In this episode of The Feel Good Effect, Lisa Genova is sharing simple ways we can actionably improve our memory!

Listen to the episode or read the article to learn her tactical tips and science-backed habits.

improve your memory with these simple habits with lisa genova

We all wanna be able to remember the things that matter. But thinking about memory & what happens as we age can feel like a lot.

Lisa Genova, acclaimed author & Harvard-trained neuroscientist, is here to share simple ways to actionably improve our memory. Including how to let go of the stress around it & which things might not be that big of a deal after all. I also ask her about food & diet and how much of a role that plays with memory & Alzheimer’s. I think you might be surprised what she has to say!

“Memory is so interwoven with everything”. 

Lisa Genova
meet guest, author & neuroscientist: lisa genova

The through-line for all of Lisa’s fiction books is giving a face and a voice to people who live with neurological diseases, disorders, and mental illness. Shame and secrecy exist for those folks and they tend to be ignored, feared, and misunderstood. Story is an incredibly powerful vehicle for allowing us to walk in someone else’s shoes and experience empathy.

All of her books are written with a focus on telling the truth. Her fiction is telling the truth under imagined circumstances, delivered in a way that is very compassionate with the goal of helping us see our common humanity.

Lisa has spent a lot of time as a speaker and advocate. She has written about Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, ALS, autism, traumatic brain injury, and now she is writing about bipolar disorder. She continues to speak about those diseases and disorders and those living with them, raising awareness and money for research and resources. 

releasing fear, anxiety, and judgment around memory

Lisa’s newest book, Remember, is nonfiction. So many people are afraid of their own memories and what we forget carries a lot of judgment, fear, and anxiety. People just don’t really understand how memory works, this essential part of our functioning as humans. Lisa’s hope is that Remember feels like a conversation that alleviates a lot of that anxiety.

Still Alice was Lisa’s most successful book, in part because of the movie, and she’s traveled the world speaking about Alzheimer’s disease. She found that the conversation often starts about Alzheimer’s but shifts to memory and forgetting in general. People would so often approach her after her events and tell her (almost like a confession), that they’re having trouble remembering certain things. Things like why they walked into a room or an item from their grocery list. Instead of diagnosing them with Alzheimer’s disease, like they might expect, Lisa explains to them why all of those things are completely normal. She had been disseminating this information one person at a time and thought it would be time for her to write it all down in a book and give it to the world.

 “Empathy is the medical ingredient in our lives as humans that allows us to stay connected to each other, not to otherize, to bring people back into community”.

Lisa Genova
adjusting our expectations around our memory

Memory is so essential to our functioning and tied to our identity. Memory gives you the ability to remember who you’ve been and who you are. We tie it to our integrity, like that we can remember to show up to something we said we would. Remembering is related to all the things that give us joy in life. All the way down to remembering how to do things. 

Memory is amazing and allows us to be capable of so much, but at the same time it can be kind of a dance – we forget to call our mothers or don’t remember what we had for lunch last Tuesday. It’s important but when we place too much importance on it, we can get really upset with ourselves. Even becoming scared or worried when it fails.

It’s important to know that it is not designed to be perfect, though. Our memory system has not evolved to be perfect in the demands we are asking of it today in modern life.

If you believe that you have a terrible memory, it’s going to feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy when inevitably you do forget something. We’ve been beating up our memory in lots of ways, afraid of it, mad at it, frustrated with it, and having unreasonable expectations for it. So there’s a lot of room for us to become better friends with it. It’s not about hacking your way to perfect memory, but rather, understanding the normal way it functions.

Allow yourself to be human. When you walk into a room and don’t know why you walked in there, that’s okay. You are human and forgetting this one thing does not mean you are going to get Alzheimer’s. It’s about navigating imperfections, improving your memory today, and maintaining your memory for the future. 

“We cannot remember what we don’t pay attention to”. 

Lisa Genova
you’re not alone if you find yourself worrying about your memory these days

For many, but not all of us, this last year has been like the same day every day.

Memory is designed to remember what is exciting, new, emotional, surprising, and meaningful and it forgets what isn’t. You probably don’t remember the load of laundry you did last week or brushing your teeth.

So much of our days are routine, habitual things, and our brains aren’t designed to remember them. The problem for most of us this year is that our worlds have shrunk to the confines of our homes. It’s become one long day of the “same old same old” – which our memory systems were designed to ignore. Interestingly, this is the most memorable year that we won’t remember. We have to pay attention to the things we want to form a lasting memory of. 

how stress affects our memory

Another reason this year will be forgotten has to do with chronic stress. A little bit of stress that happens and then leaves is good for us. We need stress to react to things and find the motivation to get up and do the things we need to do. Even though we are, for the most part, at home this year, we feel psychological stress from uncertainty, lack of control, and social isolation (none of which have gone away).

When chronic stress like that happens, the shut-off valve to the stress response breaks and your brain is essentially soaking in a soup of cortisol (which is really bad for your memory). Your hippocampus, the structure in the brain that is essential for the formation of new memories, will actually become smaller from chronic stress, and you will be more impaired in your ability to learn new things and retrieve existing memories.

If you feel foggy, like you can’t remember stuff you knew before the pandemic, or you can’t learn new things as easily as you used to, it could be because of chronic stress.

Once we get out of this constant fight or flight, what will the effects be? Will we have to rebound or repair?

Once we are able to get out and have new experiences again, our brains are going to light up and we’re going to have all sorts of robust associations in our brains for creating memories. You aren’t stuck with a shrunken hippocampus for the rest of your life. It can be reversed.

