|My memory consists of 70 percent lines from Rocky and Bullwinkle episodes and 30 percent embarrassing moments. Why? I have no idea. Often, memory seems to make no sense.
But here’s the thing: a lot of what we think we know about how memory works is wrong. First off, it’s not a perfect video recording of what happened. Memories are a lot more like Legos, assembled and reassembled each time, and rarely in the same way twice.
And memory isn’t even one system. It’s a collection of different systems in your brain: episodic, semantic, procedural, working, sensory, etc. This is why you can maintain a memory in one type despite losing it in the other. (I doubt you have any problems tying your shoes — procedural memory — but you may find it impossible to recollect the moment you learned to tie your shoes — episodic memory.)
No, your memory is never going to be perfect. (Having a photographic – “eidetic” — memory is almost unheard of in adults, though it’s not uncommon in children.) But we can all improve our memories.
We’re going to cover a lot of different techniques here but don’t worry; I’ll give you mnemonics to help remember them. This way we can prevent any unintended irony.
Andrew E. Budson is a professor of neurology at the Boston University School of Medicine and Elizabeth Kensinger is the chair of the department of psychology and neuroscience at Boston College. Their new book is “Why We Forget and How To Remember Better: The Science Behind Memory.”
Bite into that madeleine cake. Let’s get to it…
Reminder: Your Brain Is Part Of Your Body
Yeah, shocking. But it matters. The things that improve your physical health improve your brain’s health — like exercise. You might refer to the treadmill as the “dreadmill” but spending a little more time on it can help. Exercise increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a hormone that increases hippocampal volume and improves your memory. (In fact, a vigorous exercise regimen in midlife might delay dementia onset by a decade.)
Of course, nutrition matters too. Variations on the Mediterranean diet have been shown to have positive effects on the performance of your mental hard drive. And take it easy with the booze. Or even better, eliminate it altogether. And get some sunshine. Low levels of vitamin D double your chance of Alzheimer’s.
BAH, BAH, BAH. “Exercise and eating right are good.” Get to the fancy brain stuff.
Okay, I hear you. But there’s one more thing that’s a big deal when it comes to fundamentals: sleep. It matters. A lot. Sleep is when a lot of the hard work of memory consolidation gets done. Don’t deprive yourself. (And sleeping poorly may increase the chance of Alzheimer’s too.)
Sleep is one of the reasons why “cramming” doesn’t help students learn over the long haul. Spacing out your learning does work. Why? You need some sleep in there to really retain stuff.
Okay, enough basics. You try to learn something but your brain immediately blows it out the airlock. How do we get memories to stick?
Yes, yes, Sherlock Holmes used a “memory palace” on TV and it was really cool. That technique is real but, it is, as they say: a lot of frickin’ work. We’re gonna concentrate on stuff you’ll actually use.
There are four techniques for better encoding your memories, so remember the acronym FOUR:
- Understand and relate
- Recruit multiple systems
What’s the primary reason you forget? Because you weren’t paying attention in the first place. Focus is key. When trying to make a deposit in your memory bank, don’t multitask and avoid distractions.
Beyond that, get motivated. If your brain is surrounded by a moat of indifference, there’s a lot less chance that anything going in will ever come out. The mere intention to remember things matters. When students tell themselves “This is going to be on the exam”, they’re more likely to retain it. The reverse is true as well – when you tell people “This isn’t important” it makes them less likely to remember it.
Giving structure and meaning to information provides scaffolding for memory. This is why remembering lists of numbers is hard – it’s totally abstract. Memory works off patterns so create patterns to remember better.
This is why mnemonics (like FOUR) are helpful. I’m not a doctor, but if you tell me your symptoms I know the first steps to do a differential diagnosis. How? Because I remember the word VINDICATE: Vascular, Infection, Neoplasm, Drugs, Idiopathic, Congenital, Autoimmune, Traumatic, Endocrine. (Please don’t email me with your health issues. I don’t accept your insurance.)
Creating visual images works too. The more silly and wacky, the better because your brain remembers things that are distinctive. If you’re trying to remember that the word “jentacular” means “relating to breakfast”, imagine your friend Jen tacking you to an enormous bowl of cereal. Or, if you’re of the musical type, take the information and create a catchy jingle that will mentally plague you for the rest of your life.
Understand And Relate
Don’t just treat information like random facts. Try to understand it. Often, we don’t encode stuff well because our efforts are undercooked. More effort means more remembering.
Distill ideas to fundamental principles. Write a summary. Explain it to someone else. Or if you’re really nuts, write long blog posts about them and share those with the world. Work with the information so much that it leaves cognitive stretch marks.
Along similar lines, make information relatable. Again, abstract is no good. We remember important things so find a way to relate it to you or your life. Connect it to prior knowledge.
Recruit Multiple Systems
The reason you can’t remember where your car is in the parking structure or what you ate for lunch last Thursday is because those things happen often and they’re not distinctive. You do remember great meals – or ones that made you sick. So notice details that make these everyday moments unique if you want to be able to pull them out of your mental landfill later.
