Last updated on April 12, 2021
In this article: Key factors that affect your memory and how to keep your memory alive.
The memory is a fascinating and complex part of the human body. Most people want to do everything in their power to maximize the potential of their memory so they can be more effective in all areas of their lives.
A key to maximizing our memory is to first understand the potential threats to a strong and effective memory and the causes of an ineffective memory. Then we can work to identify strategies that can be implemented as a means of preventing memory loss and forgetfulness.
5 Reasons Memories Are So Powerful
Our memories define us: our whole mental awareness is the result of a lifetime of memories, playing both a conscious and subconscious role in who we are, how we act, and what we do. Memories are the powerful driving force that utilizes our past to create our present and our future.
Here is a look at why exactly memories are so very powerful and why they are integral to our existence.
1| They Guide Our Decision Making
Memories play a critical- and perhaps entire- role in how we make choices in our day to day lives. With every single stimulus that we come upon that requires a response, we are responding based on either a conscious decision to repeat or change the outcome of past actions, or a subconscious reaction informed by moments of our past.
While sometimes this can be to our disadvantage, as bad or traumatic memories can trigger unpleasant actions and reactions, we have the ability to try to access our past and our memories and make them work in our favor, helping us consciously make smart, informed decisions, avoid past mistakes, and break negative cycles in our lives.
2| They Constitute Our Dreams
Our dreams incorporate so many of our memories and past experiences, many times in ways that we cannot comprehend. In fact, recent studies show that dreams are actually the body’s way of making sense of our memories and even reconciling and sorting them all out.
Matthew Walker, director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Human Sleep Science expands on this, teaching how our emotional memories are reactivated during REM sleep- the only time that the brain is free from an anxiety and stress causing hormone- thus allowing us to process and work through difficult memories of the day in a stress-free environment. This helps us to heal and helps to maintain a healthy mental well-being.
3| They Are The Basis Of Our Emotional Makeup
From extreme emotional disorders and distress to daily ups and downs, we are heavily influenced by our past with regards to how we feel at any given time. Our memories bring up happy, sad, or just purely nostalgic times that can trigger any type of emotion at a moment’s notice.
On a broader scale, enduring long-term trauma can have an impact on a person’s on-going mental state, causing mental disorders and diminished ability to think and act in a positive way.
4| They Dictate Our Perception Of Others
For better or for worse, the way that we view others is heavily informed by our memories. You can see this at play when you think back to an old bully from grade school- you most likely view that person as bad, and while they perhaps have since grown and become a better person, you might have a very negative outlook towards them upon meeting them later in life. The same can be said of someone you might hold very positive memories of- perhaps smart, thoughtful, or hardworking- though they may have since become the opposite.
These perceptions are hard to shake, as they are strongly ingrained in our memories. Many times, this biased is for the best: if someone has consistently acted in a certain way in the past, it can be to your benefit to remember those past actions and treat that person accordingly.
5| They Protect Us
Studies have shown that our memories actually serve as a powerful tool in protecting us emotionally: by arming ourselves with positive memories, we can actually diminish the effects of emotional distress and stress.
If we can use our positive memories to our advantage, we can effectively protect ourselves from mental and physical issues caused by feelings of depression, sadness, and anger.
5 Roles Memory Plays In Our Lives
Memories recall times strictly of the past. Yet they are ever present in our daily lives and continue to mold us well into the future. So why is it that every day, our thoughts, our actions, and our decisions are dictated by things that have already happened- and what function do these memories serve us?
Intricacies Of Human Memory
One of the things that sets us apart from non-human animals is our cognitive function. Humans are capable of a variety of different cognitive functionality, such as language and reasoning, that animals are not capable of.
It was recently discovered in a study from the University of Stockholm that a reason for this type of ability is that- while both humans and animals have memory capacity- our type of memory ability differs from that of animals.
As humans, we are able to distinguish and process sequential memories, where animals are only able to process individual stimuli. This means we can look at our memories, see how one thing lead to another, and act accordingly.
