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The brain is an extraordinary organ with many wonderful qualities, including the ability to forget—which may actually be a good thing. “If we remembered everything we’ve experienced, our brains would be treasure troves, jammed with all sorts of useless nonsense that gets in the way of what we really need,” says Charan Ranganathprofessor of psychology and director of Dynamic Memory Lab at the University of California, Davis.
In today’s always-on, always-on world, people are faced with a barrage of information—emails, news, pointless meetings, traffic updates, chats from family members—much more than anyone can process, Ranganath explains. “Instead, evolution favored quality over quantity,” he says. “We get good quality memories of the things we pay attention to, and those are often the important things. But if we don’t pay attention to something, we’ll never remember it well.”
These memory problems often arise at the most inconvenient times: when you’re in a hurry and can’t find your keys, when you walk into a room and don’t know what you came for, when you’re talking to an acquaintance whose name escapes you, when a friend mentions a good time that you have shared and have no memory. This kind of forgetting is perfectly normal, Ranganath says, but it’s frustrating nonetheless. (Other, more severe conditions can cause memory loss and disruptions in memory recall, such as trauma, Alzheimer’sand ADHD. Coping strategies for these disorders may include therapy and medication more intensive than the advice described here.)
All in all though, hope is not lost if your download is a little rusty. Memory is an active process, not a passive one, says the clinical neuropsychologist Michelle Brown. “Which kind of undermines the long-standing myth that brain health is just a product of genetics and there’s really nothing we can do about it,” she says. Paying a little extra attention and enjoying special events can help you remember life’s moments, big and small.
Start paying your undivided attention to important events and interactions
The responsibilities of modern life mean there are more priorities than ever vying for your attention. How many times have you walked away from a conversation with no idea what was being discussed because you were distracted by your phone? “You can get impoverished memories of past events because you’ve never actually been there,” says Ranganath.
Distraction is one of the researchers of memory Daniel Schacter‘with’seven sins of memory”, common memory lapses that everyone experiences. It’s when you don’t pay attention to where you left your keys or are so distracted that you miss an important doctor’s appointment. “If we’re multitasking, for example, we may never encode the information about where I just left my keys or my glasses,” says Schacter, a professor of psychology at Harvard University.
Another method to help you pay more attention to the tasks at hand is what Brown calls the PLR technique: pause, link, and repeat. This can help you both remember someone’s name and why you entered the room. If you’re hiding a present for your child’s birthday, but you’re afraid you won’t remember where you put it, take five seconds to pause and focus on where you’re putting the present instead of “just putting it down and look away and I’m doing something else,” Brown says. Then look at the environment – this is the “connection” step – and contextualize where you’ve hidden the present with its environment: in your closet, next to the shoe bin. The final step is to rehearse the process of extracting the present. Look away from the hiding place and visualize in your mind where the present is.
Use technology to your advantage, Ranganath and Schacter agree: Put appointments on your phone’s calendar (be specific about who you’re meeting, where, and why) and make sure alarms are turned on, set reminders, and take photos of events. to refer them to later. “Go back to those pictures,” says Ranganath. Don’t just take a photo and let it sit forever in your camera roll. “Anything you can do to revisit unique moments will bring back all sorts of other things.” (Schacter is not convinced technology is bad for our memory like some experts suggest. “I don’t think there’s a lot of compelling evidence on that,” he says.)
Make even everyday moments unforgettable
Events that occur during heightened emotional states — fear, joy, anxiety, excitement, sadness — are more memorable. That’s why you remember your wedding day and maybe not your tenth date. To remember more mundane things—where you keep a pair of dress shoes you wear once a year, a name, an item you need to pick up at the store—make those things extraordinary, says the five-time American memory champion and memory coach Nelson Delis. “I made my life more memorable,” he says. After his grandmother died of Alzheimer’s in 2009, Delis began researching ways to improve his own memory. Two years later, he won his first US Memory Championship—a competitive event consisting of memorization challenges—thanks to memory-boosting exercises.
Delis assigns vivid images to anything he tries to remember, be it a number or an address. Maybe if you don’t want to forget to pick up cheese from the grocery store, imagine a giant, incredibly smelly lump of stale. Delis will sometimes pinch himself or say a unique mantra when he puts his keys down to remind himself of the strange thing he just did. Or say you meet someone named Steve at a party and he’s wearing a shirt with monkeys on it. You can imagine him wearing a full monkey suit. “Anything you can over-exaggerate,” says Delis, “like if it smells weird, maybe you can imagine it smells even worse, or if it’s something that’s a normal size, imagine that it is huge.’
Spend time at the end of each day reflecting on what you want to remember
Another one of Schacter’s seven sins of memory is transience, which refers to forgetting over time. For example, the more time passes after watching a movie, the more details you will forget. But if you study or think about things you want to remember, those memories are more likely to be reinforced, Schacter says. Again, looking at images or videos you took of a particularly enjoyable dinner with friends is a way to better remember those events. Or instead of taking pictures, commit the scene to your memory by journaling.
Delis recommends spending five minutes before bed to recall what happened that day. Did you see a beautiful sunset? Did your child have a funny answer to a simple question? Did you eat something delicious? Repeat small but wonderful events that you would like to enjoy. “The more you do this, over time you realize that you’ll actually be able to remember more details of your life,” Delis says.
Be proactive and don’t forget
It can be hard to predict what you will forget in the future. But having an idea of what your memory deficiencies are can help you retain these important items in your memory. If you sign up for a free trial and know you tend to forget to cancel it before you’re billed for the rest of the year, setting a reminder on your phone to let you know to cancel it isn’t too tech-savvy. it’s knowing your blind spots. This is what Schacter calls good metacognition, “a good idea of how your memory works,” he says. “Aware of the fact that your memory may fail in the future, even though it seems clear as day right now that you should be able to remember this, but you know that in a year’s time, looking ahead, you may not do it.’
Maybe remembering names is one of your memory’s weaknesses—a “sin” that Schacter calls blocking (where the information you want is on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t access it). Before attending a wedding or your child’s basketball game, try reciting the names of the people who usually attend those events, Shakter says. This exercise shouldn’t be more than a few minutes of refreshment – maybe jump from Instagram to one social link to another. “With blocking,” he says, “you really have to get ahead of it, because by the time it happens, it’s too late.”
Even if you consider yourself a forgetful person, memory is a skill that can be practiced and strengthened, Delis says. Before participating in memory competitions, Delis never thought of himself as having an exceptional memory. Test yourself, he says, by assigning vivid and unique images to groceries and try shopping without a list. Tell yourself you’ll remember 10 new names at a worldly event.
“It’s very easy to say, ‘I’m just the person with a bad memory,'” says Delis. “When you start to change that narrative and start to realize that our memories are really more amazing than most people think…it just snowballs and makes your memory even more powerful.”
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