Memory and emotions often work hand-in-hand. Though a person might appear to only remember what he ‘wants to remember,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s deliberately choosing to forget. That would just be lying. But sometimes a person will only remember what his emotions “allow” him to remember. In other words, his feelings interfere with the ability to recall things accurately. The more a person is in touch with reality, the less likely this is to happen because he or she is already good at distinguishing between facts and desire — especially in cases where the two may conflict. A mind that’s good at identifying facts will be more skilled at differentiating between what actually happened and what the emotions ‘wish’ had happened.

It’s also a well-known fact that trauma influences memory. When a person experiences something very painful or pleasurable, the memory can be shaped (or even lapse completely) in response to the intensity of the emotions. Interestingly enough, research also shows that if a person very much wants or needs to remember something, the mind will often accommodate accordingly.

Memory problems are frustrating. People joke about ‘senior moments’ (even when they’re not seniors!) while others worry about the possibility of dementia. Of course, dementia is a disease of the brain, but normal memory ultimately has more to do with how you manage (or don’t manage) your mind, and it applies to people of all ages.

There’s a lot of talk today about ‘attention deficits.’ A deficit in attention refers to a supposed inability to focus. According to recent research, focus and memory are, in fact, related. Jeff Rouder, associate professor of psychology at the University of Missouri, has found that ‘working memory’ is linked to attention because it requires attention to retain multiple items in the mind at the same time. ‘Working memory’ refers to the mental process of holding information in an easily accessible form where it can be effectively manipulated and stored. People with high working memory capacity tend to be more focused. Those with shorter attention spans are more easily distracted. Everyday tasks, like remembering the location of keys, turning off the stove, combining ingredients for a cake or recalling a phone number all use working memory to keep track of the significant aspects of the tasks.

According to Professor Rouder’s research, people use ‘chunking,’ or grouping, to absorb and retain different items in their minds. For example, it can be tricky for someone to remember nine letters in random order. However, if that same person is asked to remember nine letters organized as acronyms, like IBM-CIA-FBI, the person only has to use three ‘slots’ in working memory. It’s difficult to measure working memory capacity because each item might be subconsciously grouped with others to form a larger chunk.

So how can we improve our working memory? One thing that all researchers agree on is that the brain is a vast, highly complex mechanism that nobody has yet begun to fully understand. While there are certainly individual differences, we all have things in common. One is the ability to develop and maintain good thinking habits. This means trying to avoid jumping to conclusions, being willing to question assumptions, and having a good ‘relationship’ with facts and reality — not just feelings and knee-jerk responses. Again, the more you’re in the habit of thinking logically about what’s really ‘out there,’ and not just whatever you’re feeling at the moment, the more accurate your memory will be.

Problems with memory can be closely tied to emotions. A good example is a phenomenon called ‘rewriting history.’ People sometimes do this after ending a painful personal or business relationship. Because feelings at the time of the break-up are intense, the mind will proceed to ‘fill in the gaps’ with ‘convenient’ points of view that serve an emotional purpose. In a contentious divorce, for example, each party will often remember things differently, sometimes with a great deal of passion and certainty. Although people can, of course, lie, there’s also a rational explanation. When a marital partner disappoints you, it’s natural to look for some kind of reason. ‘How could I have misjudged him?’ Or: ‘What did I miss about her?’ After the break-up, people will begin to answer these questions for themselves with varying degrees of accuracy, literally ‘rewriting’ the partner in a different light. For example, ‘Well, I now know he was a liar. He was probably a liar in those other situations, too.’ It might or might not be true, but the rewriting of history not only happens for a reason, but is also coupled with the fact that emotions are apt to cloud memory. This is why, in just about all situations, you hear different versions of break-ups and divorces, even from people who are normally rational and objective.

Your memory is part of your mind. The more realistically and logically you use your mind, the clearer it — and your memories — will be.