Whether you are retaking the test or starting to study for the GMAT exam for the first time, you need to be smart about your studies. I am not talking about how you organize your study schedule, how much you should read in your free time, or the quality of materials that you should use for your preparation. I am talking about making your mind stronger.
Brain science is progressing rapidly, and we are gaining insights into brain functions that will help us be better students. Specifically, there are certain things that we can all do to improve our memory, regardless of age or history. What follows is a simplified look at how memory works followed by steps that will improve your memory and mental prowess.
How Does Memory Work
Forming a memory is a three stage process:
The first stage of the process involves paying attention to the thing that you want to remember, whether it be a name, a math formula, or an idiom. This usually involves reading, listening, or saying the thing out loud. All of this kickstarts the process. Also, this is the stage where so many memories are not made. There are so many things to pay attention to that our minds are very good at ignoring stuff.
The next step involves actually creating the pathway for the memory. You can imagine this as a stenographer recording events in a courtroom. People say things and do things, and the stenographer records them. So once the senses take in the stimulus the mind creates a pathway for that memory.
This is the actual process of remembering. At some point, to make a memory, we have to first recall it. If your mind goes through the first two steps, and you skip the last one, the memory really doesn’t become a memory. By working to retrieve a memory, to actually try to remember, we form that memory and reinforce it. The more that we retrieve that memory, the stronger the pathways for that memory become, and the easier it is for us to remember.
For a fun and educational look at memory, take a gander of this YouTube video.
Support Memory Making
Now that we have a handle on how memory functions, let’s see what we can do to facilitate remembering. Each of the recommendations below facilitates at least one stage of the memory forming process and are easy to incorporate into your GMAT prep.
Western science has long doubted the benefits of meditation. But as technology advances and we are able to more precisely measure the brain overtime, we start to see that meditation can have profound and lasting effects on our plastic brains.
For one, scientists have seen that meditation, focus on breath, and mindfulness can actually build brain tissue over a period of time, specifically in regions of the brain, like the hippocampus, which are directly involved with short-term and long-term memory. Also, cultivating mindfulness means that you are training your mind to be a better encoder of events that happen. You’ll be able to focus more intently on what you need or want to learn.
Merely sitting quietly, eyes closed, focusing on the inhale and exhale of breath for a mere 15 minutes a day can have profound effects not only on your ability to remember, but also on your general happiness and well being. All important to GMAT domination.
A recent study showed that caffeine facilitated the consolidation phase of memory formation. In the study, scientists showed participants different images. Afterwards, some of the participants were given caffeine and some were not. Twenty-four hours later, the people who received caffeine were better able to remember the images they saw. Thus caffeine played some role in helping those people remember the images.
Now I don’t recommend that you drink liters of coffee with tons of cream and sugar, but a healthy and balanced regime of caffeine in the form of black coffee or black tea can help you to remember what you are studying.
Exercising regularly is absolutely beneficial in many facets of your life. Energizing your body, raising your heart rate, and delivering oxygen-rich blood to the organs of your body is going to have a huge benefit on your happiness, attitude, sleep, and ability to form memories.
Dr. John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School wrote Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (2008) showing that “exercise … stimulates brain regions that are involved in memory function to release a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF rewires memory circuits so they work better.” Basically, when a person exercises, more brain cells are used, which in turns stimulates the production of BDNF and increases memory function.
Sleep is a crucial part of consolidating memories. There is much about sleep that we still don’t understand, but more and more we are seeing why getting the right amount of sleep is important for brain healthy and memory. During sleep, the brain actually repeats nerve-signaling patterns from the day, which helps to encode and consolidate memories from the day. Think how beneficial this could be after reviewing GMAT sample questions!
It is vital that you are getting seven to eight hours of sleep during your studies. Do not stay up late studying. Make sure that you are getting to bed early and are rising early. All these patterns have been shown to benefit our brain health, and if you want to dominate the GMAT, you best rest up.
Eat Parsley, Berries, Dark Chocolate, and Citrus
This is my favorite recommendation for increasing brain function and memory creation. You just have to eat! By consuming a moderate amount of parsley, berries, dark chocolate, and citrus, you take in a chemical that will help you to learn—flavonoids. This chemical is in each of these food items, and each food item has been shown to increase blood flow to the brain and aid in memory and learning.
Flavonoids are thought to increase the ability for neurons to speak to each other, which is an important part of encoding. Further, molecular changes may take place that allow for the creation of new neurons, thus reversing any neural deterioration that may have taken place.
A small note: eating these things is beneficial, but only in their freshest form. Avoid highly processed versions of these foods with lots of additives. Also be wary of your sugar intake because that can easily negate any benefit you may receive from the flavonoids.
The final and perhaps the most important step towards improving memory is space repetition. This is not a complex concept. It means exactly what you think—learn something, take a break, and try to remember what you learned later. Returning to a concept recalibrates the forgetting curve. And the more that time passes, the less you have to return to the concept.
The final stage of building a memory is that act of remembering. We must be prompted to retrieve a memory to make a memory. Thus spaced repetition should be a crucial part of every study plan.
To improve your cognitive abilities, remember more, increase well-being, and dominate the GMAT, take the steps that I have recommended. Remembering something does not have to be tantamount to the voodoo arts or soothsaying. These strategies time and again show themselves to be effective tools for improving memory and cognitive function. Take the extra step to make your preparation easier. Happy studying and happy living!
This blog post originally appeared on the Magoosh GMAT blog.