My therapy office is exactly eleven steps from the waiting room. About a minute ago, I found myself standing, dumbfounded, in the waiting room—utterly oblivious as to WHY I went out there in the first place. Whatever my perfectly good reason had been for taking those eleven steps, it was now simply GONE. Vanished. Into thin air.
I skulked back to my office and decided to turn my annoyance and frustration into something useful—like this week’s column.
I suspect that everyone has, at one time or another, endured the vanishing keys, the elusive password or that pesky stove or coffeemaker that may—or may not—still be on. Or the front door that may—or may not—be locked. What is it about our mental storage and retrieval system that can be so exasperating?
We are surrounded by distractions. As we try to accomplish more and more in less and less time, what we call ‘multitasking’ actually works against our ability to remember things. Scientists and psychologists agree that for something to be remembered, it has to be exciting or special. Throwing our keys on the table is not exciting. Whatever I needed in the waiting room was, I guess, not very special. Based on this information, we can come up with some useful tricks for improving our memory.
Dr. Zaldy Tan, author of ‘Age-Proof Your Mind,’ offers a suggestion for episodes like my waiting room incident: Retrace your steps. By walking back to where you started, it’s possible you’ll remember what triggered your decision to go there in the first place. However, pressuring yourself to remember something can also interfere with the recall process. The mind doesn’t function well under too much pressure, especially when it comes to memory.
If I dutifully retrace my steps, and still come up with nothing, I just tell myself, ‘Relax. It’ll come back. If it’s that important, I’ll remember it in due course.’ This releases me from the immediate pressure of trying to remember, and allows me to go back to other things.
As a therapist, I spend countless hours talking with people. In the course of these discussions, many clients, at one point or another, will stop and say something like, ‘I lost my train of thought.’ Or: ‘I don’t remember what I was going to say.’ I take off the pressure by suggesting: ‘Don’t worry. It will come back.’ Even to my own amazement, it almost always comes back before the hour is over. Why? Because the stress is released and the subconscious has a chance to retrieve the lost thought—especially since it most likely connects in some way to the client’s next subject.
What about situations where you lose your keys? Or your wallet? You don’t have the luxury to simply ‘forget about it’ and trust that memory will bring them back. In these more urgent circumstances you obviously have to retrace your steps. Although it creates pressure, that pressure helps you to persevere in your search, which, if thorough enough, will succeed. If you constantly lose or forget important items, then you’ll need to focus on prevention. Take psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Edgerly’s advice. ‘If you put your keys [or your wallet, or whatever] in the same dish every day, you’ll always, without fail, know where they are.’ Consistency is the cure. The more you do something the same way, the more likely you are to remember it.
Association is another memory-enhancing technique. Do you ever worry that you didn’t lock the door? Or that perhaps you left the oven or the iron turned on? There are few things more annoying than going back to make sure you did these things, only to discover (in 99.99% of cases) that you DID, in fact, do them.
Doing something unusual and distinctive to associate the action with a later recollection can be helpful. For example, singing or whistling a silly tune to yourself as you lock the door will help you remember it later. If you’re trying to recall a person’s name, try to associate that name with someone else you know, or perhaps even a fictional character from a television show, movie or novel.
Dr. Edgerly points out that most people are visual learners, which explains why so many people rarely forget faces but often forget names. She suggests, when meeting a new person, to take a good look at them, repeat his or her name to yourself at least three times, and then use the name at least once in conversation. ‘So, how long do you plan to be in town, Murlene?’
Memory problems tend to develop with age. They are a normal part of getting older and, no, they don’t necessarily mean you’re getting Alzheimer’s. However, they can sometimes be a sign of increased stress, where you may be trying to do too much. In these cases, memory lapses become symptoms, and you have to address the underlying causes, such as anxiety, depression or nervous tension. The term ‘information overload,’ or the dreaded ‘out of memory’ applies as much to us as it does to our computers.
Oops! I just remembered why I walked out into the waiting room!
I left my keys in the front door.