How to Remember Not to Forget

Forgetfulness increases with normal aging, but there are techniques to improve memory at any age.

When people first notice that their memory is failing, they may fear that Alzheimer’s disease is just around the corner. People who are in their 20’s or 30’s don’t find it especially worrisome to walk into a room and not remember why they’re there. But by the time they reach their 50’s, such lapses can seem ominous.

Some degree of forgetfulness is normal at any age. But if you can remember later what it was you forgot to do-pick up the cleaning or call your mother-your memory is still working, even if not to your satisfaction. Before jumping to the conclusion that you have a serious memory problem, ask yourself two questions: “Do I remember what I need or want to remember?” and “How good was my memory in the first place?”

Forgetting is part of memory’s normal operation. If you could remember everything you thought, read, heard, saw, and felt, life would be impossible. Imagine how awful it would be to remember every hurt feeling or the dialogue of every movie you have seen. In fact, the only way to pay attention to what’s happening at the moment is to put aside most other thoughts. Overall, people are better off if they have a sense of what’s worth remembering and what’s not.

Memory researchers like myself have found that people can regain control over their memories if they understand something about the processes of remembering and forgetting. This understanding helps them actively participate in the encoding, storage, and recall of information they want to retain. Memory failures typically trigger anxiety, and anxiety is one of memory’s worst enemies. People become far less anxious about memory problems once they realize that these are a normal part of aging and that there are strategies they can employ to improve recall.

For example, when you can’t remember a familiar word, such as the name of a street you pass every day, the best strategy is to relax and let memory’s mental “scanner” take over. Most words come back within 30 seconds. The inability to recall a name or a particular word-the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon-is one of the most common memory lapses.

The links in memory’s chain

People are rarely aware of memory’s workings until they experience a memory lapse. They typically expect memory to operate automatically, storing information until they are ready to retrieve it. A major reason for forgetfulness is, in fact, this reliance on spontaneous processes. But by making conscious use of mental strategies to form a strong impression, or memory trace, it’s possible to greatly improve the likelihood of recall.

Imagine memory as a chain with the following links:

  • Need or Interest
  • Motivation
  • Attention
  • Concentration
  • Organization

A need to remember something or a keen interest in something provides the motivation for paying attention. Only then does a person apply the concentration and organization needed to store the information properly. When memory problems arise, something has happened to break this chain and interfere with the storage of the information, thereby preventing recall.

Consider a student who wishes to do well in a course. This desire provides the motivation to pay attention in class. With sustained attention, the student concentrates more fully on what the instructor is saying. Concentration enables the student to organize the instructor’s lecture in a meaningful way. Organization works as an index, enabling the mind to locate the desired information in its storage site in the brain-during the final examination, for example.

Storing information

Sustained attention is the key to storing information. If you are not paying attention while something is happening, you are unlikely to remember it afterward. Among the chief reasons for inattention is lack of motivation. If you don’t need to recall something or you are not interested in it, you have little motivation to pay attention to it. So before saying “I forgot,” stop and think. Perhaps a more accurate assessment would be “I couldn’t pay attention” or “I didn’t listen.”

Many situations can make it difficult to sustain attention. When you’re rushed, stressed, depressed, or anxious, for example, your worries monopolize your attention and make it difficult to concentrate. Attention can fade if you’re tired or drowsy; some medications also contribute to drowsiness. Digressions and interruptions can sabotage attention. But what probably subverts attention most of all is the automatic gesture. Anything done automatically or by habit, such as parking the car, may mean trouble later on-when you go to find the car and can’t remember where you parked it.

Paying greater attention means intensifying awareness of sense perceptions. All information enters the brain through one or more of the five senses-hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch. But these sense perceptions stay in the mind less than a second and fade quickly unless transferred to short-term memory. Short-term memory is also called working memory because it holds information in active use-for example, a phone number while you are dialing it. Information remains in short-term memory only about 20 seconds after you stop thinking about it. Then, it either enters long-term memory or is forgotten. The more sense perceptions-such as images, sounds, and tastes-that people attach to information, the “deeper” the processing of the memory trace and the easier it is to recall later.