Armed with this memory processing unique to humans, our comprehension of sequential memories serves us in many ways. One such role our developed memories play is allowing us to make educated guesses to help us understand things that we do not fully understand or know the answer to. This is achieved by considering past events and stimuli that produced a certain outcome and applying that to current situations and tailoring our choices depending on whether or not we want the same or different outcome. This allows us to build knowledge and advance as individuals and en masse as humans.
Making Choices For The Future
We also use memory to help us plan for the future. Memories from childhood will frequently cause people to make choices to either emulate a similar lifestyle or to try to push in a completely different direction.
This manifests in our choices for our future all across the board- from planning a career and education path, to family related choices, and even to choices regarding politics and voting.
It is interesting to note that much of the way memories act upon our daily lives is subconscious. This means that we are acting in direct response to memories, though we are not even actively accessing these thoughts. These automatic responses are different than instinctive responses, as they are not based on evolved instinct, but rather a learned response.
As babies, we learn this very early, noting that crying results in attention, thus forming a subconscious response to cry when we need comfort, even when we are not necessarily in pain or danger.
As we grow older, we learn this in all sorts of varying ways the world responds to us- very strongly in friendships, relationships, and work. Unfortunately, these subconscious responses are not always healthy or productive, and take conscious actions and choices to create new memories and positive responses.
Supplementing Emotional Well Being
Amazingly, we are able to use our memories to our advantage- not just in tangible decisions, but in improving our mental health as well. Studies show that we can actually harness our positive memories in order to help combat the negative effects of depression and stress.
Happy memories can also help us make positive, healthy lifestyle choices, which benefit not only emotional wellbeing, but also physical health as well.
Common Memory and Forgetfulness Problems
Transience is a term that describes the proclivity of the mind to forget details or events over a period of time. Those memories that we do not retrieve frequently are regarded by the brain as unused and thus, the brain purges those memories in order to make room for new memories.
An experiment by Peterson and Peterson demonstrated the principle of transience. Participants were asked to memorize a three-letter sequence, then count backward in sets of threes. Participants were then asked to try and recall the three-letter sequence after different lengths of time counting backward. The results of this experiment showed poor performance.
After only six seconds of counting backward in threes, on average half of the original three letters had disappeared from memory. By the time participants had been counting backward for 12 seconds, less than 15% of the original memory remained. After roughly 18 seconds it was all but gone (Dean, 2016).
Absentmindedness occurs as a result of a failure to pay attention to details that are vital to the recall of certain information. An example of this would be forgetting where you parked your car because you failed to pay attention to the row your car was on or the surroundings that might alert you to the location of your car. Another example of absentmindedness could be a failure to remember an appointment or forgetting someone’s name.
In a seminal paper entitled The Restless Mind, Smallwood and Schooler suggest that absent-mindedness happens because attention is taken away from the primary task and shifted to that of an alternate goal that is activated without conscious awareness.
When the attention is diverted away from the primary task, the primary task is delayed or forgotten. The information fails to encode or be stored securely within the brain. Thus, memory fails to form (Killeen, 2013).
Blocking occurs when a piece of information rests just below the stream of consciousness. This is often referred to as being “on the tip of the tongue.” This temporary inability to retrieve a memory happens when a properly stored memory is blocked from being retrieved.
Often individuals experiencing blocking tend to retrieve a memory similar to the one they are aiming to retrieve. These blocking memories are known as “ugly stepsisters” because they overrule the desired memory like the sisters in Disney’s Cinderella movie overruled and domineered Cinderella (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019).
This phenomenon was studied and published in the journal Memory in 2008. Researchers conducted six experiments to investigate the memory blocking effect, whereby exposing participants to similar words (i.e. BALLOON) impaired the ability to complete a similar fragment (i.e. BAL_ON_, the answer is BALCONY). Experiment 5 specifically showed that the memory blocking effect persisted despite directed-forgetting instructions.
