Remembering and forgetting pervade and enable everything we do. Without this involuntary capability we wouldn’t know who we are or what to do next. But our memory is notoriously inaccurate, incomplete and fallible. Some recollections last a few seconds; others last a lifetime. Our brains just aren’t built to remember a lot of important stuff from the past or what we want to do in the future. Moreover, what we do remember probably didn’t happen the way we believe it did.
Making memories changes the brain as it transforms from not knowing to knowing. Although the capacity of our memory is almost limitless, our brains remember only what is meaningful and ignores the rest. In part, this is because we were never taught how to retain what our senses take in. Like everything else in life, the ability to remember is a skill. And we can recall more and forget less when we better understand how the brain works. It encodes information and integrates it with existing experiences, stores these new patterns in bio-chemical ways and retrieves them when related thoughts are triggered.
There is no memory bank. The recollections we keep are consolidated in the hippocampus and are then retained elsewhere in different parts of the brain. Visual information, for example, is stored in the occipital cortex. Finding our memories is like a scavenger hunt – we don’t press the replay button on the sights, sounds and feelings of our initial sensations, we reconstruct them in the context of how we are feeling in the moment and what we want to believe occurred. That’s why our memories are mostly wrong.
Memory can be significantly improved by paying deliberate attention to the experience as it happens. But we rarely pay attention to what we’re doing, especially with mundane, routine, every-day experiences like where we placed our keys. Many of us, for example, have difficulty recalling names, even of those we want to remember. But the brain is ill-equipped to remember what isn’t connected to meaningful clues.
We only pay attention to what we find relevant, interesting, surprising, emotional or consequential. We forget the rest. The hippocampus can’t process what it doesn’t know. The brain’s default setting is inattentiveness, or what is sometimes called autopilot. Paying attention to something requires concentrated effort. Memories that stick are associated with multiple cues. This requires the use of all the senses such that we “feel” the experience in the moment it happens.
We have different types of memory. Our working (or short-term) memory is like a scratchpad with disappearing ink. For most adults, it lasts about 15 to 30 seconds and, without training, it gets shorter as we age. Research suggests we can only hold about (albeit probably less than) seven pieces of data in our short-term memories, although memory enhancing tricks like chunking and repetition can enable us to secure it a bit longer. Our long-term memory is what we retrieve when the information is required.
Semantic memory is our accumulated knowledge (where we place significant facts and figures). Prospective memory is our to-do list: what we want to remember to do in the future. Episodic memory is what actually happened to us during our past. This history of enculturation is our identity – we save the memories that feed our temperament and our sense of being. For example, optimists pay attention to their positive experiences; pessimists alternatively focus on, therefore remember, the negatives.
Our episodic memory in particular is incredibly faulty – full of distortions, confabulations, biases and omissions. Our brain wants us to be happy so it makes up a lot of self-enhancing thoughts. We only remember slices of what actually happened because our brain is a creative editor, always revising, updating and overwriting. Plus, time inevitably takes its toll; left alone, our memories decay much like fading photographs. Since frequent retrieval of stored information strengthens neural pathways, should you want to remember the specifics of a cherished experience quiz yourself from time to time on those details. Or keep a journal.
Knowing how to do things, like driving a car or tying your shoes, is curiously referred to as our “muscle memory” – a misnomer because muscles have nothing to do with what we remember. It’s a euphemism because ‘doing things’ is largely about our motor skills. And this type of memory resides in the basal ganglia, not dispersed among the four cortexes of the reasoning brain. While aging doesn’t degrade semantic knowledge or muscle memory, it does affect our working and episodic memories. Our intake and retrieval speeds begin diminishing in our thirties, as does our ability to focus and sustain attention. That said, you can improve your cognitive reserve, which includes your memory, through proper diet, exercise and learning (topics I examine in depth).
By conscientiously doing the right things, our memory is unlimited in its potential. Good sleep patterns, for example, can enhance memory consolidation by 20-40%. They not only reactivate our experiences but also drain away the amyloid plaques and metabolic debris which erode our ability to recall. Multitasking is a memory thief – our attention span is improved when we minimize distractions (like smart phones). Repetition is a memory enabler. If you tend to forget names, repeat them when you first hear them: “Nice to meet you, Jessica.”
Meaning enhances memory. So, wrap yours in stories you care about. Ask yourself, “why is this important?” The brain is an associative machine. When you want to remember what normally escapes you, park it in places you’re familiar with. If you tend to leave your grocery list at home, mentally connect each item to a room in your house. Alternatively, visualize what you want to recall – the brain loves and remembers pictures (40% of our cortical real estate is devoted to visual processing). Looking at a Google map to get to an unknown destination is far more effective than trying to drive there with hand-written instructions beside you.
Associate what you want to remember by creating visual images of it. Make it something you can see in your mind’s eye: write it out in CAPS, highlight it with a pink marker, circle it or doodle it. Put it in a location you can’t miss when it’s needed – our memories are better when we’re in the same place where they were formed. Augment your memory with technology – use search engines and the memory anchor functions on programs like Outlook. Make to-do lists and schedule appointments with yourself as well as others. Create auditory mnemonic cues (like the sentence we were taught in school to remember the order of the planets). To recall important facts, keep reactivating them – self-testing strengthens memories.
Forgetting happens. It’s normal at every age. Stressing about it makes it happen more. And forgetting unnecessary, irrelevant, inconsequential or painful details can facilitate better memories. While our brains have enormous storage capacity, freeing up space for what really matters (i.e., what we do want to remember) is vital to our well-being. Subtract the superfluous to make room for the meaningful. The ability to forget can be just as important as our ability to remember.