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Forgetting things is a natural part of the memory process

Ever spent ten minutes frantically searching for your phone, only to find it snug in your pocket? You’re definitely not alone, and thankfully, it doesn’t mean your brain is failing you. In their new book The Psychology of Memory, psychologists Dr. Megan Sumeracki and Dr. Althea Need Kaminske unveil the science behind forgetting, how to boost our memory, and why those amazing memory feats you see in movies are usually fiction.

Forgetting and memory working

Memory does not work by simply recording everything that happens to us. Instead, our brains actively reconstruct and re-shape memories. This editing process is crucial because it allows us to focus on the larger meaning and important lessons from our experiences.

If we could remember every single detail of our lives, the truly important moments might be difficult to distinguish from the mundane. This has real-world implications. For example, if you witness a minor car accident, your memory of the event might be incomplete or have some small inaccuracies. This doesn’t automatically mean you’re unreliable.

Dr. Kaminske points out that it’s essential for juries to understand that some degree of imperfect recall is completely normal, especially in situations that are stressful or emotionally charged.

Lost your keys? Your brain may be doing its job

“I (Althea) spend an embarrassing amount of time looking for my phone, water bottle, and keys…our memory systems are not necessarily designed to remember where we put our phones. Or keys. Or water bottles,” writes Dr. Kaminske.

Our brains are excellent at remembering information that directly helps us achieve our goals or needs. If finding water was a critical part of your daily survival, you would quickly become skilled at remembering the location of water sources. This is because your brain would prioritize that information as essential.

Types of memory

Memory is far more complex than just remembering past events like what you ate for breakfast. Our brains use different types of memory systems, each with a specific purpose:

  • Short-term memory: This acts as a temporary holding space for information. It allows you to briefly retain things like a phone number you just looked up, just long enough to dial it.
  • Long-term memory: This is the vast storage system of your brain. It holds everything from facts you learned in school to significant life experiences.
  • Event-based memory: This specialized type of memory helps you plan and carry out future actions. It reminds you of tasks like picking up dry cleaning or going to a doctor’s appointment.

Can we enhance memory to forget less?

The Psychology of Memory dives into how our memories function, and offers real techniques to give them a boost. While turning into a memory champion with a photographic mind might be unrealistic, there’s plenty we can do to get a little sharper.

Want to become a faster learner or make sure you never forget an anniversary again? Here are a few tips from the book:

Retrieval practice

This technique strengthens memory by forcing you to actively recall information. Repeatedly saying a new colleague’s name reinforces the connection in your brain, making it easier to remember later. Think of it as directly strengthening the pathways to that specific bit of information.

Schema power 

This involves connecting new information to knowledge or patterns you already understand. This creates a richer network of associations in your brain, making the new information easier to store and retrieve. For example, if you’re learning a new language, connect vocabulary words to similar words in your native tongue or another language you know.

Visual tricks

Our brains are quite good at processing visual information. Creating a mental image for complex presentations, or drawing simple diagrams to summarize key points, capitalizes on this ability. Visual associations can provide “hooks” within your memory to make recall easier.

Forget the memory feats

We’ve all seen movies with characters boasting photographic memories or the uncanny ability to memorize a deck of cards at a glance. While these things aren’t impossible, they’re the result of specific techniques and lots of practice – not some inborn brain superpower.

“Anyone who has studied knows that regular practice is essential. But to become an expert in a field of learning, people need to employ deliberate practice. The difference is that deliberate practice involves purposeful and deliberate attention whereas regular practice just involves repetition,” noted Dr. Sumeracki and Dr. Kaminske.

Forgetfulness is normal, and actually a sign your brain is working efficiently. Understanding how your memory works is the first step toward improving it in ways that serve you day-to-day. So next time you lose your keys – take a deep breath, and maybe try one of those memory tricks.


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