The data of all six experiments combined showed that reading orthographically similar words automatically triggered retrieval of the blocking word (Leynes, Rass, & Landau, 2008).
Several different brain-imaging studies have presented information as to how this process might occur within the brain. As a memory is being retrieved, some areas of the brain are activated while other areas are simultaneously becoming less active.
When a memory is being properly retrieved, the correct regions of the brain are being activated, while keeping areas of the brain where irrelevant information is stored inactive. When blocking occurs, the brain is simultaneously activating the incorrect portion of the brain with the similar memory while suppressing the region of the brain containing the desired memory (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019).
Misattribution occurs when we correctly remember a piece of information or a part of an event, but then incorrectly attribute a detail of that information or event.
An example of misattribution is when we believe we are the originators of an idea when in actuality we obtained that idea or information from another source.
Another example of misattribution is attaching the wrong face to an actual scenario (i.e. seeing a person do steal from a store when in actuality you did see someone steal from a store but not the person you originally named). A final example of misattribution can be imagining an event that never happened as reality (Dean, 2016).
Studies have shown the misattribution in action. A study conducted by James Deese from James Hopkins University gave participants lists of semantically related words. Later participants were asked to recall those words.
The results of that study showed that participants often recalled related words that they were not actually shown (Dean, 2016). An early 1989 study tasked people with giving examples of particular categories of items. The results of this study revealed that people unintentionally misattributed one another approximately 4% of the time (Brown & Murphy, 1989).
Studies by other researchers in subsequent years, following a more naturalistic procedure, demonstrated a rate of misattribution up to 27%. A 2008 study even showed that people could be convinced they visited unfamiliar locations just by being shown photographs of those locations (Dean, 2016).
Causes Of Memory Loss And Forgetfulness
A failure to get adequate sleep can seriously impact the brain’s ability to retain new information. Imaging and behavioral studies have shown that the brain consolidates memories as we sleep so that we are able to recall that information at a later time.
It is believed that the hippocampus replays the events of the day during sleep. Then the neocortex reviews and processes those memories which allow them to be stored away for the long-term.
A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society looked at the impacts of under sleeping on memory. A group of women participating in the study were asked about sleep habits and were interviewed regarding memory and thinking skills over a six-year period.
Researchers observed worse performance on brain testing among women who slept five hours or less per night. Additionally, researchers estimated that under sleepers were two years older mentally than women who slept seven to eight hours per night (LeWine, 2014).
There are certain medications, both prescription and over the counter, that can negatively impact memory short-term memory and cause mild cognitive impairment. Those medications linked to memory loss and mild cognitive impairment have a property known as “anti-cholinergic” meaning the medication slows the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This neurotransmitter plays a massive role in memory retention. Some medications that classify as anti-cholinergic include Famotidine (Pepcid), Ranitidine (Zantac), Amitriptyline, Amoxicillin, Cephalexin (Keflex), and Diazepam (Valum), among many others (Sauer, 2016).
Consuming alcohol in massive amounts can prove to be detrimental to our memory. Whether consumed over the span of several years or even just several hours, heavy alcohol use can lead to lapses in memory, trouble recalling events, and even permanent memory loss.
Alcohol impacts short-term memory by slowing down how the nerves communicate with one another in the hippocampus. Because the hippocampus is essential in helping to form and maintain memories, when nerve activity is slowed, it prevents memories from being encoded (Nall, n.d.). This is typically seen in the form of blackouts, where a person is unable to remember the events of the previous night due to heavy alcohol consumption.
Duke University asserts that blackouts and short-term memory loss due to a heavy night of drinking occurs after a person has had five or more drinks (Duke University, n.d.).
Heavy alcohol use also has implications for long-term memory. Studies have shown that people who drink heavily on a regular basis tend to be deficient in vitamin B-1 or thiamine, and/or lack the ability to use thiamine effectively. This vitamin is essential to giving energy to the brain and nerve cells.
