Why Your Memory Sucks (And What You Can Do About It)

Human memory is quirky, complicated and unreliable. Even when we think we're remembering everything accurately, chances are things have gotten twisted along the way. Let’s take a look at why your memory sucks and how you can change that.

Science is still figuring out all kinds of new things about our brains and memory. What we do know is that a lot of people struggle with remembering things, and in many different ways. Perhaps you're always forgetting a few items at the supermarket, or you're forgetting to pick up the dry cleaning on your way home. Maybe you can't remember events from your childhood that well. Let's take a look at what's really going on in your brain, and then see if we can actually do anything to improve your memory.

Why Your Memory Is Terrible

Everyone's memory is different, and no one remembers everything perfectly. In fact, even if you think your memory is excellent, chances are it isn't. To understand how this works, we need to look at a few different things, starting with how we remember anything to begin with.

Why You Remember What You Remember

Human memory is complicated. As an example, consider how you remember visual images. It seems straightforward — you see something and you remember it. But as Scientific American points out, it's more complex than that:

Memories of visual images (e.g., dinner plates) are stored in what is called visual memory. Our minds use visual memory to perform even the simplest of computations; from remembering the face of someone we’ve just met, to remembering what time it was last we checked...

Memories like what you had for dinner are stored in visual short-term memory — particularly, in a kind of short-term memory often called “visual working memory.” Visual working memory is where visual images are temporarily stored while your mind works away at other tasks — like a whiteboard on which things are briefly written and then wiped away.

So what causes those memories to stick around and not be wiped away from that whiteboard? According to one study from MIT, it might simply be how meaningful an image is and if we can connect it to other knowledge. If you can connect that image to something else, it increases the chances you'll remember it later. Like learning, memory is all about context. This is why, as The Atlantic points out, pattern recognition is key. Essentially, the more connections a new memory has to knowledge you have, the more likely it is you'll remember that information. The same basic process seems to happen with most memories.

Underneath the hood, all types of things are happening in your brain. How Stuff Works does a good job of breaking it down:

Experts believe that the hippocampus, along with another part of the brain called the frontal cortex, is responsible for analysing these various sensory inputs and deciding if they're worth remembering. If they are, they may become part of your long-term memory... these various bits of information are then stored in different parts of the brain. How these bits and pieces are later identified and retrieved to form a cohesive memory, however, is not yet known...

To properly encode a memory, you must first be paying 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 pass into your conscious awareness... What we do know is that how you pay attention to information may be the most important factor in how much of it you actually remember.

The fact of the matter is we're still learning a lot about human memory. Why we remember certain details over others is still a mystery.

Memories Are Fallible

It's probably no secret to you that you can't trust your memory. All of us have had moments where we've misremembered a detail, forgotten something, or even made details up completely. The reason is pretty simple: our memory isn't always reliable, because it's about perception.

Memories are changed by all kinds of things. Nostalgia plays a roll in how we remember. According to an article by the Scientific American it's surprisingly easy to instil false memories in people. But most shocking is how often we're just plain wrong about the details. For example, eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable, but as The Smithsonian Magazine points out, our memory of major events is consistantly inaccurate:

Most people have so-called flashbulb memories of where they were and what they were doing when something momentous happened: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, say, or the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. (Unfortunately, staggeringly terrible news seems to come out of the blue more often than staggeringly good news.) But as clear and detailed as these memories feel, psychologists find they are surprisingly inaccurate.

Nader, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, says his memory of the World Trade Center attack has played a few tricks on him. He recalled seeing television footage on September 11 of the first plane hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center. But he was surprised to learn that such footage aired for the first time the following day. Apparently, he wasn’t alone: a 2003 study of 569 university students found that 73 per cent shared this misperception.

It's not just traumatic events that cause our memories to flake out. One study in The Journal of the Association for Psychological Science points out that simply recalling memories enhances and distorts them. This is to say when you remember something you're actively changing it. In part this has a lot to do with a wide variety of memory biases that colour the ways we remember. From the positivity effect where we tend to remember the positive over the negative to the egocentric bias where we remember ourselves as being better than we are, we're constantly changing memories in a way that benefits how we view ourselves. So trusting your own memory isn't always the best idea.

