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How to Create a Durable Memory

Factors affecting memory recall.

Key points

  • Attend to the details you want to remember.
  • Stress will make it much harder to retrieve the needed contents.
  • A good night’s sleep plays a critical role in the formation and storage of long-term memories.
Source: Fotum/Shutterstock

Life is full of disconnected events, and memory allows us to connect those events (experiences) and construct our stories. Our memories constitute who we are (what happened to us in the past) and help us to imagine possible future scenarios. How do we form new memories? The following principles will help you keep your memory sharp at any age.

1. Short-Term Memory

For new information to go into long-term memory, it must pass through short-term memory. The contents of short-term memory decay rapidly and are lost unless practiced. More practice means paying more attention. Repetition fortifies memory. The new information is selected because of its novelty, and its relation to our goals, values, and so on. We learn to ignore what is familiar and inconsequential. We acquire new knowledge by linking it to what we already understand. The foundational knowledge in place can make new information much easier to learn. We always have to build on what we know.

2. Pay Attention

Attention is essential for creating a memory for anything. We remember what we pay attention to. Memory lapses usually occur because we were not paying attention, or when attention was divided (multitasking). We tend to pay attention to (and remember) what we find interesting, meaningful, new, surprising, and emotional. Nothing focuses the mind like surprise. For example, although one may thoroughly enjoy a particular conversation, the same conversation a second time around would be dull.

3. Chunking as a Memory Extension

The technique of chunking (or grouping smaller pieces of information) is typically used to offset the limitations of memory capacity. Any group of elements that can be associated with each other can become a chunk. We remember the whole by remembering the parts. For example, a phone number sequence of 7-5-4-1-4-2-5 would be chunked into 754-1425. This makes information easier to retain and recall. For example, there was reportedly a rush to the altar on the last day of 2023, when the date was 12/31/23 – alternately, 1-2-3 1-2-3. A unique way to remember the date of an anniversary.

Source: Image by Dadaworks from Pixabay
Source: Image by Dadaworks from Pixabay

4. Space Apart Learning

Spacing out your learning can be helpful for optimal memory. We are better able to recall information and concepts if we learn them in multiple, spread-out sessions. Forgetting while we learn improves memory. The more study sessions are spaced apart, the more effort is required for remembering, and that leads to better long-term memory. For example, an hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, and another session a week from now. Ideally, spacing it out a day with sleep in between sessions. Adequate sleep could be the most important part of the memory process.

5. Emotional Significance

The experience of emotion enhances our memories. Emotion acts like a highlighter pen that emphasizes certain aspects of experiences to make them more memorable. For example, the soundtracks of movies and TV heighten the emotional drama of the story. Emotionally charged events (successes, humiliation, failures) are remembered better than those of neutral events. Events and information that elicit strong emotions also tend to matter to us. You will never forget some events, such as the joy of the birth of your first child, or your wedding day. To make our memory stronger, it helps to attach emotional significance to the objects and actions we experience. However, memories tend to become less vivid over time. As time passes, our memories shift from storing the specifics of what happened to storing the general meaning of the event. As the saying goes, “Time heals all wounds.”

6. Stress Can Diminish Learning

Stress can lead to memory deficits, such as the common experience of mentally blanking during a high-pressure examination or interview. Thus, worrying about how you will perform on a test may contribute to a lower test score. When you are anxious or stressed, you find yourself thinking and preoccupied with whatever you are anxious or stressed about. These intrusive thoughts will diminish your ability to learn new information and retrieve previously learned information. A good night’s sleep plays a critical role in the formation and storage of long-term memories.

In sum, remembering requires attention, surprise, meaning, emotion, and repetition. A lot must go right for memory to succeed.

More from Shahram Heshmat Ph.D.
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