December 2, 2023




9 Tactics to Build a Stronger Mind

At a glance

“Forgetting is a normal part of being human.” - Lisa Genova

“Forgetting is a normal part of being human.” - Lisa Genova

Today’s Fast Summary:

  • Contrary to what you believe, most of the forgetting that happens to us, is normal. Lisa Genova, renowned neuroscientist, offers us some key tips to improve memory and cognition. 

  • Attention and memory go hand in hand. One cannot function without the other.  What you pay attention to affects which memories are encoded in your brain. 

  • The brain likes context. When you provide it with associations, it remembers the necessary information more effectively.

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9 Tactics to Build a Stronger Mind

You’re in a rush one morning. You’ve got your backpack, you’re dressed, and you have your morning coffee in hand. But just as you arrive at your car, you realize you’ve forgotten your keys. 

You feel silly—you never forget your keys. It’s unlike you. 

For a moment, you panic. You worry you’re getting older, and that this lapse in memory is a sign of something more serious lurking in your mind’s recesses. 

Many of us can relate to this. Don’t worry–you’re not losing it. 

According to Lisa Genova, American neuroscientist, Harvard graduate, and New York Times Bestselling author, many of us believe that “this absent-mindedness is a sign of mental weakness, or a failing memory, or a lack of character.” 

Most of the forgetting that happens to all of us, is normal. 

In her talk, “9 tactics to build a stronger mind,” she explores the common causes of forgetfulness, and how you can overcome them. 

Try them today: 

1. Practice Paying Attention 

“The first essential ingredient in creating a memory that's going to last longer than this present moment is attention.”

Attention and memory go hand in hand. One cannot function without the other.  

What you pay attention to affects which memories are encoded in your brain. 

For example, you’re watching Netflix and scrolling through your phone at the same time. Suddenly, you look up, and the show you are watching has taken a drastic turn. You don’t know what happened. 

Though you were watching the show, your brain wasn’t encoding the events occurring on the screen. 

In other words, “Your brain will never remember what you don't pay attention to.” 

Pay attention to the memories and events you want to remember. Focus on what you’ll need later. 

2. Grow Your Hippocampus 

“Chronic stress is really bad for our memory.” 

Stress impedes memory. The stress hormones in your body, such as cortisol, halt executive functioning skills, including short-term and working memory. 

Your body is in fight or flight as opposed to thinking and memory mode. 

Chronic stress negatively impacts memory. When you’re constantly stressed, “your body will just keep dumping adrenaline and cortisol, and it can't shut off.” This impedes memory and shrinks your brain’s hippocampus. 

The hippocampus is your brain’s memory and emotion headquarters. It’s responsible for forming and maintaining consciously held memories. Shrinking it is the antithesis of the goal. 

Try these tips to grow your hippocampus and reduce stress: 

  • Yoga

  • Mindfulness

  • Regular Exercise

  • Consume fish (or omega-3 fatty acids)

  • Stimulate your brain through puzzles and exercises

  • Learn something new.

3. Meditate

“A lot of people are intimidated by meditation. They sort of know that this is probably good for them in lots of ways, but maybe don't know how to do it.”

Meditation lowers stress and boosts memory. Researchers have found that those who meditate for two weeks see improvements in working memory, memory capacity, stress, and focus.

Genova suggests the following 9-second meditation exercise to boost memory and reduce stress: 

  1. Close your eyes. 

  2. Breathe in through your nose slowly. Count to four as you do so. 

  3. Hold your breath for a second or two. 

  4. Exhale through your nose. Count to four again. 

She says this of the exercise, “By breathing slowly in and out through your nose, you are telling your brain and body that you are safe.” 

This stops your body’s stress fight or flight response and improves conscious memory. 

4. Boost Your Sleep

“You're very biologically busy while you sleep, and there are a number of super-important things that are going on in your brain with respect to memory.” 

Sleep plays an important role in memory. During sleep, memories are reinforced. 

The hippocampus uses this time to consolidate the information you learned the day before into lasting memories. We consciously retrieve these while we sleep. 

If sleep is inadequate, or of poor quality, your hippocampus cannot undergo this process completely. 

Because of this, “the stuff you learned yesterday, might not be fully formed today or they might not be formed at all.” 

Sleep also affects attention. After a poor night’s sleep, you feel groggy, and can’t focus. 

Attention is paramount to memory. If you can’t pay attention, you can’t form new memories. 

Ensure you’re receiving adequate, restful sleep (7-9 hours). 

5. Drink Caffeine

Caffeine isn’t a bad thing. According to Genova, “caffeine is actually good for memory because caffeine increases your attention.” 

A recent study concluded that caffeine has a positive effect on long-term memory. Participants who consumed 200 milligrams of caffeine performed better on memory tests compared to their counterparts. 

The issue with caffeine is sleep. Consuming caffeine close to bedtime impedes sleep, and lowers sleep quality. 