For example, one study published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that we tend to think we'll remember something important more than we will. This is essentially when you don't write down a brilliant idea and then you immediately forget what it was. It's happened to the best of us, and it's because we're overly confident in our ability to remember.

Unfortunately, like most of our biases, the only way to really counteract them is to know they're there. Knowing that your memory isn't perfect means you'll pay more attention to those imperfections in the future.

What You Can Do to Improve Your Memory

Improving your memory is possible, but despite what the self-help section at your local bookstore might say, it's not just about a series of mental hoops you can jump through every day. In fact, while there certainly are some techniques proven to help you retain information, improving your memory is just as much about lifestyle as anything else.

Exercise Regularly

We know that physical activity effects the brain in a number of positive ways, and one of those is a boost to memory.

Physical activity's role in memory is incredibly complicated. Studies published in Behavioral Neuroscience, The Journal of American Geriatrics Society and The Journal of Aging Research suggest that exercise plays a signifigant role in memory. The New York Times breaks the current research like so:

What all of this new research suggests, says Teresa Liu-Ambrose, an associate professor in the Brain Research centre at the University of British Columbia who oversaw the experiments with older women, is that for the most robust brain health, it’s probably advisable to incorporate both aerobic and resistance training. It seems that each type of exercise “selectively targets different aspects of cognition,” she says, probably by sparking the release of different proteins in the body and brain...

[B]eyond merely stemming people’s memory loss, she says, “we saw actual improvements”, an outcome that, if you’re waffling about exercising today, is worth remembering.

Essentially, exercise improves cognitive functions, and it enhances our memory storage and retrieval. Basically, the better shape your brain is in, the better the chances you'll remember something.

Get a Good Night's Sleep

In the end, your memory probably isn't as bad as you think. It just takes some regular maintenance and a little training to keep it in shape. You can't magically just improve your memory by studying. If you're the type who forgets your keys, you'll probably always do so. That said, you can employ certain techniques to help you with memory retention and your initial perception. We've talked about this a lot in the past, so here are a few places to get started:

  • Train your brain like a Memory Champion: Our own Melanie Pinola went through the USA Memory Championship and shares her techniques, including several different memorisation systems.
  • Improve your memory with the chunking technique: The chunking technique uses the pattern recognition we talked about in the first section to help you remember things. In the simplest terms, it's like remembering a phone number using the letters on a phone's dial pad instead of just the numbers.
  • Combine information with bizarre images: If you need to remember a certain set of details, it's often easier for us to do so when we combine that information with something crazy. So, if you need to remember to get milk and bananas at the supermarket, remember a giant banana chasing after a cow that's ready to burst with a hatchet instead.
  • Use a mnemonic peg system: This one's a bit complicated, but a peg system essentially lists items as a rhyme so it's easier to remember. Once an item is pegged to the list, you can usually recall that information later.
  • Increase your powers of observation and perception: You're only going to remember what you notice, so if you want to improve your memory skills one thing you need to do is pay more attention to what's happening. Watch the world closely, form connections between what's happening and what you know. Remember, according to research in The Journal of Neuroscience, the more we value a memory, the more likely it is to stick around. The more you see, the more accurate your memory will be.
  • Take a nap: We already mentioned that sleeping has a direct impact on your memory, but so does a quick nap. If you can sneak one in during the day, go for it. A solid nap is an effective tool for improving memory and learning ability. If a nap's not possible, meditation has been shown to work as well.

Memory is weird, and it works in strange ways. It's unreliable, but we still have to put our trust in it. Memory is hard to work with, but it's still malleable, and you can force memories into your brain. Science is still figuring out exactly what works best, but it seems like few things will ever trump a good night's rest and exercise.

Pictures: Official US Navy Imagery, jon_a_ross, Charles Smith, Joi Ito, Quinn Dombrowski

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