What did you wear to work last tuesday? Can you recall every conversation you had at the last party you attended? What are all the details about the event your friend is excited to take you to? If you’re like most people, you could try to answer those questions but you would struggle to remember specific details.
Rather than being like a video recording, our memories are like an artist’s painting of an event. They can’t possibly capture everything that we experience, emotions often influence how memories are created, and they suffer from wear and tear over time.
Luckily though, researchers have unraveled the puzzle of how we create memories so you can learn to increase the accuracy and quantity of your memories.
But first, here are a couple of key facts you should know about memory:
Memories Can Evolve
If you’ve ever reminisced with a family member or old friend and you both swear something happened different ways, you’re probably right that their memory is wrong, but yours is probably wrong too.
Reseachers at McGill University discovered that every time you recall a memory, your brain has to rebuild it in order to store it again. In the process, mistakes can be made which allows your memories to change over time. So, your memory of an experience that happened yesterday could have major differences years from now when you think about it.
Feelings are Built Into Memories
Have you ever wondered why when thinking about an important moment in your life you begin to experience the feelings you had in the past? It’s because your brain stores feelings as part of memories. Highly intense feelings can also warp your memory. In one study, 73% of people had incorrect memories of the 9/11 attacks because their brains struggled to deal with such a traumatic event.
Lesson: If you feel highly emotional about something, double check the facts to ensure your memories are accurate.
Want to become a memory master? Learn how in this TED talk from Idriz Zogaj, a leading memory expert:
7 Steps to Better Memory
Here are 7 science-backed strategies to help you start improving your memory:
#1 Live a busy life
This might sound counterintuitive but a Harvard study found that being busy boosts your memory. This is because engaging in lots of different activities increases your mental stimulation. It’s like exercising your brain. Like physical exercise though, you lose the benefits when you push yourself past the point of exhaustion.
#2 Study. Test. Repeat.
If you need to memorize exact information, you need to test yourself even after you think you have the information down. In one study, people who tested themselves repeatedly – even on information that they learned – were able to recall 80% of their information compared to 35% for people who stopped testing themselves once they remembered something once.
#3 Go for walks
The health of your brain is strongly tied to the health of your body. Research has found that people who exercise on a regular basis, even if that exercise is leisurely walking, have better memories than those who do not exercise regularly.
#4 Enlist the help of other people
If you’re struggling to memorize your talking points for a big presentation or can’t remember how to do something, go over the content with people. Several studies have found that when you discuss information with other people and ask them to give you reminders, you remember more than when you try to memorize information on your own.
#5 Stay well-rested
I know that trying to fit in enough sleep into your busy life can be a challenge. However, it is a must if you want to be able to quickly recall information. Sleeping helps consolidate memories and, without it, your brain can’t function at its full capacity, leaving you struggling to remember basic things.
#6 Handwrite everything
Though it might be convenient to type your notes, studies show that you remember more when you handwrite information. Handwriting, unlike typing, reinforces the message you’re writing in your brain, making it easier to recall later.
#7 Think about how things relate to you
Research has found that you can increase your ability to recall information by up to 50% by contemplating why the information is important to you. Doing so gives your brain additional pressure to transform your short-term memories into long-term ones that you can easily remember later.
About Vanessa Van Edwards
Lead Investigator, Science of People
I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.
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