It may not feel like it when you can’t find your phone or “lose” your sunglasses sitting atop your head, but your memory is an amazing ability — and one we fiercely want to protect. So it’s little wonder that any blips or blank spaces can send us spiraling into concern.
Some recall issues here and there are normal, says neuroscientist and author Lisa Genova, and not every lapse means looming problems. (And don’t worry, forgetting names is a surprisingly easy thing for our brains to do!) But, Genova says that there are ways that we can improve our memory, can increase resilience and recall, and be more comfortable with ourselves and our minds.
Tactics to improve your memory include making lists, getting Google’s help, giving yourself pop quizzes, meditating, and simply paying more attention to things.
LISA GENOVA: People are worried about their memory. If you're forgetting to show up for your four o'clock meeting, or you forgot the actor who played Tony Soprano in the HBO series 'The Sopranos.' "Can't remember that guy's name, what is it?" A lot of us tend to blame ourselves. This absent-mindedness is a sign of mental weakness, or a failing memory, or a lack of character, but 99% of forgetting that happens to all of us, is normal. So there are things that we can do to be less afraid, less panicked, to have a better relationship with our memory today- because forgetting is a normal part of being human. My name is Lisa Genova. I am an author and neuroscientist. The name of my book is "Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting."
So how do we reinforce our memories? How do we make our memories stronger, resilient to time, so that we can recall them decades later? The first essential ingredient in creating a memory that's going to last longer than this present moment is attention. If I put my glasses down and don't give it a moment's attention to notice where I've put this, I can't remember where they are because I never formed that memory to begin with. Your brain will never remember what you don't pay attention to.
Chronic stress is really bad for our memory. Stress hormones mobilize your brain and body to respond, to fight, to flee, to react quickly- not to think. Stress is meant to be an acute, quick, on and off phenomenon. So what happens in your brain and body if you're exposed to chronic, unrelenting stress, and how does that affect your memory? Under chronic stress, your body will just keep dumping adrenaline and cortisol, and it can't shut off. This is bad for memory. You are actually shrinking your hippocampus- the part of your brain that's essential for forming consciously-held memories is going to be smaller. You'll be inhibiting 'neurogenesis,' the birth of new neurons. The very good news about all of this, because I've probably just scared everyone, is that there are things that we can do to combat stress. This is where things like yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and exercise come into play. All of these have been shown to restore the size of people's hippocampus who have been chronically stressed.
A quick word on meditation: A lot of people are intimidated by meditation. They sort of know that this is probably good for them in lots of ways, but maybe don't know how to do it. Here's a nine-second meditation to help restore your cortisol levels, and to help save your hippocampus and your ability to remember. Close your eyes if you can. Breathe in through your nose to the count of four. Hold it for a second, and then breathe out through your nose to the count of four. And notice how you feel. Here's what's going on: Stress response causes you to breathe like this- By breathing slowly in and out through your nose, you are telling your brain and body that you are safe.
We also wanna get enough sleep. Sleep is not a state of doing nothing where you're unconscious and it's a waste of time. You're very biologically busy while you sleep, and there are a number of super-important things that are going on in your brain with respect to memory. For example, if I got a horrible night's sleep last night, I'm gonna wake up today and my frontal lobe is gonna have a hard time dragging itself to its day job- and one of its most important jobs is paying attention. And if I can't pay attention to what's going on today, what am I not gonna be able to do well today? Form new memories. Also, your hippocampus consolidates the information you're learning into a lasting memory that you can consciously retrieve while you sleep. So what happens if you don't get enough sleep? Your hippocampus might not have had enough time to do the job, and so your memories from what happened yesterday and the stuff you learned yesterday, might not be fully formed today, or they might not be formed at all.
Caffeine is actually good for memory, because caffeine increases your attention. So anything that's an attention booster is gonna be a memory booster. We know that sleep is super important for forming memories, so caffeine's good for memory. You just wanna be careful that it's not compromising your sleep.
Our brains are not designed to remember people's names. These are abstract concepts. They live in neurological cul-de-sacs. Ultimately, there's only one way into that house that lives at the end of that street, and there's no other way to get there. So can we supply more associations to the person's name to give us a chance? In psychology, this is called the 'Baker-Baker Paradox.' If I'm trying to remember your name and your name is Mr. Baker, that's really tough for me to remember- abstract concept. But if I were asked to remember the word "baker," I can picture him wearing an apron, and he's got flour on his face and, "Oh, I remember the bakery I used to love as a kid and we used to get danishes there on Sundays." So now I've got all of these associations in my brain, attaching to that word "baker," and gives me a chance to hook into it.
For all of these memories, they benefit from repetition. The more we repeat, the more we practice, the more we rehearse a memory, we are strengthening those neural connections, making that neural circuit stronger, and more likely to be fully retrieved. One of the ways that we can repeat a memory is by writing it down. If I've experienced a certain number of things today, and I keep a journal- what I've chosen to write down will become a stronger, more reinforced memory in my brain. I will also have the opportunity to revisit that memory by reading it later. So many people come up to me, so worried, saying, "If I don't write what I need to do later down, I'm gonna forget to do it. That's gotta mean I'm getting Alzheimer's." And I tell all of them, "No, it's your prospective memory. It's terrible. It's not cheating to write it down. It's actually good practice." Airline pilots do not rely on their brains and their prospective memories to remember to lower the wheels before landing the plane. They outsource the job to a to-do list, a checklist. We should all write it down, put it in your phones, put it in your calendar alerts, make to-do lists. If you wanna remember to pick up milk at the grocery store, write it down.
Another way to better remember this information has to do with self-testing. If I'm trying to consolidate something into memory, and I'm only putting the information in, I'm traveling one way on the neurons. If I then try to recall the information, I'm pulling the information out- now I'm going the other way. Going over those circuits in both directions will help reinforce and make that memory stronger.
Okay, having a word stuck on the tip of your tongue is a normal glitch in memory retrieval. It's just a byproduct of how our brains are organized. So looking up a word, Googling a word that's on the tip of your tongue isn't cheating. It will not cause digital amnesia. It will not make your memory weaker in any way. It frees you up. We can Google anything that we can't remember in a moment's notice, and then use that information to continue thinking, to continue the conversation, to learn more. You have my permission to Google it and look it up.
What I would love for you to take away from all of this is that your memory is amazing. It is limitless in what it's capable of remembering if you supply it with the right kind of information, if you supply it with the right kind of tools and associations. And it's wildly imperfect, and that's just the price of owning a human brain. Forgetting is a normal part of being human.