Study: Forget a Word? Make a Fist


Story at-a-glance -

  • According to new research, clenching your fist may temporarily change the way your brain functions in a way that boosts your memory
  • Remarkably, those who clenched a ball in their right hand before memorization and in their left hand before recall boosted their memory scores by 15 percent compared to a control group
  • This memory trick works because making a fist can increase activity in your brain on the opposite side (so if you clench your right fist, activity in the left brain hemisphere increases)
  • Simple lifestyle strategies, including exercise, proper sleep and eating right, also work to boost and protect your memory and overall brain health

By Dr. Mercola

The simple body movement of clenching your fist may temporarily change the way your brain functions by boosting your memory, according to new research.

This trick works because making a fist can increase activity in your brain on the opposite side (so if you clench your right fist, activity in the left brain hemisphere increases).

If you're right-handed, the left side of your brain encodes information while the right side helps you retrieve memories, while the opposite is true for left-handed people. Interestingly, researchers were able to show that by strategically clenching their fists, people were able to improve their memories significantly.

Fist-Clenching for Memory Improvement

In the study, 50 right-handed students were asked to remember a list of words. Those who clenched a ball in their right hand before memorization and in their left hand before recall boosted their memory scores by 15 percent compared to a control group.1

If you're right-handed and you wanted to try this, you would make a fist with your right hand when you need to remember something, like a name or phone number. Then when you need to recall it, clench your left fist.

This trick has also been found to trigger emotions, with right-hand clenching leading to "approach" emotions controlled by the left brain, such as happiness and anger, and left-hand clenching leading to "withdrawal" emotions like sadness and anxiety.2

'Brain Farts' Versus True Memory Loss: What's the Difference?

If you've reached middle age or beyond, you may have noticed that your memory is not as quick as it used to be. So-called "senior moments" happen to all of us… even those who are far from reaching their golden years. You forget where you parked your car, misplace your keys, forget the name of someone you met last week -- all of these scenarios are part of life, and they're completely normal.

Meanwhile, brain farts, or as neuroscientists call them "maladaptive brain activity changes," are those "oops" moments when you make a really obvious mistake. These occur because your brain perceives many of your daily tasks as patterns, and may revert to its default mode network (DMN), the part of your brain responsible for your inward-focused thinking, such as daydreaming, during this time.

This can be a problem as the DMN competes, in a sense, with other areas of your brain for resources, and in order for you to carry out a task that requires focused attention, your brain must inhibit the DMN.

So if your brain takes a "time out" during a task that requires your full attention, a brain fart, such as sending an important email to the wrong person, is likely to occur. Fortunately, DMN blips are typically short-lived, and once you realize you've made an error your brain will likely kick into overdrive to try and correct the mistake.

On the other hand, changes in your memory function could be a sign that your brain is on a gradual decline -- and it's time for you to take action to protect and restore your cognitive function. How can you tell the difference?

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Even Mild Memory Loss Is a Sign to Take Control of Your Health

Your brain should not feel foggy all the time, nor should you be experiencing episodes of forgetfulness that are so severe they interfere with your ability to function normally. Even very mild memory loss appears to be linked to the presence of the same type of damage seen in more serious cases of cognitive decline.

These mild changes in your cognitive function -- once thought to be a "normal" sign of aging -- is actually one of the first signs of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease.3 So if you notice that your mind is not as sharp as it used to be, don't ignore it -- take action to help reverse, or at least minimize, further damage.

Do You Want to Give Your Memory a Boost? 5 Important Tips

Clenching your fists may work temporarily to give your memory a quick boost, but what about longer-term strategies to boost your memory and brain health? Embracing the strategies that follow may give a hearty boost to your brainpower, help keep you mentally healthy and ultimately even make you smarter.

1. Exercise

Exercise encourages your brain to work at optimum capacity by stimulating nerve cells to multiply, strengthening their interconnections and protecting them from damage. During exercise nerve cells release proteins known as neurotrophic factors. One in particular, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), triggers numerous other chemicals that promote neural health, and directly benefits cognitive functions, including learning.

A 2010 study on primates published in Neuroscience4 also revealed that regular exercise not only improved blood flow to the brain, but also helped the monkeys learn new tasks twice as quickly as non-exercising monkeys, a benefit the researchers believe would hold true for people as well. To get the most out of your workouts, I recommend a comprehensive program that includes Peak Fitness high-intensity exercise, strength training, stretching and core work.

2. Vitamin B12

Mental fogginess and problems with memory are two of the top warning signs that you have vitamin B12 deficiency. Vitamin B12, or rather a lack thereof, has been called the "canary in the cobalamine" for your future brain health, and recent research has bolstered the importance of this vitamin in keeping your mind sharp as you age.

According to the latest research, people with high levels of markers for vitamin B12 deficiency were more likely to score lower on cognitive tests, as well as have a smaller total brain volume,5 which suggests a lack of the vitamin may contribute to brain shrinkage.

