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11 Simple Ways to Improve Your Memory

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Whether you want to be a Jeopardy! champion or just need to remember where you parked your car, here are 11 things you can do right now to turn your mind from a sieve into a steel trap.

1. CONCENTRATE FOR 8 SECONDS.

These days we’re all about things being faster. That’s why this advice is invaluable: When you really need to remember something, concentrate on it for at least 8 seconds. That can seem like a long time when you're running around trying to get a million things done, but it is worth it. Studies have shown that 8 seconds is the minimum amount of time it takes for a piece of information to go from your short-term memory to your long-term memory.

2. DON'T WALK THROUGH A DOORWAY.

We’ve all walked into a room and suddenly realized we can’t remember why we needed to be there in the first place. Don’t worry, you’re not getting more forgetful—chances are it was the act of walking through a doorway that made you go completely blank. Researchers found that participants in both virtual and real-world studies were far more likely to forget what object they had just placed in a container if they were asked right after walking through a doorway than if they carried the object the same distance in a single room. Scientists have yet to figure out why, but something about entering a new place seems to restart our memory.

3. MAKE A FIST.

If you’re having trouble remembering things at work, get a stress ball. The act of clenching your fist, if done correctly, can significantly improve your ability to recall information. Studies show that if you are right-handed, you should make a fist with your right hand before you try to memorize a piece of information. Then when you need to remember it, clench your left hand (the process is reversed for lefties.) Be sure to hold that position for a little while though; the study that discovered this had the participants squeezing for a good 45 seconds before letting go.

4. EXERCISE.

At this point we should just accept it that science considers exercise the cure for absolutely any problem, and memory is no different. The physical act increases alertness and oxygen supply to the brain, and may even increase cell growth in the parts of your brain responsible for memory. One study found that right after light exercise, women were able to recall things better than they could before working up a sweat. And while a quick jog can help you out right now, it is even more effective over the long term. A different study found that women who kept fit over six months significantly improved both their verbal and spatial memory.

5. SLEEP.

At some point in high school or college, almost everyone has tried to pull an all-nighter before a big test (or so pop culture would have us believe). But even if you left your cramming until almost the last minute, it is more beneficial to get a good night’s sleep than to study until dawn. Studies have found that the processes your brain goes through while you're asleep actually help you remember information better the next day. Your brain is bombarded with stimuli when you’re awake, and it uses the time you are asleep to process everything. That's when it gets rid of unnecessary information and doubles down on remembering important things, like all that stuff in your biology textbook. Sleep is when it consolidates that information into a long-term memory. If you stay awake, your brain can’t go through this process.

6. USE CRAZY FONTS.

We’re all font snobs to some extent. When it comes to books, newspapers, or the internet, we want everything to be clear and easy to read. But researchers have discovered that one of the best ways to remember something you’ve read is to read it in a weird font. The size and boldness makes no difference, although the harder it is to read, the better. When something is unfamiliar and difficult to read, you are forced to concentrate on it more, allowing you to remember it easier.

Large, bold fonts may actually hurt your ability to remember, as studies found that when asked to memorize a list of words, people predicted they would recall bold words easier than non-bold words, and therefore studied them less, leading to the opposite result.

7. CHEW GUM.

If you need to remember a piece of information for around 30 minutes, try chewing gum. Studies have found that people do better on both visual and audio memory tasks if they are chewing gum while they do them. Just the act of chewing seems to keep people more focused and improve concentration.

But if you have a pop quiz sprung on you, leave the Juicy Fruit in your pocket. People who didn’t chew gum did better on very short memory tasks, while masticating helped people stay alert during longer ones.

8. WRITE THINGS OUT.

These days it’s far more common to type up almost all the writing you need to do on your phone or computer. Shopping lists are saved on your tablet, phone numbers and email addresses under your contacts—it’s hardly necessary to remember anything anymore. That is, until you forget your phone and realize you don’t remember if you need to pick up bread and eggs. In the future, if you want to recall something, write it out in longhand. It doesn’t matter if you never actually read back what you wrote: Studies have shown that just the act of writing something out allows you to recall it in a way that touching a keyboard does not.

9. KNOW WHEN TO TURN THE MUSIC ON—AND OFF.

Many people like a bit of music playing while they work or study. And listening to music before you start reading something you need to remember does indeed give you better recall. But once you start work, take out those ear buds. Researchers have found that listening to almost any noise, including music, while studying is a distraction, and you will recall less of what you read in the future. It doesn’t matter if you love the music or hate it; it has the same distracting effect as someone yelling random numbers at you. It might seem strange at first studying in complete silence, but science says it pays off in the long run.

10. VISUALIZE.

One of the weirdest and most effective ways to remember something is to associate it with a visual image. This can be taken to an extreme, where you can recall a huge number of pieces of information just by building up a detailed visual image in your brain. Let’s say you wanted to remember that J.K. Rowling wrote the Harry Potter books. Rowling sounds like bowling, so visualize a bowling alley. Now add to this image a hairy potter. This hirsute man, his hands covered with clay, gets up to roll the ball down the lane. From there you could add other bits of information, for example the names of the different Harry Potter books. Eventually you have a place in your head full of information that you can access at any time. It sounds bonkers, but science says it works.

11. DOODLE.

If you are sitting in a boring class or meeting, don’t be afraid to start drawing hearts and flowers in your margins. While it can look like doodlers are paying less attention than non-doodlers, in reality the act of drawing is helping to keep their brain active. Just sitting there when you are bored makes it easier for you to tune out and as a result you will remember less information. In studies, people who were given a doodling task while listening to a boring phone message ended up remembering 29 percent more of what was on the tape than people who just sat still and listened.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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