Why Your Memory Sucks and What You Can Do About It
Human memory is as fascinating as it is error prone. You may lose years of Spanish lessons, but you can still recite the opening scene of Nice Guys. You remember what you were wearing for your best friend’s wedding, but you can’t remember what you were wearing last Wednesday. You are sure you scored 730 Verbal on your SAT, but your actual results suggest otherwise.
Science is still looking for new things about our brains and memory. What we do know is that many people struggle with remembering things in different ways. Maybe you always forget a few things at the grocery store or pick up your dry cleaning on your way home. Worse, maybe you can’t remember events from your childhood that well, or you remember an event from college differently from a friend. So let’s take a look at what’s actually going on in your brain and then see if there is anything we can do to improve your memory.
Why is your memory terrible
We all have different memories, but none of us have perfect memories. In fact, even if you think your memory is perfect, it probably isn’t. To understand how this works, we need to look at several different things, starting with how we remember something.
Why do you remember what you remember
Human memory is complex. Think about how you memorize visual images: it seems simple – you see something and remember something. But as Scientific American notes , things are much more complicated:
Memories of visual images (such as dinner plates) are stored in what is called visual memory. Our mind uses visual memory to perform even the simplest calculations; from remembering the face of someone we just met to remembering the last time we checked …
Memories, like those you ate for lunch, are stored in visual short-term memory, particularly short-term memory, often referred to as “visual working memory.” Visual working memory is where visual images are temporarily stored while your mind is working on other tasks – for example, on a blackboard that is briefly written on and then erased.
So what makes these memories stick around and not fade off the board? According toone MIT study , it might simply be how meaningful the image is and whether we can relate it to other knowledge. If you can associate this image with something else, it will increase the chances that you will remember it later. As with learning, memory is all about context. This is why, as The Atlantic points out , pattern recognition plays a key role. In fact, the more connections a new memory has with your knowledge, the more likely you are to remember that information. The same basic process seems to occur with most memories.
All kinds of things happen in your brain under the hood. How Stuff Works is great at this :
Experts believe that the hippocampus, along with another part of the brain called the frontal cortex, is responsible for analyzing these various sensory signals and deciding whether to remember them. If so, they can become part of your long-term memory … these different bits of information are then stored in different parts of the brain. However, how these fragments are later identified and extracted to form coherent memory is not yet known …
To properly encode a memory, you must first pay attention. Since you cannot pay attention to everything all the time, most of what you encounter every day is simply filtered out, and only a few stimuli enter your mind … We know for sure that the way you pay attention to information can be the most important factor in how much of it you actually remember.
The point is, we are still learning a lot about human memory. Why we remember some details and not others is still a mystery.
Memories are wrong
It’s probably no secret to you that you cannot trust your memory. We all had moments when we mistook a detail, forgot something, or even completely came up with details. The reason is quite simple: our memory is not always reliable because it is related to perception.
Memories change in different ways. Nostalgia plays a role in how we memorize , and Scientific American magazine finds it surprisingly easy to give people false memories . But what is most shocking is how often we are simply wrong about the details. For example, eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable , but as The Smithsonian Magazine notes , our memory of major events is invariably inaccurate:
Most people have flashbacks of where they were and what they were doing when something important happened, such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or the explosion of the Challenger spacecraft. (Unfortunately, overwhelmingly bad news seems to come unexpectedly more often than overwhelmingly good news.) But as clear and detailed as these memories seem, psychologists find them surprisingly imprecise.
Nader, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, says his memory of the attack on the World Trade Center played some jokes on him. He recalled seeing footage on TV on September 11 of the first plane crashing into the north tower of the World Trade Center. But he was surprised to learn that such footage was broadcast for the first time the next day. Obviously, he was not alone: a 2003 study of 569 college students found that 73% shared this misconception.
Our memories are not only lost due to traumatic events. One study published in The Journal of the Association for Psychological Science indicates that simply recalling memories amplifies and distorts them. That is, when you remember something, you actively change it. This is partly due to the wide range of memory distortions that color the way we remember. From the positivity effect, where we tend to remember positive instead of negative, to egocentric bias, where we remember ourselves better than we are, we constantly change memories in ways that help our outlook on ourselves. That is, trusting your memory is not always the best idea.
For example, one study published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology found that we tend to think that we will remember something important more than we remember. Basically, this is when you don’t write down a brilliant idea because it’s good that you never forget it, and then you immediately forget what it was. It happened to the best of us because we are too confident in our ability to remember.
Unfortunately, like most of our biases , the only way to counter them is to know they exist. Knowing that your memory is imperfect means that you will pay more attention to those imperfections in the future.
What You Can Do To Improve Your Memory
Improving memory is possible, but despite what the self-help section of your local bookstore says, it’s not just about a series of mental hoops that you can jump through every day. In fact, while there are certainly some methods that can help you retain information, improving your memory is not only a lifestyle, but everything else.