Cueing memory

Sometimes sensations cue memories to surface spontaneously. The classic example comes from Remembrance of Things Past by French author Marcel Proust. Proust’s narrator tells of dipping a small cake called a madeleine into a cup of tea. As he tastes the cake, happy memories of his childhood flood over him. Most of us have experienced such spontaneous recall, perhaps while smelling a particularly pungent aroma or looking at a photograph or painting.

Repetition provides another means of tagging information for long-term storage. When you repeat something such as a phone number for longer than about 20 seconds, the information enters long-term memory. The more often you repeat the number or call it to mind, the more durable the memory becomes.

Information also enters long-term memory through association with intense emotion. The anxious anticipation before a prom, sorrow over a pet’s death, or other emotion-charged situations create lasting memories that often are retrievable for a lifetime.

Memory experts make a distinction between remembering how to do something-performance memory-and the more intellectual skill of remembering facts and other verbal and visual information, known as declarative memory. Learning to ride a bicycle, for example, conditions muscles and reflexes, and this physical information is stored in performance memory. Learning how the parts of a bicycle work calls for analytic skills, and this information is stored in declarative memory.

Skills stored in performance memory are especially long lasting. But how well people retrieve information from declarative memory depends upon their current analytic ability. In general, retrieval from declarative memory becomes more difficult with age, reflecting a decline in analytic ability.

How memories become altered

Time alters memories, both through disuse and through use. An incident that is never recalled may disappear from memory. Repetition, though key to memory storage, can also transform memories. In recalling an incident, a person may unconsciously tamper with the memory-leaving some things out, for example, or adding a detail that seems relevant at the moment.

These alterations occur because the context in which people recall a memory differs from the original experience, and the new circumstances may prompt them to call up different details. In recalling an important conversation, someone might omit what now seem to be embarrassing moments, while adding remarks that should have been made, which then become part of the remembered conversation. Moreover, the recollections and comments of other people involved may enter in, so that the next time the conversation is recalled, these are included as the person’s own.

Other circumstances also can interfere with memory in various ways. Sometimes, expectations override sense perceptions, and so we remember what we had expected to hear or see. Or the imagination may fill in details to complete a memory.

Aging and memory

For many years, memory researchers concentrated on retrieval difficulties as the primary source of long-term memory problems in older adults. In tests of recall, older people experience much more difficulty than younger people in recalling numbers shown to them an hour or so earlier. But in prompted recall, when they are shown a list of numbers, older people recognize which numbers they saw earlier as well as younger people do. This finding indicates that the information was stored in memory but that older people had lost the ability to recall it unless prompted.

Researchers now believe, however, that most of these retrieval problems stem from poor storage of the information in the first place. Many older adults remark that they have no problem remembering what happened 60 years ago, but they just can’t remember what happened last week. In other words, they still have access to the deep memory traces created when they were young. Their present problem lies in encoding new information for long-term storage.

Subtle changes in memory begin at about age 20, though people do not usually notice memory problems until much later, perhaps when they enter middle age or after they retire. The extent of these problems varies a great deal. Memory powers show much more variation among people over age 55 than among younger people.

First signs of memory loss

The first noticeable sign of flagging memory powers usually is slower recall. In tests of mental functioning, older people’s brain waves exhibit less activity than those of younger people. This inevitable decline means that older people must expect to give more time and effort to processing and retrieving information.

Faulty vision or hearing loss can play havoc with awareness as people age, causing them to overlook what is around them or to mishear what is said, so that accurate memory is impossible. In such cases, eyeglasses or a hearing aid may not only correct the impaired faculty but improve the recording of information in memory as well.

Aging also reduces attention span. Tasks such as reading that require concentration become difficult to sustain over long periods, and people may notice that they have repeatedly read the same passage without remembering its contents. When this happens, it’s a good idea to take a break and resume reading later.

