“Where did I put that?”
“What’s her name?”
“Why did I come into this room?”
We all have lapses of memory from time to time. And, unfortunately, there are those who have serious memory issues. Day-to-day challenges are the focus of this column, though, in terms of how our brains select what we remember.
Filters and fatigue
Did you know that millions of bits of information come into your brain every second — and that you can only process about 2,000 bits per second?
So, how does your brain decide where to put its attention? It relies on the filters you’ve set up. Basically, what you deem important gets retained.
That’s why two people having the exact experience can come away from it recalling different things. Case in point: my husband, John, and I were recalling details of a trip to friends. He could recite just about every factoid from the museums and historical sites we visited, although he had trouble recalling the names of the people we met. I remembered lots of information about the people involved, although not as many statistics.
Pop quiz. How many decisions do you think we make a day? The answer is around 37,000. While many of these are the same ones we made yesterday — stop at the stop sign, for example — there’s a lot of new information that comes across our radar screens every day. And the longer the day goes, the narrower our bandwidth gets for dealing with multiple options.
That’s why it helps to plan ahead and not spend unnecessary time on minor decisions — what to wear or what to order from a restaurant menu. My dining partners will be glad to learn I have a newfound respect for not laboring over menus as much these days. I don’t want swordfish and stromboli to take up too much bandwidth.
Forgiving and forgetting
Your brain is constantly recording information on a temporary basis: scraps of conversations, things you see, what the person in front of you is wearing, etc. The brain then dumps everything that doesn’t come up again in the near future to make room for new information.
If you want to use that information again, you have to deliberately work on storing it in your long-term memory, according to author Thomas Oppong. This process is called encoding — imprinting information into the brain.
Without proper encoding, there is nothing to store; and attempting to retrieve the memory later will fail. Reprocessing things you read and learn daily, explains Oppong, sends a big signal to your brain to hold on to that knowledge.
When the same thing is repeated, your brain says, “Oh — there it is again, I’d better keep that,” according to a University of Waterloo study, “Curve of Forgetting.” And when you’re exposed to the same information repeatedly, it takes less and less time to “activate” the information in your long-term memory. It also becomes easier to retrieve the information when you need it.
Researchers Elizabeth Bjork and Piotr Wozniak, who worked on a theory of forgetting, explain that long-term memory can be characterized by two components: retrieval strength and storage strength. Retrieval strength measures how likely you are to recall something right now — how close it is to the surface of your mind. Storage strength measures how deeply the memory is rooted.
We all learn in different ways. I’m a visual learner and a voracious note taker. Some people are auditory learners, preferring to gain knowledge through hearing. By using a variety of techniques — reading, listening to a podcast and watching a YouTube video — you are more likely to commit new knowledge to memory, Oppong says.
Research shows that explaining a concept to someone else is the best way to learn it yourself. Think of a 50/50 rule. If you can learn 50 percent of the time — and explain what you learn for 50 percent of the time — you stand a much better chance of retaining important information. And you don’t have to relay the information to someone else. You can make notes of key points and go over them yourself.
Sleeping on it
In between learning sessions, sleep can be a powerful aid. If you’re having flashbacks of spending all-nighters cramming for exams, you can likely relate to this. Yes, you may have spent more time cramming that information into your brain. The lack of sleep, though, could have caused your brain to be fuzzy.
Maybe you’re a power napper. Short naps can help recover energy. And longer naps — 60 minutes or so where memory consolidation happens — are even better.
Using it or losing it
“The more the mind is used, the more robust memory can become,” concludes Oppong. “Taking control of information storage will not only help you add new bits of information, but it will also reinforce the information you already have.”
I’ve learned a handy technique you may find useful. The theory is to impress upon your brain that you want to remember something. Do this by placing two fingers (your index finger and middle finger) to the middle of your forehead, tapping them and saying, “Remember this.”
With all the information bombarding us — from all angles — it’s a wonder we remember as much as we do. While much of this is done automatically, you could step up your game by going the extra mile. Deliberately focusing on what you want to retain and store could help, while aiding retrieval as well.
Wise words from the Chinese philosopher Xun Kuang sum it up. “Tell me, and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me, and I learn.”