Max your Memory

    Why Do We Forget?

    Our brain has the ability to hold on to many memories, but it doesn’t seem to retain each one indefinitely. For instance, you might never forget the name of your first love but always find it hard to remember where you left your keys. Why do we forget such things? Memory works by first registering information and later retrieving it: things can go awry at either or both stages.


    First, let's look at failure to register. Information that is poorly registered will be hard to retrieve. For example, it will be difficult to remember someone’s name if you weren’t paying enough attention when you were introduced to that person. Now, let's consider retrieval failures. One possibility is that memories fade over time, especially if they are no longer accessed. Another possibility is that memories interfere with each other. For instance, you may not remember where you parked your car today because of interference from memories of where you parked your car yesterday.

    Finally, since most memories are attached to a context, a change of context may prevent you from retrieving a memory. For example, you might have trouble recalling the name of someone from your art class if you bump into them in the supermarket. This happens because the contextual cues usually associated with this person, such as the classroom setting, the teacher, and the other students, are absent in the supermarket.

    Joe was a forgetful person. He was always losing his keys and leaving his wallet at home. One day his mother asked him to run to the shops and buy a pint of milk, some bread, and a packet of sausages. He came back an hour later after realizing that he forgot to take any money with him. His second trip was more successful, although he forgot the milk and instead bought a roast chicken. In the afternoon, he managed to return six of his overdue books to the library.


    Read the passage above. At the same time, tap your middle and index fingers on the table every four counts (count silently in your head). Once you’ve finished reading, answer the following questions:

    • What was the forgetful person’s name?
    • Who asked him to go to the shops?
    • What was he supposed to buy?
    • What did he have to come back home for?
    • What kind of meat did he end up buying?
    • How many books did he return to the library?

    Was it difficult to answer these questions? Finger drumming while reading the text divided your attention, which probably lowered your ability to register the information. This is an example of a registration failure.



    How about doing a few more exercises to understand the nature of memory recall and forgetfulness? To experience interference firsthand, try Exercise 1. To feel the power of emotions on memory, as well as the benefit of cues when attempting to recall the past, try Exercise 2.

    Exercise 1: Mixing Up the Lists

    Below is a grocery list. Can you memorize it in one minute? When you are done, hide the words.

    • Carrots
    • Sausages
    • Pears
    • Turkey
    • Milk
    • Cheese
    • Biscuits

    Here are the words that your niece wrote in a spelling test. Can you check that they are all spelled correctly? Mark a tick or a cross beside each spelling.

    • Brocoli
    • Steak
    • Apple
    • Ham
    • Juice
    • Yiogurt
    • Craker

    Do you still remember the grocery list you memorized? Try to write all the items down below.

    How did you find that? Did you incorrectly write down some of the words from your niece’s spelling test? This is a perfect example of interference in memory: both lists contained food items, and those got mixed up in your mind, causing you to commit retrieval errors.

    Exercise 2: I Wish I Could Forget

    Look at each picture for one second, then hide them all. Try to write down as many pictures as you can recall.

    Max your Memory

    Did the two emotionally charged pictures feature in your answers? Unfortunately, negative or traumatic events tend to stick in our memory and are usually harder to forget. This is probably a way for us to catalog negative experiences in our brain so that we can hopefully protect ourselves from something similar happening in the future.


    Imagine holding a set of directions in your memory while driving. If a billboard advert catches your attention, it may invade your mental workspace and cause you to forget these directions. The same thing may happen if an unrelated thought suddenly comes to mind. Information in working memory fades away unless it is refreshed. Maintaining information in your short-term memory requires a lot of attention. The more you can focus on task-relevant information and ignore distractions, the better your memory performance will be. Irrelevant thoughts that enter your mental workspace and divide your focus may lead to information overload and ultimately errors.

    Key Memory-Boosting Principles

    • Focus your attention on the task at hand.
    • Reduce external distractions as much as possible.
    • Avoid multitasking.
    • Practice using your working memory — as with any brain function, working memory can become more efficient with practice.

    Does Multitasking Really Work?

