Most of us can lose our train of thought midway through a sentence but when you’re a stand-up comic, it can spell disaster – as comedian Billy Connolly knows.
The 70-year-old Scot admitted last week he now suffers from worrying bouts of memory loss on stage and sometimes cannot remember his punch lines for gags.
His wife Pamela Stephenson puts it down to years of drinking in his early career.
But absent-mindedness is not just about “senior moments”, says neuropsychologist Dr Joanna Iddon, co-author of Memory Boosters (Hamlyn Press, £6.99)
“In a recent study of healthy adults, the average number of memory slips, like putting the coffee jar in the fridge, was around six per week, irrespective of age, gender and intelligence,” says Dr Iddon.
“In fact, it was the younger, busier people that were the most absent-minded.
“Remembering is an active process and making the most of your memory involves paying better attention, planning and organising.
“Luckily, there are some tricks and strategies to help you banish those thingumabob moments.”
1. Associate the memory with the environment: So if, for example, a joke is learned in the presence of a particular smell, that same aroma may cue the memory for that joke.
“More simply, when in an exam, I advise my students to visualise the place in which they were revising as a cue to memory,” says Andrew Johnson, memory specialist and lecturer in psychology at Bournemouth University.
2. Clench your fist: Research suggests that balling up your right hand and squeezing it tightly actually makes it easier to memorise phone numbers or shopping lists.
“Later, when you want to retrieve the information, clench the left fist. Researchers think the movements activate brain regions key to the storing and recall of memories.
3. Learn something before bed: “The best way to ‘consolidate a memory’ is to go through the information just before going to sleep,” explains Dr Johnson.
“This is because there are fewer ‘new’ interfering memories so you will remember it better the next day.”
4. Say the alphabet: “When you cannot recall a piece of information such as the name of an actor in a film, use the alphabet search method, i.e. going through the alphabet to find the first letter of the word or name you are trying to remember in order to jog your memory – it really works,” says Dr Iddon.
5. Drink more milk: Scientists asked 972 people to fill in detailed surveys on their diets and to complete eight rigorous tests to check their concentration, memory and learning abilities.
Adults who consumed dairy products at least five or six times a week did far better in memory tests compared with those who rarely ate or drank them.
6. Exercise more: Several studies have shown that aerobic exercise improves cognitive function and is particularly good at enhancing memory. Exercise is also thought to encourage the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus – an area of the brain important in memory and learning.
7. Get salsa dancing: “Music lovers perform better in cognitive tests while research has shown the beneficial effects of music on those with Alzheimer’s disease,” explains memory expert Dr Chris Moulin.
Music with strong rhythms and patterns – like reggae and salsa – are best for memory and problem-solving. The more complex the dance, the more the brain will be challenged.
8. Forget the nightcap: Alcohol may help you fall asleep but it leads to a disrupted night’s rest – and has a detrimental effect on concentration and memory, say researchers at The London Sleep Centre.
And the more you drink, the less deep – or REM – sleep you get.
9. Say it out loud: This is the easiest of all methods for remembering everything from where you put your car keys to what you need from the shop to revising for a test, say memory experts.
Studies found saying what you want to remember out loud to yourself – or even mouthing it – will help with recall.
10. Don’t swallow it whole: When someone gives you a phone number, use ‘chunking’ as a way of remembering it, suggests Dr Moulin.
“So when given a string of numbers to remember such as 123957001066, break it down into 12 39 57 00 10 66 or even 1239 5700 1066.
Try to chunk numbers according to something you find meaningful, like the age of someone you know, an address or a famous date (1066 Battle of Hastings) then they form a story to help you remember.”
11. Quit smoking: It can cause significant damage to your memory, say researchers at Northumbria University.
When 69 students aged 18 to 25, were asked to memorise a list of tasks, those who had never smoked did best, remembering to complete 81% of the tasks.
The smokers – on an average of 60 cigarettes a week – managed to get through only 59%.
A separate study at King’s College London found that middle-aged smokers performed less well on tests compared with those without the tobacco habit.
12…And cannabis too: Adolescents who are regular users of cannabis are at risk of permanent damage to their intelligence, attention span and memory, according to the results of a new long-term study, which followed over 1,000 people from birth to the age of 38.
13. Give us a cue: If there’s something you have to do every day at a specific time and often forget, a technique called implementation intentions is very simple, says Dr Moulin.
For example, say to yourself ‘whenever I have my first cup of tea in the morning, I will also take my pills’. Or ‘when the lunchtime news finishes, I’ll do my exercises’.
14. Use imagery: One type of mnemonic – or memory aid – relies on imagery rather than words.
“A classic way of remembering a person’s name is to try and imagine it (or something associated to it) on the person’s face,” says Dr Moulin.
So, if you meet John Bridge – imagine a bridge on his face. Psychologists have found that the more bizarre and vivid the image the better it works.
15. Drink green tea: Chinese researchers say regularly drinking it could improve your memory and delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease thanks to its key ingredient – the organic molecule EGCG (epigallocatechin-3 gallate), an antioxidant that protects against age-related degenerative illnesses.
16. Make it mean something: While the digits 5019114421945 are hard to remember as they are meaningless, try assigning each set of three digits a meaning, advises Dr Moulin.
Try Levis, a Porsche, favourite football formation and the end of the Second World War.
These facts may not be easy to remember – but not so hard as digits in raw form.
Look for meaning in everything – especially if you can refer it back to yourself.
17. Eat like our European neighbours: A Mediterranean diet – low in red meat and dairy and high in omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish and nuts – can help preserve memory and reduce dementia risk, say US researchers.
The study, in the journal Neurology, studied the diets of 17,478 people with an average age of 64.
Those who followed the Med diet were 19% less likely to develop problems with memory.
18. Watch your food intake: Eating too much can double the risk of memory problems in old age, according to US research.
Studies found a high-calorie intake can substantially increase the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, characterised by memory loss, which can precede dementia.
19. Doodle: In memory tests, doodlers performed 29% better than non-doodlers when asked to recall names and places, Plymouth University researchers found.
Experts say doodling doesn’t tax the mind and allows us to concentrate on the task in hand. It stops us daydreaming, too, which is distracting.
20. Drink red wine: Half a glass of wine a day improves cognitive ability and memory, say researchers from Oxford University.
“It’s thought the micronutrients called flavonoids, particularly in red wine, improve brain function,” explains Dr Iddon.
21. Look at nature: A US study found people who walked around an arboretum did 20% better on a memory test than those who walked around streets. Just looking at pictures of nature can have a beneficial effect.
22. Tuck into chocolate: Eating chocolate can improve your memory, said Oxford University scientists, who tested 2,000 volunteers.
A separate study at Northumbria University found people given large amounts of flavonols, a compound found in chocolate, found mental arithmetic much easier.
23. Get enough sleep: Lack of sleep boosts the formation of beta amyloid, the toxic protein that clogs up the brain, according to a study in the journal Science.
“Disturbed sleep delays storage of memories and makes us forget sooner,” says Professor Chris Idzikowski, director of The Edinburgh Sleep Centre.
24. Visualise what you need to do: If you’re in the kitchen, and remember you need to close the bedroom window, think of the curtains flapping.
Once you have paused to form the vivid association between the room and the reason you are going there, go straight there.
This avoids the ‘Now, what did I come in here for?’ scenario!
25. Use it or lose it: Developing an interest or hobby and staying involved in activities that stimulate the mind and body can help with memory loss, says Dr Iddon.
“Pursue a hobby, join a book club or do an evening class. It will stop your brain atrophying.”