determine that this was truly a real effect and, if so, how to use it to one's benefit. But it's certainly intriguing.
4) For the truly committed, try the "memory palace"
If you want to remember a series of very particular things — say, your grocery list — you can do what memory champs do. Just create a memory palace (this is also called the method of loci).
Start by imagining a building that you know well, like your own home. Imagine walking from room to room and placing various things you need to remember in specific locations. Then, when you want to remember them again, take a walk through that building the same exact way.
Journalist Joshua Foer studied this technique for a year and ended up winning the United States Memory Championship, which requires memorizing the order of an entire deck of cards. But the memory palace also works with far simpler tasks, like grocery lists.
One downside: it's unlikely that using this semantic-memory technique will make it easier for you to do things like remember events from your childhood. That's a different type of memory called episodic memory. And the current scientific understanding is that improving one type of memory rarely spills over into other types, too.
5) Electromagnetic stimulation could someday boost your memories
In August 2014, a study in Science showed that people who received a certain type of electromagnetic stimulation to their brains ended up better able to remember things — and the effects lasted for at least a day.
Previous studies with people who had electrodes in their brains to treat epilepsy had also showed that stimulating certain regions could lead to better memory. The Science study replicated this effect on healthy people. They placed electromagnets outside of volunteers' heads to produce a focused electrical current in a brain region connected to the hippocampus — a key area for memory.
Participants were stimulated for several days and did better on a memory test afterward than participants who were treated with a placebo. What's more, the memory boost continued for at least 24 hours after the last stimulation. Brain-imaging results suggest that this trick worked because it strengthened connections between memory-related regions of the brain.
Still, neuroscientists don't know how long the effects will last — or how safe it would be to use for more than a few days. So don't try this at home.
6) In the future? You might take memory drugs
There's definitely no magical memory pill out there yet — and it's unclear if there will ever be. But some recent research in this area has been tantalizing.
Scientists have been discovering various molecules that seem to bolster the memory of lab animals. The list includes BDNF, IGF-II, and the posited possible key to all long-term memory, PKMzeta.
PKMzeta is thought to naturally strengthen connections between brain cells, which is part of how memories form. Indeed, a drug that inhibits PKMzeta has been shown to wipe out all kinds of memories in rats. What's more, giving these animals a dose of PKMzeta revives those faded memories.
However, that doesn't mean humans should go around messing with these drugs just yet. They definitely shouldn't. PKMzeta's exact role in memory is still contentious. And a lot of this animal research is still at the basic level of trying to figure out how memories actually work, rather than hunting for a specific therapy.
There are also lots of risks. Very few drugs that work in lab animals end up being safe and effective for people. Worse still, it's difficult to determine what side effects these drugs might have. A test in a rat won't necessarily tell you if a drug is going to make someone forget her childhood memories, the names of her loved ones, or make her more sluggish at complex math. Or, on the flip side, having too many memories could be problematic and cloud up your thinking. There are many inherent risks when messing with memory.
7) Even further in the future: you might have a brain chip
This one is in very, very, very early stages. On July 9, the Department of Defense announced $40 million in funding for research on brain implants to aid people with impaired memory. The idea is to help them form new memories and access earlier ones. The project is appropriately called Restoring Active Memory (RAM).
The Pentagon says that the research is for people with memory problems. Of course, it's possible that the military has other interests — like creating super soldiers with superhuman memory. And maybe that tech could someday trickle down to us all. You never know.
So, how do researchers plan to make such a device? First, they'll try to figure out what kinds of brain signals make memories and recall them. They'll do this by recording neuron activity in patients with epilepsy and Parkinson's who already have electrodes implanted in their brains for treatment.
The scientists will also collaborate with engineers to make memory devices that can stimulate the brain. The research teams say that within four years they'll have actual implants that could be used on actual people with brain injuries. However, as is often the case with science, there may be delays.
Further reading: For advice about remembering things for school, Joseph Stromberg has a list of tips from memory researchers.