Memory can be tricky. We assume that we’ll remember much more than we actually do. Then we run up against a moment of struggle, failing to pinpoint specific details of an event we’ve experienced, and we wonder how much of our lives we are fully taking in.
You might make a mistake because something you know doesn’t surface in the moment you need it; you have a frustrating, fuzzy sense of I should know that. Why does our ability to “record” sometimes fail us, and what can we do about it?
What we think is a memory problem is often actually an attention problem. As a neuroscientist and professor of psychology who studies attention, I’ve found that there are three critical things you must do to successfully remember something:
Use your attention to trace over the information — the name you just heard as a new colleague introduced herself; the most important facts from the work training you’re in; the details of a fun experience you just had.
In school, when you studied with flash cards, that was a rehearsal; when you review the nuances of a joyful moment (e.g., a family wedding — the toasts, the taste of the cake) or a painful one, that, too, is rehearsal.
Elaboration involves using attention to link new experiences or information to knowledge or memories you already have. You can store much richer memories by elaborating in this way.
Example: Picture an octopus. Now I tell you: an octopus has three hearts. If you didn’t already know that, you are — as you read this — tethering on that new knowledge to that existing image you have of an octopus.
The next time you see one or a video of one, you might suddenly remember, turn to the person next to you, and say, “Did you know that an octopus has three hearts?”
The two processes mentioned above support initial memory formation. But to go from these initial stages to the storage of information in a more durable form over an extended period, known as long-term memory, requires consolidation.
This involves forming connections between specific sets of neurons that code elements of the memory by replaying targeted brain activity. Repeated replays solidify the long-term memory trace.
At the grocery store, you fill your cart and head to the checkout line and pull out your phone. There’s a work email and a personal one — you read both, then start drafting a response to the work email.
A notification pings and you click it. The draft email autosaves and you swipe over to Twitter, where someone replied to something you tweeted earlier. You want to be supportive, so you retweet it. A news article catches your eye and you tap it.
You’re halfway through skimming the article when the cashier announces your total, loading plastic bags into your cart — as the eco-friendly canvas bags you brought are still tucked under your arm.
Sound familiar? We live busy lives, so the urge to pack as much as possible into every pocket of time is intense. If you didn’t draft that work email while standing in line, you would’ve had to do it later, when you could have been doing … something else.
We value and prioritize being continuously task-focused. And we don’t see mental downtime — when we purposefully disengage from finding, gripping and tightly directing our attention to some occupying task — as a valuable thing to do. And why should we? If focusing our attention, as well as using it to rehearse and elaborate supports successful memory, why shouldn’t we aim for all focus all the time?
Consider your direct experience for a moment. Have you ever had a great idea in the shower? Perhaps it wasn’t because the shampoo’s scent inspired you. It’s that the shower forced mental downtime. You couldn’t take your phone or computer in there. You were trapped in that small, wet box with nothing demanding your attention.
Task-free downtime can lead to some of our most creative, generative moments — novel connections are made, new ideas are born, daydreams may appear that are not only satisfying, but also personally or professionally supportive. And this downtime has another important benefit, too: It supports memory consolidation.
So remember to pay attention when you want to remember, but also let the mind roam free more often — to remember better!
Dr. Amishi Jha is a professor of psychology at the University of Miami and the author of “Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day.” She serves as the Director of Contemplative Neuroscience for the Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative, which she co-founded in 2010. Dr. Jha’s work has been featured at NATO, the World Economic Forum and The Pentagon. She has received coverage in The New York Times, NPR and Time. Follow her on Twitter @amishijha.