How Memory Works and 6 Tips to Improve It

Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels
Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels

By Sabrina Stierwalt, Ph.D., Quick and Dirty Tips

Red, purple, green, blue. Red, purple, green, blue. Why is this important? Well, hold that thought.

Have you ever been about to leave your house in the morning rush and realized that you have no idea where you last left your car keys? Have you ever asked yourself, did I schedule that dentist appointment for today or tomorrow? What was it that I needed to get at the store, or what is my boss’s kid’s name again?

The way our memory works is a complicated process, the details of which neuroscientists are still trying to understand. Our brain’s efforts to store information can be broken down into three modes: working memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory, each controlled by different parts of the brain.

Short-term memory works to store information for a brief amount of time, typically without any processing of that information. Much of this activity occurs in the prefrontal lobe, the section in the front of the brain that is found to be highly developed in humans compared to other intelligent species. (And, it’s the reason we have such prominent foreheads!) Research suggests that there is a capacity limit along with an expiration date for the memories held in the short-term memory bank, but the details of those limits are still highly contested. The George Miller Theory from 1956 suggested that we could only remember seven units of information at a time in our short-term memory (i.e. seven digits or seven names). However, it has since been shown that this number can vary a lot depending on the type of information, the person doing the memorizing, and the situation.

Working memory is also maintained only in the short term, but differs from short-term memory in that it involves some kind of manipulation or organization of that information. For example, when you meet someone who tells you their name at a party, that name sits in your short-term memory unless you manage to commit it to long-term memory as well. If you decide to estimate how many people are at the party, those calculations will be run in your working memory.

The making of a long-term memory is thought to require an anatomical change in the brain and to be inspired by a strengthening of a certain signal via repeated messages. Our neurons transfer information amongst themselves by sending signals across the gaps between themselves, gaps called synapses. When the same signal is repeated over and over, this sends the message that this information is particularly important. An apt analogy would be my response to getting a phone call from a number that I don’t recognize. If they call once, I will likely ignore it, but if they call back several times in a short span of time, I will start to place more importance on what this stranger might have to say.

The man who couldn't make memories

Much of what we know about memory comes from Henry Gustave Molaison (otherwise known as H.M.). From the time he was a small child, H.M. had epilepsy so severe that doctors suggested removing a portion of his brain in an attempt to cure his seizures. So in 1953, when H.M. was 27, the neurosurgeon Dr. William Scoville removed two sections of H.M.’s brain, including both of his hippocampi.

The surgery was successful in that it reduced his epileptic seizures, but H.M. developed anterograde amnesia: he could no longer make memories.

Doctors quickly realized that H.M.’s lack of certain cognitive functions had nothing to do with dementia or intelligence. H.M. performed well on any I.Q. tests he was given. H.M. could also remember clearly anything that had happened before his operation. It thus became clear that, since the surgery had affected his ability to create memories beyond a few minutes, the hippocampus must be the area of the brain responsible for long term memory.

Dr. Brenda Milner, one of the many neuroscientists to study H.M., conducted an additional experiment with H.M. where she asked him to trace the outline of a star while only being able to see his work in a mirror. His first few efforts produced very shaky results since the task requires moving in the opposite direction from what the mirror shows. However, after repeated attempts, H.M. finally mastered the task despite having no memory of the event of having practiced it before. Thus, while the making of our long-term memories of people, places, or events may take place in the hippocampus, our motor skill memories must be housed elsewhere.

H.M.’s brain continues to be studied even after his death in 2008. In 2009, his brain was sliced into roughly 2000 pieces and digitally imaged down to the scale of individual neurons. The images are publicly available so that the research H.M. has inspired can continue.

How to improve your memory

Here are a few tips on how we might improve our ability to remember information.

Assign an importance to a memory that you want to keep. We tend to remember things in proportion to how important they are. That’s why we are particularly doomed to forget where we’ve left our car keys. When we arrive home, the location of our keys is of very little importance so our brain doesn’t always remember where we’ve put them. Spending some time mulling over a particular piece of information can help make sure it gets converted to long-term memory.

Draw something. Recent studies have shown that drawing a piece of information can help that memory stick around, although scientists are not completely sure why this happens.

One school of thought suggests that the brain works like a muscle that needs to be flexed and toned just like any other muscle in the body to function at its peak. The Mayo Clinic suggests doing crossword puzzles, using an alternate route to get to work, learning a new language or instrument, or volunteering with a new community organization—anything out of the ordinary that requires you to think in new ways and about new topics.