Thiamine deficiency can lead to dementia, a condition that leads to permanent memory loss (Nall, n.d.). Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a type of dementia specifically linked to heavy alcohol use.
Massachusetts General Hospital outlines that long-term memory loss related to drinking normally consists of 21 or more drinks a week for 4 years or more.
Stress and Anxiety
Stress and anxiety have many negative impacts on the body, but they can also impact the mind. Research shows that stress and anxiety can play a role in memory loss and decline. When we experience stress during an event, we are less likely to remember the details of that event accurately because stress clouds our perception.
A meta-analysis of 113 stress studies provided ample evidence to support the notion that stress negatively impacts memory. One of the findings was that stress impeded the formation of memories when presented prior to or during the encoding process. Another finding was that stress led to exhaustion which contributed to cognitive impairment, problems with attention, and declines in working memory (Shields et.al., n.d.).
Another study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry examined the effects of stress over time on memory. The study included 61 cognitively normal subjects and 41 with mild cognitive impairment.
Fifty-two participants were followed for up to 3 years and received repeated stress and cognitive assessments. Results of the study revealed that chronic stress affected cognitive functioning, with cortisol having neurotoxic effects overtime (Peavey et.al., 2009). The meta-analysis also supported this finding by showing that increased cortisol levels were linked to decreased memory and cognitive functioning (Shields et.al., n.d.).
Depression can have a negative impact on memory. Research has shown that depression and short-term memory loss are linked, as well as generalized anxiety disorder and longer memory gaps. WebMD has also reported that depression and anxiety are linked to sleep interruptions which exacerbate memory problems that may already exist.
A Brigham Young University study extensively investigated the impact of depression on memory. Almost 100 adults were tested and the study found that the higher a person’s level of depression, the lower the score the obtained on memory and cognitive task (Kirby, 2019). Researchers theorized that when someone suffers from depression, they experience higher levels of memory interference than they would if they were not depressed.
Extensive research also demonstrates various ways that anxiety and memory loss are linked, and studies show that people with generalized anxiety and/or panic disorders have greater difficulty remembering experiences from their childhood than their non-anxious counterparts.
It is theorized that acute stress can disrupt the process of collecting memories Retta, 2019).
As unconventional as it may seem, there seems to be a link between an underactive thyroid or an overactive thyroid and memory loss. In hypothyroidism, a condition where not enough of the thyroid hormone is produced, cognitive symptoms such as memory problems and trouble concentrating often present themselves.
Research has shown a distinct link between verbal memory and hypothyroidism, as well as decreased hippocampal volume in adults with hypothyroidism (Heerema, 2013). In hyperthyroidism, a condition where too much of the thyroid hormone is produced, symptoms such as poor concentration, slow reaction times, decreased processing skills, and increased memory loss often present themselves.
There has also been discussion about whether thyroid issues increase risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s which are noted for their symptoms of increased memory loss. One study found that participants with subclinical hyperthyroidism demonstrated a larger cognitive decline over the course of the research and an increased risk of dementia.
Researchers also reviewed several studies on thyroid function and cognition. They concluded that subclinical hyperthyroidism could be correlated with a risk of dementia.
Another review of 13 different studies found that subclinical hypothyroidism was only correlated with increased dementia risk in those who were younger than 75 and in those who had higher TSH levels (Heerema, 2013).
Strategies For Preventing Memory Loss And Keeping Your Memory Sharp
Memory loss is not something that we have to accept. There are steps and measures we can take to help strengthen our memory and fight against memory loss. Keeping your mind sharp and your memory strong is a challenge. With so much information available, how can you boost your memory power to remember the things that you need to know? These 10 strategies can help you remember more of the information you absorb every day.
An instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Scott McGinnis, notes that exercise is linked to improved memory and enhanced thinking skills. The findings of multiple studies suggest that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory are larger in volume in those individuals who exercise versus those who do not.
The research goes on to show that engaging in regular exercise of moderate intensity over a period of at least six months leads to an increase in the volume of certain brain regions (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019). Exercise also works indirectly on the brain by improving mood and sleep and reducing stress and anxiety.
