This morning, I got up and went to the other room to get something. Once I got to the other room, my brain went, “wait, why am I here? What did I want to get?” And I’m betting this has happened to you too, right? Memory is funny, but one of the most curious things about it to me is
Why do I forget so much?
This question definitely affects my day to day, as anyone who knows me well knows I’m a planner fanatic. I keep a pen and paper with me at (almost) all times so I can write things down when they pop into my head. By doing this, I keep myself from trying to focus on the thought in my head and can focus on the task I’m doing at the moment. But this trick only helps me get around the inevitable forgetting. So what makes our memories say “haha let me just forget that important task that your boss just handed you until 10 minutes before it’s due”?
Your brain doesn’t think the information is relevant
Relevance is key to learning. Your brain needs to place some sort of value on information in order to commit it to long-term memory. You might remember back to high school when you didn’t find the book Old Man and the Sea relevant to your life, so you promptly forgot all details and had to study like crazy for the test. Just me? Without some sort of handle to tell your brain why it should remember what you’re telling it to remember, it probably won’t do it. This, of course, is not the only reason we forget things, as that report for your boss or eating during a very busy day are still quite important, but the more relevance you can assign to a piece of information, the more likely you are to remember it.
You got too much information at once
Working memory, or the type of memory that you use when you’re forgetting day to day tasks that haven’t been committed to long-term memory yet, can only work so hard. It was previously thought that you could commit 5-7 things to memory at once (hence American phone numbers being 7 digits in length), but more recent research suggests a lower capacity when the items you’re remembering aren’t related. Even phone numbers are chunked into three and four digits. On the flip side of that, if the information is related, you can remember more of it. This is why people who have a better understanding of something tend to learn new information about it quicker, as they can make the connections necessary for your brain to say “aha! Those are related!” If you’re getting too much information all at once, you might want to just write it down rather than forcing your brain to remember more information than it truly can. If pen and paper aren’t handy, see if you can find a common thread in a few of the pieces that you need to remember. This should help you chunk things together and have a better time remembering what you need to do later.
You have too much on your plate
You might already know this because it happens to you, but science has backed you up. Many times, when we have way too much going on, our brains will start to forget things or, if you’re like me under severe stress, make us shut down completely. Turns out, the more distracted you are, the less capacity you have for remembering things. Attention is huge, which is why it’s easier to remember someone’s name when you are focused on that person, even for a short time, than it is if you take a quick glance at them and move back to your other conversation. When you have so much going on in your life, it’s hard to devote your entire attention to one task, and sometimes everything suffers. Consider reducing your commitments or finding a good way to be completely in the moment of each commitment and you might see yourself getting better at recalling important information.
Now that you know a few things fighting against you, how are you going to work on your memory? If you don’t need to, do you have tips for the rest of us?