Vitamin B12 is available in its natural form only in animal food sources. These include seafood, beef, chicken, pork, milk, and eggs. If you don't consume enough of these animal products (and I don't recommend consuming seafood unless you know it is from a pure water source) to get an adequate supply of B12, or if your body's ability to absorb the vitamin from food is compromised, vitamin B12 supplementation is completely non-toxic and inexpensive, especially when compared to the cost of laboratory testing. I recommend an under-the-tongue fine mist spray, as this technology helps you absorb the vitamin into the fine capillaries under your tongue.

3. Animal-Based Omega-3 Fats

Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, an omega-3 fat, is an essential structural component of both your brain and retina. Minus the water content, approximately 60 percent of your brain is composed of fats—25 percent of which is DHA. DHA is found in high levels in your neurons -- the cells of your central nervous system, where it provides structural support. When your omega-3 intake is inadequate, your nerve cells become stiff and more prone to inflammation as the missing omega-3 fats are substituted with cholesterol and omega-6 instead. Once your nerve cells become rigid and inflamed, proper neurotransmission from cell to cell and within cells become compromised.

Exciting research is showing that degenerative conditions can not only be prevented but also potentially reversed with omega-3 fats. For example, in one study, 485 elderly volunteers suffering from memory deficits saw significant improvement after taking 900 mg of DHA per day for 24 weeks, compared with controls.6

Omega-3 fats such as DHA are considered essential because your body cannot produce it, and therefore must get it from your diet. DHA-rich foods include fish, liver, and brain—all of which are no longer consumed in great amounts by most Americans. To compensate for our inherently low omega-3 diet, a high quality animal-based omega-3 supplement is something that I recommend for virtually everyone, especially if you're pregnant. I prefer krill oil compared to all other animal-based omega-3s because krill oil is absorbed up to 10-15 times as well as fish oil, due to its molecular composition, and is less prone to oxidation (rancidity) because it is naturally complexed with the potent fat-soluble antioxidant astaxanthin.

4. Proper Sleep

The process of growth, known as plasticity, is believed to underlie the brain's capacity to control behavior, including learning and memory. Plasticity occurs when neurons are stimulated by events, or information, from the environment. However, sleep and sleep loss modify the expression of several genes and gene products that may be important for synaptic plasticity. Furthermore, certain forms of long-term potentiation, a neural process associated with the laying down of learning and memory, can be elicited in sleep, suggesting synaptic connections are strengthened while you slumber.

Research from Harvard indicates that people are 33 percent more likely to infer connections among distantly related ideas after sleeping, but few realize that their performance has actually improved. Sleep is also known to enhance your memories and help you "practice" and improve your performance of challenging skills. In fact, a single night of sleeping only four to six hours can impact your ability to think clearly the next day. If you want a quick brain boost, a mid-day nap has been found to dramatically boost and restore brainpower among adults.7 You can also find 33 tips to help you get the shut-eye you need here.

5. Optimize Your Vitamin D Levels

Activated vitamin D receptors increase nerve growth in your brain, and researchers have also located metabolic pathways for vitamin D in the hippocampus and cerebellum of the brain, areas that are involved in planning, processing of information, and the formation of new memories. In older adults, research has shown that low vitamin D levels are associated with poorer brain function, and increasing levels may help keep older adults mentally fit.8

Appropriate sun exposure is all it takes to keep your levels where they need to be for healthy brain function. If this is not an option, a safe tanning bed is the next best alternative, followed by a vitamin D3 supplement. It now appears as though most adults need about 8,000 IU's of vitamin D a day in order to get their serum levels above 40 ng/ml, which is the lowest they should be. Ideally, your serum levels should be between 50-70 ng/ml, and up to 100 ng/ml to treat cancer and heart disease. However, it's important to realize that there's no magic dosage when it comes to vitamin D. What's important is your serum level, so you need to get your vitamin D levels tested to make sure you're staying within the optimal and therapeutic ranges as indicated below.

vitamin d levels

Too Much Sugar Is Also Detrimental to Your Brain Health…

No discussion of brain health would be complete without discussing the importance of a proper, healthful diet, and with that comes careful attention to limiting your intake of fructose and other sugars.

A UCLA study published last year was the first to show how a steady diet high in fructose can damage your memory and learning.9 Rats fed fructose syrup showed significant impairment in their cognitive abilities—they struggled to remember their way out of a maze. They were slower, and their brains showed a decline in synaptic activity. Their brain cells had trouble signaling each other, disrupting the rats' ability to think clearly and recall the route they'd learned six weeks earlier.

Researchers concluded that a high-fructose diet harms your brain, as well as the rest of your body. So if you want to ensure your memory stays sharp as you age, learning the fist-clenching trick is a novel option. But in the long run, making sure you're eating a healthful diet is the key to stellar brain health. In terms of fructose, you'll want to limit your intake to 25 grams per day (or less), and 15 grams or less if you are overweight or have diabetes, pre-diabetes, high cholesterol or high blood pressure.