Since factors such as these tend to impair cognitive functioning, it is reasonable to draw the conclusion that improved mood and sleep and a reduction in stress and anxiety as a result of exercise then leads to improved cognitive functioning to include boosts in memory and enhancing processing (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019).
Watch What You Eat
The foods we eat can impact our memory for better or worse. Professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins Medicine suggests that the Mediterranean diet may have the best impact on the brain and memory.
Mediterranean diets are composed of foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, beans, seeds, and olive oil.
One study found that people who followed a Mediterranean diet were 20% less likely to have cognitive and memory problems (WebMD, n.d.). Berries, a key element of Mediterranean diets, specifically have been noted for their links to improved memory because they are rich in flavonoids.
Researchers at Harvard Brigham and Women’s Hospital found in a 2012 study published in Annals of Neurology that women who ate two or more servings of blueberries and strawberries each week delayed memory decline by up to two-and-a-half years (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019).
A separate study found that nuts specifically strengthened brainwave frequencies linked to cognition, memory, learning, healing, and other pertinent brain functions (Berk et. al., 2017). A 2015 UCLA study looked specifically at walnuts and found that higher walnut intake improved cognitive test scores (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019).
Above we outlined the impact that stress can have on memory. Meditation is a great strategy for managing stress, thereby minimizing the chances of stress negatively affecting memory.
There is evidence that shows a connection between meditation and improved memory. One study looked at a method of meditation that pairs saying a mantra/chant with repetitive motion of the fingers, known as Kirtan Kriya. The study found that this practice improved the ability of the participants to perform memory-related tasks (Khalsa, 2015).
An investigation of 12 studies that looked at meditation’s impact on brain health also found that there were several meditation styles that led to improved memory and increased attention and mental clarity (Gard et. al., 2014).
A study published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging looked at the brains of 16 people who had never previously meditated and then reexamined their brains after the completion of an 8-week meditation program whereby participants spent 27 minutes on average each day practicing mindful meditation (Ahuja, 2017). When researchers examined the brains of the participants after the 8-week mediation program period, they found that there was an increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus.
The hippocampus is the area of the brain linked to learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. Additionally, the size of the amygdala was reduced which is significant because that is the portion of the brain that controls anxiety and stress (Ahuja, 2017). These results demonstrate that meditation can be a powerful mental health tool to fight anxiety and stress and help people better cope with their surroundings.
Sleep is necessary to ensure our memory functions at its best. According to Internal Medicine doctor, Dr. Adarsh Kumar, from the National Heart Institute sleep is a vital time where the brain solidifies connections between neurons.
During sleep, the neurons have the opportunity to take a break and repair themselves before they are called on again. This process improves our memory and helps us learn more efficiently by assisting us in consolidating and organizing information (Ahuja, 2017).
Additionally, as we sleep, the brain works to connect new memories to older ones. Experts at the National Institutes of Health note that Stages 1-4 of the sleep cycle, where REM sleep does not occur, is where memory formation comes into play. Thus, failure to get sleep during these four cycles specifically can decrease the ability of the brain to learn new information by up to 40%.
This is due to the negative impact sleep deprivation has on the hippocampus which is responsible for processing memories (News In Health, 2017). A 2013 review conducted by German researchers found that the brain is actually better at consolidating memories while asleep versus when awake (Rasch & Born, n.d.).
Just as our bodies need to stay active, our minds need to stay active to boost the effectiveness of our memory and prevent forgetfulness. It is important to engage in activities that challenge your brain on a regular basis. Activities like crossword puzzles and word searches work to strengthen the brain by activating the parts of the brain related to processing and memory, among others.
Regularly adding these activities to your routine, even if it’s just 5 minutes a day can boost processing speed, enhance attention, and increase positive intellectual engagement (Ahuja, 2017).
Additionally, as we age, these sorts of activities help to improve our memory and decrease our risk of getting dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Reading is another activity that can be quite beneficial for working memory.