Sleep. Current theories suggest that during sleep, the brain is at work consolidating our memories for us, sorting what we need to keep from what we don’t.

Exercise. Physical activity increases blood flow to the brain which can help improve memory and even reduce our risk of dementia. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate activity spread throughout a week.

Be social. Interacting with our friends and peers is known to ward off depression and other stressors which have been linked to memory loss

Of course, we can also employ tricks to help us remember certain pieces of information: make lists, use mnemonics, limit multi-tasking, or link certain memories to colors. And speaking of colors, can you remember the colors we listed at the beginning of this article?

A version of this article was originally published on Quick and Dirty Tips as How Memory Works and 6 Tips to Improve It. Read more from Quick and Dirty Tips.

About the author

Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a professor of physics at Occidental College.

12 Creative Ways to Spend Your FSA Money Before the Deadline

stockfour/iStock via Getty Images
stockfour/iStock via Getty Images

If you have a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), chances are, time is running out for you to use that cash. Depending on your employer’s rules, if you don’t spend your FSA money by the end of the grace period, you potentially lose some of it. Lost cash is never a good thing.

For those unfamiliar, an FSA is an employer-sponsored spending account. You deposit pre-tax dollars into the account, and you can spend that money on a number of health care expenses. It’s kind of like a Health Savings Account (HSA), but with a few big differences—namely, your HSA funds roll over from year to year, so there’s no deadline to spend it all. With an FSA, though, most of your funds expire at the end of the year. Bummer.

The good news is: The law allows employers to roll $500 over into the new year and also offer a grace period of up to two and a half months to use that cash (March 15). Depending on your employer, you might not even have that long, though. The deadline is fast approaching for many account holders, so if you have to use your FSA money soon, here are a handful of creative ways to spend it.

1. Buy some new shades.

Head to the optometrist, get an eye prescription, then use your FSA funds to buy some new specs or shades. Contact lenses and solution are also covered.

You can also buy reading glasses with your FSA money, and you don’t even need a prescription.

2. Try acupuncture.

Scientists are divided on the efficacy of acupuncture, but some studies show it’s useful for treating chronic pain, arthritis, and even depression. If you’ve been curious about the treatment, now's a good time to try it: Your FSA money will cover acupuncture sessions in some cases. You can even buy an acupressure mat without a prescription.

If you’d rather go to a chiropractor, your FSA funds cover those visits, too.

3. Stock up on staples.

If you’re running low on standard over-the-counter meds, good news: Most of them are FSA-eligible. This includes headache medicine, pain relievers, antacids, heartburn meds, and anything else your heart (or other parts of your body) desires.

There’s one big caveat, though: Most of these require a prescription in order to be eligible, so you may have to make an appointment with your doctor first. The FSA store tells you which over-the-counter items require a prescription.

4. Treat your feet.

Give your feet a break with a pair of massaging gel shoe inserts. They’re FSA-eligible, along with a few other foot care products, including arch braces, toe cushions, and callus trimmers.

In some cases, foot massagers or circulators may be covered, too. For example, here’s one that’s available via the FSA store, no prescription necessary.

5. Get clear skin.

Yep—acne treatments, toner, and other skin care products are all eligible for FSA spending. Again, most of these require a prescription for reimbursement, but don’t let that deter you. Your doctor is familiar with the rules and you shouldn’t have trouble getting a prescription. And, as WageWorks points out, your prescription also lasts for a year. Check the rules of your FSA plan to see if you need a separate prescription for each item, or if you can include multiple products or drug categories on a single prescription.

While we’re on the topic of faces, lip balm is another great way to spend your FSA funds—and you don’t need a prescription for that. There’s also no prescription necessary for this vibrating face massager.

6. Fill your medicine cabinet.

If your medicine cabinet is getting bare, or you don’t have one to begin with, stock it with a handful of FSA-eligible items. Here are some items that don’t require a prescription:

You can also stock up on first aid kits. You don’t need a prescription to buy those, and many of them come with pain relievers and other medicine.

7. Make sure you’re covered in the bedroom.

Condoms are FSA-eligible, and so are pregnancy tests, monitors, and fertility kits. Female contraceptives are also covered when you have a prescription.

