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How to get a better exam memory

Trouble hitting your peak academic condition? These six tips will help sharpen your memory and get you in shape for exams

As a student, the most valuable thing you have is your brain. But more often than not, these three pounds of pinkish goo will let you down, one way or the other.

You might find yourself in the middle of an academic discussion when you forget the main point of the argument you wanted to make. Or maybe you just forget to buy milk when grocery shopping.

The University Post set out to find how to up your smarts and make the best of your grey matter. We met up with professor Jens Bo Nielsen, Department of Nutrition, Exercise, and Sports, for a talk about eating fish, working out, and the human brain. This list does not only target memory, but rather the brain as a whole. It also contains some inconvenient truths that you probably already knew.

Here goes:

1. Brain food

Fish has long been known to be good for the brain.

“Eating fish will provide you with valuable omega-3 fatty acids that improve brain function,” says professor Jens Bo Nielsen.

And, being the malnourished student that you are, “you can benefit greatly from DHA, an omega-3 that is only found in fish and cannot be produced by the body itself,” he says.

Studies of humans in populations with malnutrition suggest, that DHA can improve your brain if you have unhealthy eating habits. Therefore, try to eat fish three to four times a week.

2. Sleep it out

Sleep is everything for a good memory.

Memories are consolidated when you sleep, but a 20-minute power nap is not sufficient to properly make things stick.

In order for memories to be consolidated, “the brain needs to reach the stage of deep sleep, which at least requires an extensive 90-minute nap,” says Jens Bo Nielsen.

However, “small power naps can raise your energy levels and make it easier to concentrate afterwards,” he says.

So it might not be such a bad idea to get some brief shut-eye if you have trouble focusing on your readings. The best solution, though, is to get enough sleep at night – between 7 and 9 hours.

3. Move it, move it

Get up, and get out. Countless studies have shown the connection between physical exercise and improvement of cognitive performance. Memory, attention, and overall happiness are some of the many things positively affected by exercise.

Recent studies have shown that we remember best if we exercise right after having been exposed to the information we wish to store in our minds. That means going for a run is a better way to round off a day of intensive studying than it is to start it – memory-wise. However, the other positive effects of working out will still come, regardless of when you work out.

And working out includes other things than just running by the way. Soccer, weight-lifting, dancing, rowing, capoeira – the list is endless.

USG offers many different sports activities for students – all at a fair price. Here is a link to their English site: USG sports.

And now, to the things you should steer clear off if you want to keep a sharp mind.

4. Now…about coffee and cigarettes

Nicotine has been shown to increase our focus and concentration for short periods of time.

So here we are going against the grain of all health recommendations:

If you don’t mind the numerous dangerous side effects of smoking, having a single cigarette in your study break can actually stimulate your brain and make it easier to focus when you return to your books.

Or you could just grab a cup of coffee, right? Studies on caffeine and memory actually point in many different directions, both negative and positive. One positive thing about drinking coffee is that it makes you better at sustaining attention and vigilance – helpful when you have to read long texts and stay focused.

You can read more about the effects of caffeine here: What caffeine really does to your brain.

5. No alcohol, right? No alcohol

If you want your memory to work optimally, you have to quit the all-nighters and the binge drinking.

“Alcohol is a definite no-go,” says Jens Bo Nielsen.

But if complete abstinence does not appeal to you, it also works to just limit the benders to a few times a month.

6. No stress

Besides having negative effects on your cognitive capacities, stress is also damaging to your general health – and it increases the risk of depression, which again compromises your brain’s performance.

Stress causes the emission of cortisol, the stress hormone, in the brain. And the effects of cortisol on memory are pretty extensive: it inhibits the retrieval of already stored memories, meaning that you will find it hard to access memories that already exist in your brain.

Furthermore, longer periods of exposure to cortisol damages the hippocampus – the area in your brain that is responsible for forming new memories – which makes it harder to learn new stuff.

A way to work around a stress-filled day is meditation and breathing exercises. Combined, these calm the pulse and breathing, and also lowers cortisol levels in the body. You can find meditation and mindfulness guides all over the internet.

Here is one of them: Meditation for beginners

More focus

Following these guidelines will not guarantee that you ace all of your exams, but it will make it much easier to focus during the stressful reading-up periods, and remember.

Happy reading, and happy remembering!

This is the first of two articles on memory. The next article will focus on memory techniques and brain enhancing drugs.

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