The brain is the most efficient computer that has ever existed, however just like man-made computers the brain still suffers from memory issues. Now scientists think they may have a fix for this forgetfulness bug and all you need to upgrade your operating system is a pen and a piece of paper.
The ability to remember things is required all throughout life, from students needing to memorise curriculum content for their end of year exams to parents trying to juggle appointments in their jobs and home lives – not to mention remembering children's schedules.
With so much going on with our busy lives it's no wonder that we forget things! Sadly the problem gets worse as we get older due to loss of episodic memory - the declining ability to retain new information as we age.
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We once believed that tying a piece of string around your finger would help you to remember something more easily, but new research suggests that the best way to remember something is actually to draw it. The study, published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, took 48 volunteers, half aged around 20 and half of them aged around 80. They asked the volunteers to go through a series of exercises where they were shown different words. They were then told to either write out the word, write out some of the physical attributes that the word suggested or to draw a picture of what the word represented. The volunteers were then given a break and then brought back in to a room and asked to remember as many of the words from the exercise as they could. The younger volunteers were better able to recall the words than the older volunteers which was expected. More interestingly, however, in both age groups the volunteers that had drawn representations of their words remembered more of them than those who had just written the words.
This study builds on previous research into 'dual-coding', which is the name given to the concept that both thinking about an object and drawing a picture of it can help us to better remember it.
Scientists believe that drawing an object helps retention it as it involves different parts of the brain. When you draw a picture you use the visual, verbal and spatial parts of the brain to imagine the item, in addition to the motoric part of the brain during the act of physically drawing the object. This combination of imagining the object - then translating it in your brain to be able to draw it with your hand - seems to boost the part of your brain that learns by doing helping to store the memory long term.
The drawing method seemed to work just as well for older volunteers as for younger ones. This may be due to the visuo-spatial processing region of the brain - used to represent images - tending to stay more intact in the ageing brain compared to the hippocampus and frontal lobes, used for memory encoding and retrieval, and prone to deterioration with age. The results from the study could go on to be used to help research on patients with dementia who can experience rapid declines in memory function.
The great news from the research is that you don't need a degree in art for this method to work - memory boosts were seen even when only quick sketches taking four seconds to draw were used.
So the next time that you need to remember something important, bring out your creative flair and draw it, your brain might thank you for it.
Dr Michelle Dickinson, creator of Nanogirl, is a nanotechnologist who is passionate about getting Kiwis hooked on science and engineering. Tweet her your science questions @medickinson