Ongoing research at Haskins Laboratories for the Science of the Spoken and Written Word notes that reading boosts our brain activity.
As the brain stops, thinks, processes, and imagines the narrative, brain functions such as visual and auditory processing, phonemic awareness, fluency, and comprehension are activated. The stimulation of these areas in the brain boosts our ability to recall and remember details and information (The Oprah Magazine, n.d.).
This report has taken the time to assess some common factors and behaviors that impact our memory for the negative. By addressing these elements and then implementing strategies designed to preserve and better our memory (as also outlined in this report), we can keep our memories at their best so that we function optimally in our personal and professional lives.
Coordinate Your Senses
Scientists believe that the stronger the input is, the stronger the memory will become. When you want to remember something, coordinate as many of your senses as you can into retaining the new information. The more senses you use, the stronger the memory will be.
If you’ve eaten homemade apple pie, you probably remember the taste very well. That memory is strong because you also remember the way it smelled, the texture of the crust and apples, who made it for you, and where you were when you ate it. Your memory is more than the taste. It’s also the smells, sights, sounds and feelings you experienced when you ate the pie.
New information that you want to remember should be processed in the same way. Shift your position when you read something you want to recall later.
Try sitting with both feet on the ground or standing up when you read specific details you want to remember.
Hum lists of things to your favorite tune to help you remember everything you need at the store. Or think about your list not only by the food name but by how it smells and tastes.
Switch Brain Games
Many people do crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles or Sudoku to help improve their memory. Researchers have found that once you master these games, they no longer give you as much of a boost to your memory power. As you become familiar with standard answers to these puzzles, you lose the challenge of making new connections in your memory.
If you’re gotten good at TV show or animal crosswords, switch to history or music-themed ones. You might want to work on crosswords for a week, then switch to Sudoku or another type of puzzle the next week.
Or make a jigsaw puzzle more challenging by turning the pieces to the blank side and putting the puzzle together by shapes, not by the picture.
A mnemonic is a pattern of letters, ideas, or associations that can boost your memory power. Mnemonics can help you remember long lists of seemingly unrelated information. They can also help create an association in your brain for information that is new to you.
Roy G. Biv is a mnemonic many people learn in childhood. The first letter of colors of the rainbow, red, orange, green, blue, indigo, and violet, make up the mnemonic.
Rhymes and songs are mnemonics too. “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” is a mnemonic rhyme also learned in childhood. Not sure how many days this month has? Many people will remember “30 days has September, April, June, and November” to remind themselves how long the month is.
You can create your own mnemonic or use an existing one. There are books and websites available with mnemonic tools for many subjects, with examples of information and how to remember it.
Make it a Flashbulb Moment
Psychology Today magazine suggests that people remember about 2/3 of the details of a flashbulb moment. Vivid or traumatic events create flashbulb moments in a person’s mind, storing many of the details like taking a photograph. Paying attention to your surroundings and focusing your attention on the details can help you create a flashbulb moment and boost your memory power.
Creating detailed mental pictures can help you remember better. Imagine your child has joined the soccer team. You want to remember the coach’s name and the other players your child is friends with during practice.
When you pick your child up after practice, take a look around the field. Note where the coach is standing, and which children are closest to your child. Mark their names in your mind with their faces and locations. Then you can recall that mental picture to help you remember everyone’s name.
The more times you review or rehearse information, the stronger your memory connection is. Students who study the material multiple times usually do better on tests than those who only listen in class but don’t read the book or those who only look at the material once. Researching the information, you want to remember builds stronger connections in your brain.
Reviewing your day planner, looking at your calendar, or thinking through the route you will take to get somewhere are examples of rehearsing.
Mentally packing your purse or briefcase before you leave for the day helps remind you what you need. When you learn something new, going back over the steps and rehearsing their order helps you remember what you’ve learned.
You can boost your memory power by using these five tricks. Keep them in mind the next time you need to remember something!
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