Will you try something for me?
Pull out a piece of paper. Then, from memory, draw the back side of a standard dollar coin (our international friends can use another coin of their choosing).
Once you’re done, pull a dollar out of your wallet or purse and compare.
Not quite the same, are they? Perhaps they’re not even close. Yet this design has likely remained the same throughout your entire life.
So why is it so difficult to just pull the image from memory and replicate it?
Because memory is mostly about forgetting.
Strange, right? But it makes sense if you think about it.
Think of the brain as an organic computer.
Our RAM – short term memory – is designed to store information for a limited period of time (around seven items every 15-30 seconds, according to Atkinson and Shiffrin) with the option to dump it when it’s no longer required, or to store it on the hard drive.
The hard drive is, of course, our long term memory. It allows us to retain virtually unlimited data, though only so much can be accessed at any one time, and there’s always the chance of it being corrupted while in storage.
What ultimately makes its way onto our hard drive is what matters most, or what appeals most to us.
There are several theories as to why this occurs, but the most viable of all is that of retrieval failure. First fully tested in 1975 by Godden and Baddeley, the theory goes that the context in which a memory is formed is critical to our ability to retain and recall it. That’s because memory is cued by internal and external simulation; the closer a setting is to the one in which you learnt information, the easier it is to remember that information.
That’s why we can’t quite remember what the back of a dollar coin looks like, but on pub trivia night can easily recite an obscure but fascinating fact we read on the inside of a beer bottle cap 20 years ago.
Those frustrating moments when you have some recollection is on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t quite formulate it in words is retrieval failure in full effect. Once we’re at that point where memory starts fading, neuroscience says there’s little we can do about it.
However, there are some simple activities you can practice daily to ensure a memory stays strong and intact for as long as possible:
Hit the Repeat Button
In a 2015 study entitled Consolidation of Complex Events via Reinstatement in Posterior Cingulate Cortex, researcher Dr Chris Bird states “Memory can be improved by a period of inactivity following learning, presumably because consolidation mechanisms can operate unhampered by interfering cognitive activity”.
In the experiment, subjects who took a consolation period (around 40 seconds) to dwell on a Youtube video they watched could recall more about it than those instructed to move on.
As you might expect, meditation also offers a similar result. By throttling the brain’s processing ability, studies have shown meditation can boost normal brain function in just two months!
In Godden and Baddeley’s retrieval failure study, they asked two groups of experienced divers to memorise a set of words. One group sat at on the water’s edge while they studied the list, while the other completely submerged.
The groups then did their best to recite these words, first in the location where they read the list, then in the opposite location. Both groups performed best in their original positions.
There are two takeaways here. The first is, as we see with the divers underwater, that it’s beneficial to have a comfortable space in which to construct memories (via study, research etc.). Most of us would not have had the ability to recall most of the words on those lists if we were asked to learn them upon the ocean floor, but these men and women were familiar with the territory.
The second, interestingly enough, is the exact opposite.
You don’t need a comfortable area to create powerful memories, as long as you can make yourself comfortable. Sitting in their wetsuits with masks atop their head, the divers on land must have felt like fish out of water, but overall they performed best because they could get comfortable in both locations easily.
Imagine how wet and cold those who started underwater must have felt when trying to recall the words on land, and you can understand why comfort plays such an important part in improving your memory.
See the Sights
When we’re not relaxing, the next best thing is to keep moving through exercise.
In a 2016 paper on how running impacts memory function, German scientist Emrah Duzel analysed the brain’s reaction to entering new locations. He found that as the scenery shifted, the subjects’ minds reached out for new information, improving cognitive functions and releasing cathepsin B, a protein that inspires the creation of new neurons in the hippocampus, an important region for memory development.
Duzel hopes his research will open up new paths (literally) to memory retention. For now, a casual jog is the way to go.
You were probably expecting this one.
When we sleep, the gears that service memory consolidation kick into overdrive, resulting in a 25% increase in retention. Hugely significant.
Think the best way to study is to burn the midnight oil? Think again.
For 8 Percenters looking to better themselves and their business, memory is one of our most powerful tools. So get started on the activities listed above today, to ensure it remains keen and active.