The three steps of making a memory
Quick: can you remember your last birthday party? The day your child was born? What you bought at the grocery store yesterday? What you decided to cook for dinner tonight? Every day our brains have to remember thousands of different pieces of information and even though it may look easy, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes, says psychiatrist, Dr David A. Merrill.
There are three steps when it comes to making a memory, he says. First, your brain needs to focus or pay attention to something. Next it will visualise it, making a mental image of it. Last, it will make associations with other memories to help put it in proper context. A break in any part of this chain can lead to you forgetting the thing or not even remembering it in the first place, Dr Merrill says. Learning how to maximise each of those steps is key in improving your memory. “Memory is not fixed; no matter how bad you think your memory is, everyone can improve!” he adds. The exception is those with later stages of dementia.
“A lot of ‘forgetfulness’ is simply the result of not listening or concentrating properly in the first place,” says Dr Catherine Loveday, a psychologist specialising in the neuropsychology of memory. “If you really want to learn or remember something, then focus your attention.” If you keep losing your glasses, to improve your memory, start making a mental note every time you set them down. If you read an article about something you know you’ll want to tell friends about, spend an extra second on the juicy bits so they’ll stick in your head.
Remember that practice makes perfect
When you were a kid, did you ever have to recite a poem in front of your class? You knew it then, and it’s still true: to improve your memory, you have to practice to get information installed in your mind accurately. “Whether it’s learning to play the piano or remembering a lovely day out with a friend, we only remember by going back over things again and again,” Loveday says. You’re practicing when you tell your mum about the gift you’re planning on buying for your sister, or when you explain a recipe to your spouse – that information will be more permanently recorded in your brain because you’ve thought it through another time. “This strengthens the neural pathways in our brain,” Loveday says.