Can’t find your keys? Not to worry — your misplaced object isn’t necessarily a sign you’re losing your mind.
Temporary lapses in memory are common, and recalling the precise location of a specific item — especially if it’s one you use all the time, like your keys, phone, or wallet — is tough.
Two things have to happen for you to retain a precise snapshot of whatever it is you want to remember. First, you have to be paying attention as it happens, so that the memory can be imprinted properly on your brain. Second, your brain has to be able to recall the information later on, without getting it confused with similar memories.
This can be especially difficult when we’re trying to recall something that happens frequently, like stashing keys, since similar memories can begin to overlap in the brain.
Our blurred recollections can have the unfortunate result of leaving us stranded for hours in a parking lot, trying to find the location of the car we recently parked, or even at our own front doors, rummaging through coat pockets for the key we just had.
Here are some simple things you can do to give your memory a boost.
1. Pay Attention
You can think of the process our brains use to form a memory as working (roughly) like a camera: The person, place, or thing we remember gets stored, like a snapshot, in a specific set of brain cells in our hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped region embedded deep inside the brain. This process is called encoding.
Misplacing everyday objects is normal, especially when we aren’t paying attention to where we put something in the first place. When you put down that pen, for example, were you focused on putting down the pen, or were you thinking of something else, like phone call you were about to answer? If your brain wasn’t paying attention to where you were putting the pen, it didn’t get a chance to store, or encode, the memory properly. The obvious solution is to pay more attention while you’re doing a single task.
In other words, stop multitasking.
Early research into multitasking and the brain suggests that doing too many things at once not only makes us forget where we put things, but can also leave you almost constantly distracted. So instead of juggling five things at once, make a checklist and do each task at once. Your brain will thank you.
2. Get Visual
Another way to help remember a specific location is to create a precise visual scene of the place in your head. Just before you set down your keys, for example, take note of the surface on which you’re resting it. Is it wood, steel, or concrete? Red or blue? Is there a photograph or an object nearby that you can keep in mind? Noticing these details can be key to establishing an emotional connection to the item, and it’s this connection that can help you recall the memory later on.
In a recent review, Harvard and MIT scientists studied how people performed on different types of memory tests, from recalling hundreds of photos to remembering the colour of a few simple squares drawn on a computer. They found that people were consistently better at recalling photos — even if they were supposed to remember far more of them — than random shapes and colours.
With the photographs, they were able to link what they saw with their own personal feelings or memories. A photograph of a rollercoaster, for example, might prompt some to remember the thrill or fear of their first ride. This sense of meaningfulness helped them solidify the memory in their brains. Looking at a simple pink square, by contrast, just couldn’t compete.
Next time you put your keys down, take note of what’s around and find something that helps jog a memory of a meaningful experience, place, or person.
3. Create Stash-Zones
Maybe you were paying attention to where you put an item at the time, but you just can’t find it hours or days later. In this case, you’re probably having trouble accessing that particular memory. Even though you did your best to store the information about the item’s location, your brain just can’t retrieve it.
The brain has a system for keeping similar memories separate in the brain, but scientists are just beginning to unravel how it works. Despite our organising system, similar recollections, like the memory of putting our keys on the kitchen counter another one of putting them on the dining table, can start to overlap in the brain, making it hard for us to separate one memory from another. Psychologists call this pattern proactive interference.
Here’s how to overcome it: Designate one spot for keys, one spot for your wallet, etc., and store these items in the same place every time you put them down. Keeping things in one place is key to helping us remember where they are.
4. Retrace Your Steps
Certain types of memories are also affected by the physical location we were in when we formed them. Ever had someone who’s trying to help you locate something say, “Where was the last place you were when you remember having it?”
There’s actual science behind that idea: Some of our memories can be called “contextual memories,” meaning our ability to recall them can be affected by the place we’re in when we try to do so. Retracing your steps, either by mentally or physically visiting all the places you traveled before you lost it, can help refresh your memory of where you stored it last.
In several studies, researchers have found that they can make people remember something about an experience simply by reproducing part of the environment, or the context, from the original experience.
Last year, researchers reviewed several studies of Pavlovian conditioning, a type of experiment where scientists get a subject to respond to a neutral stimulus, like the sound of a bell, by linking it with an emotional one, like pain or the presence of food.
Their review suggests that even simple memories are embedded in a more complex network of recollections, and that triggering even one small piece can help retrieve the whole thing. This might be part of why Pavlov’s dogs, for example, understood the sound of the bell to imply the presence of food: rather than creating isolated memories of one or the other, the dogs’ brains had linked the two concepts.
This idea helps explain why recreating part of the context of your experience — the environment where you lost the item you’re looking for, the sounds you remember being associated with it or the time of day when you last had it — can help jog your memory of the item’s location.
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