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01/29/2015 04:49 pm ET

How To Remember Things Like A 20-Year-Old

Andrew Kolb via Getty Images

Who hasn’t lost track of someone’s name or spaced an appointment, blaming it on a midlife memory lapse? This can be scary when you’re considering tackling a new career or heading back to school.

New brain research is uncovering more about how we store memories, which can make retrieving them easier: It may be as simple as shifting your focus while you’re learning.

There are three aspects of memory, says Richard Addante, a senior lecturer in the University of Texas at Dallas, and lead author of the paper: the formation, where you make a memory; retrieval, when you take it out of storage; and the part in the middle—consolidation.

Using MRI scans, Addante’s team demonstrated that what's happening in our brain just before memories are formed is related to how we remember that information. Researchers discovered that the calmer the hippocampus—the portion of the brain associated with memory—at the time the memory is stored, the more likely we are to be able to retrieve it.

Wondering how this can help you remember more of what you read, and retrieve it more effectively in job interviews or during presentations? “One of the things you can do to get into that `better’ brain state is to eliminate distractions,” Addante says. “The more distractions you can eliminate or reduce, the more you create optimal brain space to engender learning and remembering.”

It also helps, especially when we’re learning boring information, to find a more elaborate context, “a way to make the material more interesting or engaging. Tell yourself a story about it, or make up a song—the same way that makes it easier for us to learn the alphabet or state capitals as kids still works.” Addante has his students create rap videos about neuroscience topics. “Often, when you ask people to recall the best teacher they ever had, it will be someone who had a particularly engaging way of teaching things. The deeper the encoding, and the more elaborate it is, the easier it is to call the memory out of storage. The more meaning you assign to it, the more likely you are to remember it.”

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