It’s normal to forget the occasional thing — be it the last place you stashed your keys or the last spot you parked your car. But just because we all do it doesn’t make it any less frustrating.
To boost our memory-storing powers we have to get visual and specific, writer and US Memory Champion Joshua Foer says in a recent TED talk.
The brain forms visual memories similarly to how a camera records an image: What we see gets imprinted, kind of like a photograph, in a specific set of brain cells in our hippocampus deep inside the brain. This process is called encoding.
The reason we misplace things like our keys, wallet, phone, or car so often is because we store so many similar versions of those memories.
Think about how many times you’ve parked your car in a different spot or stashed your keys in a different place in the last month. Your brain has encoded hundreds — even thousands — of versions of those memories. Over time, those different versions of the same memory start to overlap.
To improve your memory, you have to be able to keep those recollections apart. To do that, says Foer, we have to trick our brains into pushing a memory from our short-term, or working, memory into our long-term memory, where it can be accessed days, weeks, and even years from now.
In order to make a memory stick, it can help to create a precise scene 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 roller coaster, 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.
Another reason getting visual can help make a memory stick is because it encourages us to pay attention.
Oftentimes when we put down a pen or put away our keys, our focus is really on something else, like the phone conversation we’re having or the appointment we need to reschedule.
As a result, our brains don’t get the chance to store, or encode, the memory properly. When we try to access the recollection later, we can’t because it was never really there in the first place.
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, try making a checklist and doing one thing at a time.
“Our lives are the sum of our memories,” Foer says in the talk. “How much are we willing to lose from our already short lives by…not paying attention?”
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