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Reduced attention leaves people vulnerable to distractions. When interrupted, older people may have difficulty remembering what they were engaged in prior to the interruption. Whereas teen-agers may have no trouble doing homework while listening to the radio, older people are more likely to find their train of thought interrupted by the sound of a radio when they are writing or reading.

Frustrations of memory loss

In fact, doing more than one thing at a time becomes increasingly difficult with age. Someone may make a mistake when writing a check while listening to the clerk behind the counter, or may drive a car past the turn while carrying on a conversation. Researchers have found that people with “type A” personalities, who are accustomed to taking on many tasks at once and doing everything themselves, are especially frustrated by the need to slow down and concentrate on doing one thing at a time.

Older people also do not seem to form mental pictures as easily as they did when younger. A young woman who is asked where she bought her shoes is likely to answer the question by first calling up a mental image of the shoes in the store, while an older person may not visualize the store so readily. Recall becomes more difficult when fewer visual cues are available to aid the brain in its search for the appropriate response.

As people age, thinking in an organized manner becomes less automatic. This decline becomes apparent in tests that involve matching faces with names: Younger test subjects automatically devise some mental strategy to connect the two, whereas older subjects often do not and simply give up.

Abnormal memory loss

Some types of memory loss go beyond normal aging and involve damage to the brain. The brain disorder most often linked with memory loss is Alzheimer’s disease, which affects an estimated 3 to 5 percent of Americans in their 60’s, according to the National Institute on Aging, and about 20 percent of people over age 80. The fact that the “oldest-old”-people over age 85-constitute the fastest-growing age group in the U.S. population means that more and more people are living long enough to develop the disease.

The memory loss that characterizes Alzheimer’s disease interferes with everyday functioning. People with the disease may forget how to perform once-familiar tasks, such as balancing a checkbook, getting dressed, or finding the way home. Other signs of Alzheimer’s disease include the inability to complete a thought or follow instructions and the incorrect or inappropriate use of words when speaking. When prompted with the correct word, a person with Alzheimer’s will still not use the word, whereas a person experiencing a momentary lapse will incorporate it.

Although the memory loss caused by Alzheimer’s disease is irreversible, many other disorders that contribute to memory loss are treatable. Imbalances of thyroid hormone, which may leave people mentally sluggish, can be corrected with thyroid supplements. Dehydration and malnutrition-especially an inadequate intake of B vitamins-also may interfere with mental functioning. Anemia (a reduction in the number of red blood cells) and poor blood circulation impair mental functioning by depriving the brain of an adequate supply of oxygen. Surgery patients may experience memory failures temporarily, until the effect of the anesthesia wears off, usually within a few days. Strokes and certain head injuries also can produce memory loss. In some cases, training can “rewire” nerve connections in the injured brain and improve memory.

Learning the art of remembering

Training can also help overcome the memory lapses that result from aging. The art of remembering might be described as the art of planting cues to facilitate recall. The keys are image-association, organization, and selective attention.

Image-association means developing a clear picture in the mind’s eye, and it underlies strategies to remember all kinds of information. For example, one way to avoid mislaying objects in everyday use is to visualize where they are placed, by looking at a pocket while dropping keys into it, or by taking a mental snapshot of the desk while laying eyeglasses next to the telephone there. These conscious associations between object and location deepen the memory trace, easing the task of locating items when they are again needed.

For most people, learning to plant sensory cues requires sharpening their powers of observation. Consider the problem of locating a car parked in the crowded lot of a shopping mall. By paying careful attention to where the car is parked in relation to nearby buildings and the closest mall entrance, it’s possible to plant visual cues that later help locate the car among the hundreds in the lot. Including other sensory cues-the smells from a nearby restaurant, the sound of traffic just beyond the lot-also deepens the memory impression.

Verbal cues can reinforce visual cues and leave a still stronger memory trace. In parking the car at the mall, for example, the shopper might say aloud, “As I face the driver’s side, I see a white building. Directly in front of the car, I see the entrance to the mall.”