If those details are emotional, all the better, because emotion tags memories better than almost anything. (This is why you can’t remember facts you learned in school, but you easily remember embarrassing moments from school.)
A good way to make things distinctive is by leveraging multiple memory systems. Rather than merely trying to recollect where you put your keys (episodic memory), always put your keys in the same place (procedural memory). Or say “I’m putting my keys on the dresser” to engage semantic memory.
Okay, we got the memories in – how do we get them out?
To recall, use RAMS:
- Minimize Interference
Merely telling people that their memory is being tested stresses them out and they perform worse. Anxiety helps encoding but usually hurts recall.
So when trying to remember, relax and give it a moment. We all get stuff stuck on the tip of our tongue. (If you’re hearing impaired and use sign language, it gets stuck on your fingertips.)
If your memory is a repeat offender, don’t be afraid to take notes. Memory aids are a positive. Be deliberate and consistent about outsourcing memory. Develop a routine around this and it can work wonders. You have a notes app on your phone. Use it.
Do not run through all the possible answers in your head. This leads to something memory researchers call “interference and blocking.” You get stuck on those wrong answers.
Instead, think around the subject. When your brain is doing its internal Google search, try using related search terms. When we leverage general and diverse retrieval cues, we do better. When trying to remember someone’s name, ask yourself: Where did I last see this person? Who else knows them? What did we talk about last time I saw them? What else do I know about them?
Memories are strongly associated with the context you learned them in. When facing Ambien level of amnesia, mentally return to the situation where you learned something — both internal and external. Imagine the layout of the book you read or the notes you took. Think about how you felt at the time of encoding.
Similarly, research shows people remember better when the test happens in the same place and under same conditions as studying did. Try to acquire information in the same way you will need to retrieve it. Reading a book about jiu-jitsu techniques won’t produce the same effect as performing the technique on the mat.
Okay, time to address the big, scary issue. You’ve been forgetting things lately. Is it normal aging or a sign of dementia trying to reformat your hard drive?
Normal Aging Or Alzheimer’s?
Is it harder to briefly keep a fact or number in your head as you’re working with it? Does it take more effort to get something into long term storage? To retrieve it? Do you have trouble with names? Are your memories less reliable and sometimes inaccurate?
Well, then don’t worry because these are all normal as you age, especially after 60. Sorry, the mental warranty is up. But the techniques above (and a little effort) can help.
But what’s dementia look like? The most common symptom of Alzheimer’s is rapid forgetting. New information just vanishes or is difficult to recall while older facts remain. This happens to everyone occasionally but if it happens a lot, that’s a concern. Also, with dementia, word finding becomes difficult even for ordinary nouns. (If you can’t remember the dog’s name, that’s normal. If you can’t remember the word “dog”, that’s a problem.)
How do we reduce the chance of getting dementia? No, brain games don’t help. But spending time with friends and loved ones does. And reduce those negative social interactions as much as you can.
Too much TV and social media is not a good thing. But seeking out rich, novel experiences is a positive. So keep learning new, interesting stuff. “Use it or lose it” is true. And don’t sweat normal age-related memory issues too much. People with positive views of aging show 30% less decline in cognitive performance.
Alrighty, we covered a lot. Let’s round it all up – and learn the upside of an aging brain…
Here’s how to make your memory stronger:
- Your Brain Is Part Of Your Body: Take care of your body to take care of your brain. Most important: get your sleep.
- Encode: Remember the acronym, FOUR: Focus, Organize, Understand and Relate, Recruit Multiple Systems.
- Recall: Remember the acronym, RAMS: Relaxed, Aids To Memory, Minimize Interference, Situation.
- Normal Aging Or Alzheimer’s?: Memory worsens with age. Most problems are normal. If you are rapidly forgetting things – it just happened and it feels like it never occurred – that’s an issue. This happens to everyone occasionally but if you’re full-on Dory from “Finding Nemo,” see a doctor.
So what’s the upside to an aging brain?
Older brains aren’t as good at remembering details but they’re very good at recalling the gist of things. So as you get up there in years, you can actually be better at “seeing the forest for the trees.” Just like when it’s difficult to find something on your computer because there are too many files, having too many details can make getting to what’s relevant harder. Older brains can also be better at seeing commonalities between situations and discerning what’s key.
We’re always complaining about our inability to remember things. When I think of my imperfect memory, I’m often thankful. To let things go and forget, rather than taking another ride on the Satan’s Merry Go Round of lousy memories.
We don’t fully grasp the human mind but, as Emerson Pugh said, “If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.” But, in a way, what our brains choose to remember can teach us a few things about what’s important in life. We remember what is distinctive, organized, and useful. We remember what we work hard at. And, perhaps most of all, we remember emotion.
You’ve learned how to encode. You’ve learned how to recall.
Now go do some things worth remembering.