If the stressors go away, that gives your brain and body time to restore cortisol levels, and neurogenesis, the birth of new neurons, can be restored in your hippocampus. Also, though, if the stressors don’t go away and we trade the pandemic for the next stressful thing, this is where things like yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices really do work – there’s science behind all of this.

We know that folks who meditate daily for weeks at a time can increase the size of their hippocampus and prevent the decrease in the size of the hippocampus if you have a genetic predisposition toward Alzheimer’s. Exercise does the same thing.

We have tools to combat the presence of chronic stress. We can’t get rid of what’s stressful in your life, but we can help your brain and body react differently so it doesn’t impair your health and memory.

“Our thoughts are as dangerous as predators”.

Lisa Genova
the relationship between food and Alzheimer’s

Studies that have been done show that the Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet are significantly beneficial in reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s. These have been large, longitudinal studies that have shown these effects, anywhere from a third to a half reduction in risk.

It’s much like how people view heart health; if you are 50 years old now and you want to avoid a heart attack years from now, eating a whole food, heart-healthy diet is going to give you the best shot. The same is true of Alzheimer’s. What’s good for your heart is good for your brain, good for your memory, and good for preventing Alzheimer’s. 

These aren’t guarantees. A healthy diet is just one of the things, a way that we live, that interacts with the genes we were born with that can influence whether or not this disease manifests in your brain. Recipe books claiming to prevent Alzheimer’s just aren’t realistic because we don’t live in a world where we only eat seven dishes. We’re going to eat things that aren’t on that list and it doesn’t mean that if you do, you get Alzheimer’s. It’s a way of life that supports brain health and tips the scales toward preventing versus developing Alzheimer’s. There is no recipe to guarantee the prevention of the disease.

These “eat this” diets might be so popular because it’s easier to control than an entire lifestyle change.

sleep and exercise above diet?

It’s not sexy, but 7-9 hours of sleep a night is one of the best things you can do for your overall health, brain health, and memory. You’re not going to be perfect at it, so take a gentle approach.

Sleep helps clear away plaque that accumulates over the course of the day, which can trigger molecular events leading to disease development if it reaches a tipping point. Getting enough sleep isn’t sexy, but it works. Sleep helps consolidate memories, sets you up to pay better attention during the following day, and prevents disease. Every night you can give yourself those 7-9 hours of quality sleep, you are improving your brain health.

Sleep is not an unconscious state of doing nothing, it’s a very biologically busy time. If you deprive your body of all the functions that get done during sleep hours, there is a price that gets paid. Sleep is a priority.

The research shows us that exercising 30 minutes a day, five days a week (including a brisk walk), can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s 30-50%. We know the data on exercise, we know that data on sleep. Sleep, exercise, and diet work. But food is so diverse – which foods, what nutrients, what antioxidants. We know the Mediterranean diet encompasses a lot of that, but there is so much variability in what people do. Sleep and exercise can be executed clearly, food is more variable.

“Exercise and sleep are the free pills we have today to improve your memory and protect it against dementia in the future”.

Lisa Genova
what you’ll find in lisa’s book (if you want to deep dive on this topic):

Part 1 | How do we remember?

Lisa covers an overview of memory,  the different kinds of memory, and where are they in the brain, how we form memories and how we retrieve them.

There are different types of memory for the stuff you’ve experienced, the stuff you know, how to do things, stuff you plan to do later. That last one, by the way, everyone is terrible at. Your brain is not designed to remember to do something later – so make sure to write it down!

Part 2 | Why do we forget?

This section is all about the kinds of things we forget. Our memories for the stuff that has happened actually tend to be wrong. Different people attend to different things at the same event, so you might remember something differently than someone who was with you when the memory was encoded. Also, every time you retell a story of what happened, your brain has the opportunity to add, subtract, edit, and restore the new memory over the original. This is why eyewitness testimony should not be trusted. She talks about why we struggle to recall something we know we know, how time can erode memory, and deciphering between what’s normal and what is pathological

Part 3 | Improve or impair?

How can we improve memory and what are the things that will impair it?

It’s all about context. Our ability to remember something is better when we are in the same context that we learned and encoded it in. Neurons connected to the thing you are trying to remember are cued to the context in which you learned a thing. For example, you are in bed and realize you need your glasses, you go into the kitchen to get them and forget why you are in there, you go back into your bedroom and remember again. In this case, the bedroom served as a contextual cue. Context triggers the associated neural connections, activating the memory in your brain. Lisa also talks about about stress, sleep, Alzheimer’s prevention, and tactical things you can do to improve your memory.

The biggest reason we forget things like where we parked, someone’s name, or where we put something doesn’t have to do with memory, it has to do with lack of attention. It’s a symptom of distraction. 

what does it really mean to be healthy?

“To be aligned in mind, body, spirit, to be balanced and connected in those places. When I am really feeling healthy and vibrant and excited and curious about my day, it is because I am eating well, I have well slept, I’m exercising in a way that brings me joy… and it’s also meditation, yoga, reading, learning new things. So mind, body, and spirit in balance is healthy to me”

Lisa Genova
guest bio

Lisa Genova is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Still Alice, Left Neglected, Love Anthony, Inside the O’Briens, and Every Note PlayedStill Alice was adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, and Kristen Stewart. Lisa graduated valedictorian from Bates College with a degree in biopsychology and holds a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard University. She travels worldwide speaking about the neurological diseases she writes about and has appeared on The Dr. Oz Show, Today, PBS NewsHour, CNN, and NPR. Her TED talk, “What You Can Do to Prevent Alzheimer’s,” has been viewed more than five million times. Remember is her first work of nonfiction.


Remember by Lisa Genova

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Connect with Lisa on Instagram @authorlisagenova and Facebook

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