Drink caffeine throughout the day. Stop drinking it six hours before bedtime. 

6. The Power of Associations

“Our brains are not designed to remember people's names. These are abstract concepts. They live in neurological cul-de-sacs.” 

The brain likes context. When we provide it with associations, it remembers the necessary information more effectively. 

The ‘Baker-Baker’ paradox uses this phenomenon. One group of subjects is given a photo of a person and is told their last name is Baker. The other group is shown the same image but is told that the person in the photo is a baker. 

The group with the photo-vocation association is more consistently able to recall the information. 

Names are abstract concepts. But, if you’re asked to remember the word ‘baker,’ you “can picture him wearing an apron.” You might remember “the bakery [you] used to love as a kid and we used to get danishes there on Sundays.”

The associations you made are responsible for stronger memory recall. 

When you encounter information, like names, you want to remember, come up with your own associations. 

Ask yourself, “What other information can I use to remember this?” or, “What do I already remember that will reinforce this information?”

7. Repeat

“For all of these memories, they benefit from repetition.” 

Repetition triggers memory formation. As Genova says, “The more we repeat, the more we practice, the more we rehearse a memory, we are strengthening those neural connections, making that neural circuit stronger, and more likely to be fully retrieved.” 

Exposure to information repeatedly enhances memory and contextual memory. It kills two birds with one stone. 

Mentally repeat the information you’d like to remember. Repeat it at different intervals, and throughout the day or week.

8. Write it Down

“One of the ways that we can repeat a memory is by writing it down.”

Writing down a memory, much like a task on a to-do list, reinforces the memory further. 

For example, students who manually write down their notes are shown to more concretely remember information. The process of slowing down and recalling the information reinforces memory. 

Furthermore, you “will also have the opportunity to revisit that memory by reading it later.” 

Writing things down isn’t cheating. As Genova says, “Airline pilots do not rely on their brains and their prospective memories to remember to lower the wheels before landing the plane. They outsource the job to a to-do list, a checklist.” 

Write what you’d like to remember down. Add it to your phone, calendar, and to-do list.  

9. Conduct a Self-Test

Memory works in two ways. Consolidating memories refers to their input. When you input information, you add it to your brain. 

However, this is like “traveling one way on the neurons.” Recalling the memories you input reinforces them. 

When you recall information, you pull it out in the opposite direction.

She states, “Going over those circuits in both directions will help reinforce and make that memory stronger.” 

After absorbing information, test yourself. Recall it throughout the day for reinforcement. 

Bonus: Just Google It

“Having a word stuck on the tip of your tongue is a normal glitch in memory retrieval.”

Experiencing this is frustrating, but this event is a byproduct of our brain’s processing mechanisms. 

Genova notes, “ Googling a word that's on the tip of your tongue isn't cheating. It will not cause digital amnesia.” 

Googling a word, fact, or event won’t weaken memory. Search engines are a powerful processing tool. 

You can Google almost anything “and then use that information to continue thinking, to continue the conversation, to learn more.”  

The message: Google as you wish. 

Key Takeaways

The human brain is a complex organ. Biologically, it’s on-call 24/7. 

The brain is “limitless in what it's capable of remembering.” Provide it with the right information, and reinforce it with tools and associations. 

As Genova says, “[The brain is] wildly imperfect, and that's just the price of owning a human brain.” 

This week, I ask you to practice the memory reinforcement tools you learned in this newsletter. Then, reflect on your habits, and how you can change them to build a stronger mind.

  1. Pay attention.

    a. Consider a time recently when you were asked to remember new information. It can be as small as a name or coffee order. 

    b. Replay the memory in your mind. What happened? 

    c. Were you paying attention to the small information?

  1. Associations. 

    a. Reflect on the Baker-Baker Paradox. 

    b. Ask yourself, “What additional information can I attribute to the memory to strengthen it?” 

    c. Write this down.

  1. Reinforce. 

    a. Re-read what you’ve written in the previous step. Try this up to 10 times, and read aloud.

    b. Put away what you’ve written. Think back to the memory. Replay it multiple times.

    c. Think back to the memory throughout the day at irregular intervals.

  2. Boost your memory habits. Reflect on what is impeding your memory.

    a. Consider stress. Are you chronically stressed? Why or why not? 

    b. Pinpoint your key stressors. Write them down. 

    c. Which of the stress-relieving activities described in the newsletter can you try? 

    d. Think about sleep. Are you sleeping enough? Why or why not? Pinpoint your issues with sleep. 

    e. How can you boost your sleep? Consider concrete ways you can improve your sleep habits. 


I’d love to hear from you:

  • What do you struggle to remember? 

  • Which of these reinforcement tools will you try? 

  • What helps you remember important information?

Tweet at me (@_alexbrogan) or respond to this email — I’ll try to respond to everyone.

Have a wonderful Saturday, all.

Until next time,


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