Is it a Challenge to Remember?

Memory problems are frustrating. People joke about “senior moments” while others worry about the possibility of dementia. Dementia is actually 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.

Memory and emotions 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’s just lying. But sometimes a person will only remember what her emotions allow her to remember. In other words, her feelings interfere with the ability to recall things accurately. The more a person is in touch with reality, i.e., facts vs. “wishes”, the less likely this is to happen.

When a person experiences something 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 wants or needs to remember something, the mind will accommodate accordingly.

Much of the hysteria over “attention deficit” is finally being debunked, but a deficit in attention refers to the supposed inability to focus. 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 simultaneously retain multiple items in the mind. 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 or turning off the stove all use working memory to keep track of significant tasks.

According to that 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 actual capacity because items can be subconsciously grouped with others to form a larger chunk.

So how can we improve our working memory? While there are certainly individual differences, we all have things in common. One is the ability to develop and maintain good thinking habits, e.g., not jumping to conclusions; being willing to question assumptions, and staying grounded in facts and 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 tied to emotions. A good example is a phenomenon called “rewriting history.” People sometimes do this after ending a painful relationship. Because feelings at the time of the break-up are intense, the mind “fills 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 lie, of course, 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 breakup, people 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 probably lied in those other situations, too.” It might or might not be true, but is also coupled with the fact that emotions are apt to cloud memory.

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



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