Simple Ways to Be Better at Remembering
By ADAM POPESCU, The New York Times
October 19, 2017

When the sum total of human knowledge rests an arm’s length away in each person’s pocket, why do we have to remember anything anymore?

On an average day most of us check our smartphones 47 times, and nearly double that if we’re between the ages of 18 and 24, which might explain why some of us have such a hard time processing the information we take in to form memories. Smartphones alter the way we way walk, talk and think, and we’re barely keeping up.

“Everything is available through a Google search almost instantaneously, so what motive do you have to store useless info?” said Joseph LeDoux, who directs New York University’s Emotional Brain Institute.

Mr. LeDoux, whose work focuses on how the brain forms memories, said this instant-fact setup clouds our judgment on what information to filter and store. Since we’re no longer weighed down by having to retain trivial data, we are left with greater cognitive space. But how do we select what we remember?

He said there are two main kinds of memories: explicit, which are created through conscious experience, and implicit, which form when past experiences affect us, sometimes without our knowledge, as in reacting with fear in dangerous situations or getting sweaty palms when you see a dog if you were once bitten.

Memory is a fallible thing, changing over time. Recalling a long-term memory brings it back into our short-term memory, which essentially gives it new context. Memory is therefore a reconstruction, not a photographic recording, and for economic purposes, our brains — unlike computers — are forever rerecording those memories, making them far more error prone.

On top of that, we now live inside dual screens and endless browser tabs, headphones streaming music, smartphones buzzing, co-workers chatting with us on Slack — all while we should be performing the actual jobs we’re paid to be doing.

“Many people seem unaware that they might accomplish more with sustained, uninterrupted attention to one task,” said Nelson Cowan, a working memory specialist at the University of Missouri. “It can be exhilarating to flit from one conversation to another on Facebook, but people don’t realize what’s missing in the process. It’s like having a delicious soup poured on your head. Often the people who think they’re the best at sharing attention between tasks are actually missing the most.”

Mr. LeDoux added: “The brain does have limitations to what it can process or handle.”
They’re both right, but there are still thing we can do to improve our memories.

Repeat After Me
As simple as it sounds, the repetition of tasks — reading, or saying words over and over — continues to be the best method for transforming short-term memories into long-term ones. To do that, we have to retrain our minds to focus on one task at a time. Sadly, most bypass this formula because we’re already convinced we’re productive.

New connections are made in your brain when you learn. To remember what you learn, do what you probably did in your youth: Repeat words, thoughts and ideas over and over until you get them right. It’s the easiest brain game there is.

Take Your Time
Forget cramming. It didn’t work in college, it doesn’t work now. Spaced repetition might be the best way.

Robert Bjork, the chair of U.C.L.A.’s psychology department, said that quickly stuffing facts into our brains leads us to forget them in the long term. When you rehearse knowledge and practice it often, it sticks, research has shown. So if you can incorporate what you’re trying to remember into daily life, ideally over time, your chances of retaining it drastically improve.



But once you stop rehearsing that knowledge, the retention drops profoundly. Researchers call this the “forgetting curve.”

To get past it, space out your repetition over a few days and test the effect yourself. But be careful: Spacing out sessions or scheduling them too concurrently seem to slow gains, so find a healthy medium that works. This is a good way to effectively start tackling a new language.

Sit Down and Stay Put
Memory and focus go hand-in-hand. Dr. Cowan suggests rearranging our office setup as one way to improve focus. He believes the collaborative start-up design and open offices touted by Silicon Valley’s hoodied C.E.O.s actually make us far less productive because they create added distractions. How do you stay on task if your co-worker is piloting a drone or endlessly, and loudly, snacking just inches away?

“The rebirth of the open workplace cannot be helping this situation,” Dr. Cowan said, alluding to work spaces without desks, physical barriers and privacy, but with a plethora of playthings. Yoga rooms, rock climbing and gardens can be great perks, but they can make it difficult to deliver on deadline with so much stimuli.

Multiple studies have found that procrastination leads to stress and downright kills focus. Stop engaging in useless tasks like surfing the web and just tackle whatever it is you need to work on. Then watch your focus soar and your memory improve. Dr. Cowan said both perform better when they aren’t cheating on each other pursuing so-called “life hacks.”

Incentivize Moments and Read Cues
Minds wander constantly. For students, adding frequent tests incentivizes focus because they know they’ll be quizzed. Harvard researchers report this approach decreases daydreaming by 50 percent, improving the result.
Daniel Schacter, a psychologist and a co-author of the Harvard study who also wrote “The Seven Sins Of Memory,” said the trick is focus. For some tasks, like online surfing, divided attention sounds harmless, but when we’re behind the wheel, it’s anything but. That forgetfulness can change the course of entire lives, the most serious vulnerability of memory, he added.

Mr. Schacter suggests employing cues — visual or verbal for items like keys — to associate places and things. And our electronic devices can help remind us, everything from mobile vaccination and immunization alerts to apps like Waze that can remind you that you left your baby in the car. It can sound silly, but it’s also tragic when we fail.

“Memory is very cue dependent,” he said, referring to something he calls absent-minded memory failure. “Most say it could never happen to me, but it’s a very long list of responsible people that it has happened to. When you don’t have that cue, you can forget almost anything.”

He added: “The really tricky thing about absent-minded memory failure is it can affect almost anything if the cue is not present at the moment you need to catch a reaction.”

A simple way around that is to set reminders. Even better, combine a few of these techniques: Write your reminder on a Post-it and put it on your desk so you’re forced to repeatedly look at it over a prolonged period, incorporating the practice of spaced repetition. Build on your memory by combining these approaches. Modern life offers few guarantees, but using even one of these tips is surely an improvement.

“A lot of people are overconfident that they can handle distractions,” Mr. Schacter said. “Doing two things at once always has an effect. Be aware of the situation you’re in and understand when you let attention divide you, you’re likely to pay the price. In some situations it may not matter, but in others it could change everything.”