Organizing thoughts

Association plays a major role in organization. These associations can be intellectual, sensory, or emotional. It is helpful to analyze information by asking such questions as: “What are its most important features? Why do I want to recall it? What does it resemble? How do I feel about it? Asking and answering such questions creates associations that aid recall.

Becoming better organized in daily life helps control anxiety and helps avoid the last-minute rushing that heightens anxiety and thus adds to memory problems. Even small changes, such as always putting objects back in the same place and using a calendar to keep track of things to do, reduce anxiety and aid memory. Other techniques that reduce anxiety include deep breathing (inhaling and exhaling slowly through the nose) and visualization exercises (closing the eyes and picturing waves slowly breaking, for example).

Filtering memory

Selective attention is the personal “filter” we apply in deciding how important it is to remember something. No one can hope to remember everything. People with what we term a photographic memory are exceptional. Most of us have far more limited memories. Rather than worry about what we forget, it’s more productive to focus on what we want to remember.

Setting priorities for daily or weekly tasks is one application of selective attention. If you have four errands to run, organize them by importance and by efficient use of your time, deciding first to fill the tank with gas, then pick up the bread, and last of all take the clothes to the cleaner’s. If an errand is urgent, try using visual cues as well-for example, putting the clothes for the cleaners in front of the door, where they cannot be overlooked. Or stick a note on the dashboard as a reminder to pick up the cleaning.

Doing it now is a useful tool for freeing up memory. If you undertake tasks as you think of them, then you don’t need to keep them in mind. When you telephone someone, for example, start the conversation by stating the reason for the call. Then you can turn to chit-chat. That way you won’t hang up having forgotten to say why you called. A related way of freeing memory is to make notes as you think of things, using one list, which is easier to find than several.

Memory training

No matter what your age, it’s a good idea to recognize situations when attention is difficult to sustain. Irritation, triumph, and other emotions can distract people from what they are doing, so it’s wise in such situations to pause and take stock. For example, when you are angry with a clerk for overcharging you, check to make sure that the clerk has returned your credit card.

While the emotions of the moment can get in the way of efficient recall, over the long term, emotional associations make memory traces more durable. To illustrate this point, I ask people to think of the teachers they had in grade school. The teachers they remember usually struck an emotional chord, positive or negative. A teacher remembered fondly may have singled the person out for praise. Or people may still bristle at the recollection of a teacher who humiliated them before the class. Because age does not diminish the effect of emotion on memory, coating today’s memories in emotion can preserve them for a lifetime.

Memory training also relies on mnemonic devices-strategies for prompting memory. Most people are familiar with the use of acronyms, which consist of the first letter or syllables of the words to be remembered. For example, HOMES is an acronym to remember the Great Lakes-Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior.

Another mnemonic device, based on image association, is useful for remembering the name of someone you have just met. The first step is to identify one prominent feature-a man’s silver hair, for example. The next step is to attach a meaning to the person’s name. Say the name over to yourself. Does it suggest any other words? It’s important to choose a meaning that you can visualize. The name Sterling, for example, might suggest silverware. Visualize the meaning to reinforce the image. Finally, superimpose one image on the other, silver hair on sterling silver, and then take a mental snapshot of the composite image. At the next meeting, this image will help recall his name.

Practice makes perfect

Memory is a complex process that relies on a network of connections and associations. Through practice, it’s possible to maintain that network and keep memory reasonably sharp. In the same way that active exercise contributes to physical vigor, regular exercise of memory skills can enhance and prolong the speed and strength of mental recall.

For further reading:

Baddeley, Alan. Your Memory: A User’s Guide. Avery, 1994.

Lapp, Danielle C. Don’t Forget! Easy Exercises for a Better Memory. Addison Wesley, 1995.

Lapp, Danielle C. (Nearly) Total Recall. A Guide to a Better Memory at Any Age. Stanford Alumni Association, 1992.

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