Lack of sleep, stress, and a poor diet can undermine all your hard work when preparing for important exams, presentations, or any other sort of performance that involves memorisation.
It’s best to play the long game by sticking to a generally healthy lifestyle, as well as cultivating good habits to help boost memory and be fully operational when you need to bring your A-game.
To that end, here are three general areas you should ensure you are on top of, in order to finetune your memory.
The importance of sleep
Cramming for an exam? There’s really no point in revising until dawn in the hope of getting good grades – quite the contrary. The fatigue built up during this kind of last-minute revision can be detrimental to your performance and have an impact on your concentration and memory.
Researchers have found a link between sleep and improved ability to learn, memorise, or use new knowledge, as revealed in a study from the University of Pennsylvania in 2019. The experts established a relationship between sleep and exam results, revealing that the less sleep students got, the worse their grades were.
Meanwhile, memory experts at France’s Observatoire B2V des Mémoires say it’s important to maintain good sleep habits during periods of revision and memorisation, reminding us that “at night, the brain relives learning episodes to consolidate them effectively in memory”.
What’s more, the organisation specialising in memory function suggests that students should take naps to boost their abilities even further.
“The short 20-minute nap after lunch is no myth. Digestion requires energy and is tiring… so listen to your body and avoid doing revision just after meals,” it said.
Favour concentration and foster focus
We’ve all experienced it: noise from the neighbourhood, annoying music, or a racing mind can impair one’s ability to retain information. So it’s important to make sure all the conditions are right so your attention is focused solely on the information you’re revising.
The best way to do this is to isolate yourself in a room, away from the hustle and bustle of others – including fellow students in group revision – and clear your mind before tackling your work.
It is, of course, advisable to turn off music or the television, and, if possible, switch off your phone, to ensure optimal concentration.
That said, some people find it easier to learn with some form of background noise, including orchestral music. If your home is noisy, you could invest in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, which would isolate you from the rest of the world for the duration of your learning.
Do note that this doesn’t mean you have to give up entirely on social contact. In fact, Observatoire B2V des Mémoires recommends splitting up learning time into several sessions lasting around 20 minutes each, spread over several days, so as to not spend entire days locked away.
Instead, break up this learning time with activities that can promote wellbeing, like sports or workouts, cultural activities or, more simply, outings with friends.
Diet has a role to play
Eating fish has long been said to be good for memory, largely because of the phosphorus content of certain seafood. But scientific studies contradict each other on the subject, with the most sceptical arguing that fish is far from being the only food rich in phosphorus – it’s also found in dairy products, eggs, certain meats, and seeds.
Over the past decade, studies have nevertheless found that fish consumption can improve cognitive function and combat cognitive decline. In 2014, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh suggested that eating baked or grilled fish once a week could be beneficial for the brain and in preventing memory loss.
So, what’s on your plate could be an additional factor to take into account when preparing for your test or big presentation, giving yourself the best chance of shining on the big day.