We know that physical activity affects the brain in a variety of positive ways , and one of them is improving memory.
The role of physical activity in memory is incredibly complex . Research published in Behavioral Neuroscience , Journal of the American Geriatric Society, andJournal of Aging Research , among others, suggests that exercise plays an important role in memory. The New York Times breaks down the current study as follows:
All of this new research suggests that, according to Teresa Lew-Ambrose, an assistant professor at the Center for Brain Research at the University of British Columbia who oversaw experiments with older women, for the most robust brain health, it is probably advisable to include both aerobic training and training with weights. Each type of exercise seems to “selectively target different aspects of cognition,” she says, probably by releasing different proteins in the body and brain …
Aside from simply curbing memory loss in humans, she said, “we’ve seen real improvements” is a result worth remembering if you’re chatting about exercise today.
Essentially, exercise improves cognitive function, and when it does, it improves our memory and its retrieval. Basically, the better your brain shape is, the more likely you are to remember something.
Most of us have heard before that sleep plays an important role in memory, but over time we learn a lot more about how it works. Sleep and memory are the subject of intense research , and it is clear that sleep plays an important role in the formation of memory. Sleep does this in two key ways. In an interview with NPR, Robert Stickgold of Harvard Medical School explains it this way :
Well, it turns out that probably all stages of sleep are involved, but they are involved in different ways. Classically, we will train subjects on some memorization task, and this can be a list of words or a sequence of typing. So it can be all kinds of memory problems …
And we see all the time that those who have had the opportunity to sleep will actually perform much better after those 12 hours than those who have not slept … So, one task at a time, this could be the amount of deep sleep you get. … early at night, and this will be the case more for things like verbal memory, and you will see that the amount of improvement that subjects show after sleep will depend on how much of this slow wave, this deep sleep they get, then how other tasks can correlate with the length of REM sleep they receive.
It is generally believed that certain stages of sleep help form different types of memories. So, declarative memories (such as facts and knowledge) are enhanced by slow-wave sleep (deep sleep), while tacit memories (long-term memories that do not require conscious thinking, such as cycling or tying shoes) are enhanced by REM sleep. Sleep . Basically, it is believed that the better you sleep each night, the better your memory .
Some of the more insidious effects of sleep deprivation are associated with mental processes such as learning, memory, judgment, and problem solving. During sleep, new pathways for learning and memory are encoded in the brain, and adequate sleep is essential for them to function optimally. Well-rested people perform better at a task and are more likely to remember what they have learned. The cognitive decline that so often accompanies aging may, in part, be the result of chronic sleep deprivation.
A good night’s rest can actually improve your memory in the long run. The good news is, changing your sleep patterns is n’t all that difficult. If you stick to this, your memory will stay strong.
Try these memorization techniques
After all, your memory is probably not as bad as you think. It just takes regular maintenance and a little preparation to keep it in shape. You can’t magically improve your memory by studying – if you’re the type to forget your keys, you probably will always. However, there are certain techniques you can use to help you preserve your memory and, more importantly, your initial perception. We’ve talked about this a lot in the past, so here are a few places to start:
- Train Your Brain Like a US Memory Champion : Our very own Melanie Pinola has passed the US Memory Championship and shares her techniques, including several different memory systems.
- Improve your memory with chipping technique : chipping technique uses the pattern recognition we talked about in the first section to help you remember things. In simple terms, it’s like memorizing a phone number using the letters on the dial pad, not just numbers.
- Combine information with whimsical images : If you need to remember a certain set of details, we often find it easier to do so when we combine that information with something crazy. So, if you need to remember the milk and bananas from the grocery store, think of the giant banana with an ax chasing a cow about to burst from milk.
- Use a mnemonic anchor system : it is a little complicated, but the anchor system essentially lists items in rhyme to make it easier to remember. Once the item is linked to the list, you can usually recall this information later.
- Increase your observation and perception : you only remember what you notice, so if you want to improve your memory skills, you need to pay more attention to what is happening. Observe the world carefully, build connections between what is happening and what you know. Remember, according to research published in The Journal of Neuroscience, the more we value memory, the more likely it is to stay . The more you see, the more accurate your memory will be.
- Take a nap : We already mentioned that sleep has a direct effect on your memory, but also REM sleep . If you can sneak in during the day, do it. Sound sleep is an effective tool for improving memory and learning ability. It has been shown that if naps are not possible, meditation also works.
Memory is weird and it works in a weird way. It’s not reliable, but we still have to believe in it. Memory is difficult to work with, but it is still malleable, and you can hammer memories into your brain. Science is still trying to figure out what works best, but at the moment it seems that few things are more important than a good night’s rest and exercise.
This story was originally published 6/23/13 and updated 9/23/19 with new photos and current links reflected.