Published July 18, 2012
Having trouble with recall? Here, experts offer techniques to enhance your memory.
1. Forgetting Boring Data
Problem: You tend to forget appointments, addresses, PINs, and passwords. Take heart―the brain wasn’t designed to store such data, called declarative memories, for a long time unless you make a concerted effort to do so. This type of information, which by nature isn’t special or exciting, has a short shelf life. Other declarative memories include historical dates and birthdays.
Solution: The only way to make essentially boring data part of your long-term memory is to store it properly so you can retrieve it later on. “If you don’t make a conscious effort to learn your PIN, your short-term memory will flush it out immediately,” says Dr. Zaldy S. Tan, director of the Memory Clinic at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston and author of Age-Proof Your Mind. Attach some sort of meaning to it. For an important date, like your niece’s birthday, give it an emotional connection (eight days after the Fourth of July). For less important information, like a dentist’s appointment, don’t even try to remember.
“This is exactly why God invented the PDA and the date book,” says Aaron P. Nelson, chief of neuropsychology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston, and the author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to Achieving Optimal Memory. “The onus isn’t on your brain to do the heavy lifting.”
2. Being Distracted
Problem: You forgot why you walked into another room. You were probably distracted en route, or the item you wanted to remember wasn’t noteworthy enough to be registered completely in your brain.
Solution: "Visualize what you want or need before you start walking into a room," says Tan. He also recommends linking items you want to remember with something familiar. If you want to get your summer clothes out of the basement, before you set out, think of yourself on the beach or beside a pool in your swimsuit. This system makes the items more vivid and therefore more memorable. When you forget to visualize what you want and find yourself thinking, Why am I in this room? retrace your steps mentally and, if that doesn’t work, physically. “Ask yourself what you wanted before you left, whom you were with, or how you were feeling,” says Elizabeth Edgerly, chief program officer for the Alzheimer’s Association in Northern California and Northern Nevada.
3. Misplacing Everyday Items
Problem: You can't remember where you put your keys, wallet, or train pass. This is typically an attention issue. You toss your keys down when you walk through the door while preoccupied with something else. A few hours later, you can't remember where you put them. The act of putting them down also goes unnoticed because keys are mundane items―you probably wouldn't forget where you put a $100 bill. "If you don't perceive an event as important," Nelson says, "your memory will cast it off quickly."
Solution: Pay attention when you're putting things down, and tell yourself, silently or out loud, what you're doing: "I am putting my keys in my coat pocket," for instance. Consistency is an even better strategy. "If you put your keys in the same dish every day, you'll always, without fail, know where they are," says Edgerly. "Having a good memory often has to do with developing good habits."
4. Remembering Words
Problem: A word, a movie or book title, or a long-lost friend’s name is on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t come up with it. "This is a universal problem, and it happens more as we age," Edgerly says. It also becomes harder to recall basic information when you feel stressed or are holding too many thoughts in your head at once.
Solution: First, cut yourself some slack―it happens to everyone. Then take a deep breath to clear your head. “An enemy of memory is multitasking,” says Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging, who is also the author of The Memory Prescription. Then say aloud what you think the name of the book or movie might be: “It’s something like water” or “It begins with an S.” Naming the actors in the movie or the characters in the book may also help jog your memory. If you’re still stuck, then “substitute a word that will fit for the time being,” Edgerly says, “and chances are the actual word will surface later.”
5. Forgetting People's Names
Problem: You have a hard time remembering people’s names. You’re not alone. “When I teach preventive memory classes to healthy adults, 90 to 95 percent of participants say they’re not good at recalling names,” says Edgerly. The problem may be storage (you weren’t paying attention when you met the person), retrieval (you can’t call up the name), or a combination of both.
Solution: Most people are visual learners, which explains why you rarely forget faces but often forget names. So when you meet someone new, take a good look at the person, repeat her name to yourself at least three times, then use it in conversation. For instance, if you meet a Mary, ask, “So, Mary, where do you live?”
"You can also try to link the name with a distinguishing feature," suggests Small. So if you’re introduced to a Mrs. Chambers with prominent cheekbones, think “cheekbones-Chambers.”
6. Performing Automatic Tasks
Problem: You can’t remember whether you’ve turned off the stove, the coffeepot, or the iron. When you perform an automatic task, like switching off the stove, you’re using procedural memory. This type of long-term memory is used for actions like riding a bike, typing, or putting a key into a keyhole. Because the act is more mechanical than conscious, you’re not fully aware of the action while you’re performing it.
Solution: Most of the time you probably do turn off the stove, the coffeepot, and the iron. But if you find yourself frequently guessing or sometimes truly forgetting, make an effort to be mindful of the critical moment when you flip the switch. Say out loud, “Oven is off,” “Iron is unplugged.” If you still find yourself forgetting, invest in products with automatic shut-offs and leave a reminder by the front door. A Post-it on the front door with a checklist of what needs to be on, off, open, or shut is a good remedy.