8. Prepare for your upcoming vacation.

If you have a vacation planned this year, use your FSA money to stock up on trip essentials. For example:

9. Get a better night’s sleep.

If you have trouble sleeping, sleep aids are eligible, though you’ll need a prescription. If you want to try a sleep mask, many of them are eligible without a prescription. For example, there’s this relaxing sleep mask and this thermal eye mask.

For those nights you’re sleeping off a cold or flu, a vaporizer can make a big difference, and those are eligible, too (no prescription required). Bed warmers like this one are often covered, too.

Your FSA funds likely cover more than you realize, so if you have to use them up by the deadline, get creative. This list should help you get started, and many drugstores will tell you which items are FSA-eligible when you shop online.

10. Go to the dentist.

While basics like toothpaste and cosmetic procedures like whitening treatments aren’t FSA eligible, most of the expenses you incur at your dentist’s office are. That includes co-pays and deductibles as well as fees for cleanings, x-rays, fillings, and even the cost of braces. There are also some products you can buy over-the-counter without ever visiting the dentist. Some mouthguards that prevent you from grinding your teeth at night are eligible, as are cleaning solutions for retainers and dentures.

11. Try some new gadgets.

If you still have some extra cash to burn, it’s a great time to try some expensive high-tech devices that you’ve been curious about but might not otherwise want to splurge on. The list includes light therapy treatments for acne, vibrating nausea relief bands, electrical stimulation devices for chronic pain, cloud-connected stethoscopes, and smart thermometers.

12. Head to Amazon.

There are plenty of FSA-eligible items available on Amazon, including items for foot health, cold and allergy medication, eye care, and first-aid kits. Find out more details on how to spend your FSA money on Amazon here.

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The FDA Has Approved the First At-Home COVID-19 Test Kit—Here's What You Need to Know About It

A new at-home test for COVID-19 can provide results in 30 minutes.
A new at-home test for COVID-19 can provide results in 30 minutes.
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

One of the biggest factors in controlling COVID-19 is understanding who might be spreading the coronavirus. Currently, most people are tested when they’re symptomatic or have been in contact with someone known to have coronavirus, but arranging for that test—and getting results in a timely manner—can be a hassle.

It may not be long before testing for COVID-19 becomes as simple as self-administering an at-home test. Last week, the Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization for a home collection kit made by Lucira Health that allows individuals to collect their own nasal swab sample and get results in 30 minutes. While promising, there are also plenty of caveats. Here’s what we currently know about the test.

How does the COVID-19 home test kit work?

The test kit includes a battery-operated diagnostic device, a sample tube, and swab. A person swabs their nostrils, inserts the sample into the tube containing a solution, and then inserts the tube into the device, which looks for genetic material associated with the virus and will display a positive or negative result within 30 minutes. The kit is approved for those 14 years old and up. Those younger than 14 are advised to have a health care provider administer the test.

How effective is the COVID-19 home test kit?

Lucira Health claims that the kit was tested in roughly 100 people who used another FDA-approved test for COVID-19 and compared results. The company says it was 94.1 percent accurate in detecting those who were deemed positive by the other test and 98 percent accurate in detecting negative samples. As with any coronavirus test, it’s possible to get a negative result if the person is tested too early after being exposed to the virus.

Why is the COVID-19 home test important?

Having an individual collect their own sample and get results in 30 minutes allows for those positive for COVID-19 to quarantine immediately, reducing the chances of being around others while infectious. A person could, for example, self-administer the test before going to work or school and know they’re likely to be negative. 

Haven’t there been other COVID-19 tests for home use?

Yes, but those tests typically involve a sample being collected at home and then sent away for laboratory testing. The Lucira Health test is the first to offer both collection and results at home.

Who’s eligible to use the COVID-19 at-home test?

Currently, the kit can only be obtained with a prescription from a doctor, who will likely want to know if a patient is symptomatic before ordering it.

How much does the COVID-19 home test cost?

The single-use test will cost around $50. It’s unclear whether additional sample tubes and swabs will be available for purchase, or if insurance plans will cover the cost.

When will the COVID-19 at-home test be available to the public?

The test is expected to be released for patients of Sutter Health in California and Cleveland Clinic Florida in Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in the near future. Lucira Health needs to ramp up production to make the test kit widely available, which may not happen until spring 2021. The company plans on asking the FDA to allow the kits to be available to consumers via overnight mail with a doctor’s approval.

[h/t Reuters]