    Most of us lead busy lives these days, and one of the ways we try to get everything done is through multitasking. Multitasking requires you to hold information relevant to two or more tasks simultaneously in your working memory. This happens, for example, when you try to speak on the phone while also calculating how much you’ve spent on your last shopping spree: you have to be mindful of what your conversation is about while entering numbers in your calculator. Attending to two activities at the same time means that you’re forced to divide your attention, which allocates less attention power to each activity. It is also hard to store and manipulate a lot of information in this limited mental workspace. This is why multitasking often leads to errors, rather than greater efficiency.

    Key memory-boosting principles

    • Focus your attention on the task at hand.
    • Reduce external distractions as much as possible.
    • Avoid multitasking.
    • Practise using your working memory – as with any brain function, working memory can become more efficient with practice.


    We remember what we pay attention to, what we find interesting and surprising, what is important to us, and what has an emotional value (positive or negative). For example, a hobby we are passionate about captures all these things.

    Memorability Factor

    Unfortunately, there are things we need to remember that do not possess these ‘hooks’, such as the name of a medicine we have to take, the number of teaspoons, or the last place where we left our keys or reading glasses. The trick is to try to make day-to-day things such as these more memorable. This becomes possible when you apply the three key principles.

    The Key Principles

    Be Attentive

    Although this seems obvious, paying attention to what you want to memorize is the first step towards successfully recalling it. For example, when you cannot remember where you last put your keys, your memory is not at fault. Most of the time this happens because you did not pay attention to where you placed them in the first place. The brain cannot retrieve information that it has not registered.

    Be Curious

    Memories that are rich in emotion and connected with many others are much easier to recall. Curiosity will help you create richer memories. By being curious, you will create connections between new and past events: you will feel more involved, and this will trigger emotions. For instance, asking people questions about what they do and things they like will help you remember them and their names. Wondering how a medicine works may help you remember its name.

    Be Motivated

    Putting a concerted effort into memorizing plays a key role in how well you are able to retrieve a piece of information. Improving memory is like improving any skill. To master it requires continuous practice. It is not easy, but it can be done!


    These days, increasing numbers of children seem to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). There is also a tendency to seek medical help for this, but is resorting to medication the best solution? Maybe not. ADD usually goes hand in hand with working memory problems. Research has shown that training working memory leads to better attentional focus, better impulse control, and improved learning abilities. Working memory can be trained by performing regular computerized exercises that test your powers of concentration.

    Does Learning by Rote Work?

    At school, most of us memorized by rote material such as poems and math formulas. Some of us still use this method to memorize information. Learning by rote is based on repetition. The idea is that the more you repeat something, the better the chance that it will stick in your mind.

    Limitations of Rote-Learning

    Going over a piece of information several times does increase the likelihood of remembering it. The major problem with this technique is that it doesn’t require you to understand what you are learning. If the memorized information is not well understood, it will not become connected to existing knowledge (concepts) and, therefore, will be harder to retrieve later on. This explains why material memorized by rote is often forgotten if it is not rehearsed frequently. The perfect example is a student who crams information just before an exam but doesn’t remember much of it a few months later.


    Meaningful learning, in which new information is understood and connected to existing knowledge, usually leads to better and longer-lasting memories. Another effective learning method is known as ‘self-testing’. When using this method, you test your memory several times at regular intervals for the facts you want to memorize, either on the same day or on different days. After you’ve tried to recall the information, you check the accuracy of your recall by looking back at the original facts. Self-testing is more effective than rote-learning and a better way of training your brain to memorize.


    Key Things to Remember

    • Take advantage of your brain's plasticity by using your memory daily. This helps keep your memory stimulated and potentially improve over time.
    • When you are trying to memorize or learn anything, remember that attention, curiosity, and motivation are natural triggers that can boost your ability to register the material.
    • Memory-enhancing techniques have proven their efficiency on many occasions. As you’ve learned, most of these techniques involve ordering information and translating it into memorable images.
    • To keep your brain and memory in good shape, it’s important to pay attention to your general physical health: clean up your diet, do physical exercise regularly, get adequate amounts of sleep, and try to manage your stress levels.

    Source: Michelon, P. Max Your Memory. Dorling Kindersley, London, 2012.

    Editor's note: Our expert Dr Juanito Ferreira answers a key question around memory in this article Memory Retention & Supplementation. On a more serious note, read The Dynamic Duo for Dementia Prevention.

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