Oh, how familiar it is: You put your phone down and a few minutes later, you’re looking for it in the kitchen, in your purse, on the floor — did I leave it in the car? Or you run into a neighbor and while you chat about their dog’s cuteness, you’re frantically searching your brain for their name. Or you head to the store to pick up just five simple items and wander the aisles trying to remember three of them.
When this happens, you might start wondering whether this is the start of a brain decline that’s going to cascade into dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. The reassuring news, however, is that there are many reasons — non-scary, everyday reasons — why we forget things. And there are tips and tricks, as well as solid lifestyle changes, that can help bolster your brainpower and strengthen your memory overall.
How memory works
Here’s an explanation from Lisa Genova, a neuroscientist and bestselling author of Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting (whose TedTalk has racked up over 3 million views). “Our senses are exposed to a lot of information, emotions and language,” she says. “If we’re awake for 16 hours a day, that’s a lot of seconds of seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling. Your brain takes in all of what you perceive and pay attention to, and it translates that into neurological language. And that information, which is stored and becomes active in disparate places in your brain, now becomes woven into a single pattern of neurological activity.
“Then, the next step is that we’ve got to be able to retrieve it,” Genova continues. “We’ve got this pattern, that neural circuit that’s connecting different parts of the brain — like, ‘I saw, heard and felt this about something.’ So now those three things are connected and become a single thing that can be perceived as a memory — and if we want to be able to recall it, then we need to be able to reactivate that neural circuit. And that is the experience of remembering.”
Why can’t we remember things?
There are a host of reasons why we may have trouble reactivating the neural circuit that Genova describes. Some of them have to do with our fast-paced days, moving from one task to another while we’re also keeping our eyes on our phones and our kids and our jobs and thinking about our shopping list and whether we need to check in on our parents. We think we’re much better at multi-tasking than we actually are (more on that below!). There are also larger lifestyle factors that can dull our brains, such as skimping on sleep and not moving our bodies enough. The flip side, though, is that there are actionable steps you can take — and that by doing them proactively, you can reduce some of the anxiety that follows those “I lost my keys again?!” moments.
How to remember things better
So what can help us sharpen our memory? Here are some of Genova’s suggestions, as well as ideas from studies that have delved into memory:
Use the cues around you
Here’s a scenario you’ll recognize: You’re getting ready to, say, climb into bed to read before shutting off the light, and you realize your reading glasses are down in the kitchen. But when you head downstairs and get to the kitchen, you look around and wonder, Why am I here? What did I come downstairs to get?
Our working memory (sometimes called short-term memory) is set up to only hold onto things for 10 to 15 seconds, says Genova. “When you’re in your bedroom, the cues are there— your book is on the nightstand, it’s nighttime, your bed is ready — but you get to the kitchen and the surrounding cues are the fridge and the tea kettle on the stove. And you might think, ‘Did I come downstairs because I’m hungry or wanted tea?’ Because the cues, the surrounding environment, is sending your neural activity down pathways that lead to a meal or tea, and there’s nothing there that triggers the memory of what you intended to get. So when this happens to you, if you show up in a room and don’t know why you’re there, go back to the previous room — even in your mind’s eye. Look around at the cues that are there and it will probably deliver the memory of what you intended to get.”
Working memory is like information written on a post-it note in disappearing ink, says Genova. “It’s only going to last a little while. Our brains only go past working memory if something is meaningful, emotional, surprising or new.” And that’s okay, she adds — you don’t need to remember every cup of coffee, every conversation, every load of laundry. “But if your daughter texts you to say she’s just gotten engaged? You’ll remember that because it’s meaningful, emotional and surprising. That’s what kicks it from being a working memory that evaporates in a few seconds versus something that may stick around.”
“Attention is the golden ticket of memory,” says Genova. “It’s the first essential ingredient in remembering anything past this present moment. Though it sounds simple, we often don’t use this, and then we think we forget something. But it’s actually not that we’ve forgotten — we never created the memory in the first place if we didn’t pay attention.”
Let’s say you put your keys or phone or glasses down on the counter and then go off to do a bunch of other things. “A couple of minutes later you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t remember where I put my glasses. What is wrong with my memory?’ Well, you never created a memory, because to do that you need the neural input of attention,” says Genova. If you don’t pay attention to, say, putting your phone down on the closet shelf while digging for your sneakers (ahem, hello me), then even though your brain “saw” you doing that, it will never move to remembering it in your brain. “Try to be mindful and give things a moment’s attention — even say it out loud, because then you’re giving your auditory cortex a chance to have more input: ‘I’m putting my glasses on the kitchen counter’ before you walk away. Then you’re actually creating a memory.”
Write it down
Are you someone who remembers things much better when you’ve jotted them down? There’s a reason why that’s a powerful tool, says Genova. “Think of memory as nodes of attachment in the brain,” she says. “So if I just say some words, they have some meaning for me, but if I write them down, now I’m using another part of my brain. It involves more senses. If you think of the brain as a neural network, the more points of attachment there are to a memory, the more possibilities you have for accessing it later.”
There’s another, important reason why writing things down is a good practice, and it has to do with the way our brains are designed, says Genova. “Our brains are not designed to remember to do things later. This is called prospective memory, and it is fraught with errors and forgetting. People think, ‘Oh, it’s cheating if I use a to-do list or checklist, because I should be working that part of my brain, or it’s going to get weaker.’ But it’s actually very good practice to outsource the job and write it down. Don’t expect that your brain is going to remember anything you need to do later — memory requires that the exact right cue is available in the exact right place. You’re going to forget. Write things down —this isn’t cheating.”
In a 2014 study, researchers found that college students retained class information better when taking notes longhand rather than typing them out on their laptops. It had to do with how the brain encoded the information as they were taking it down; to put it simply, by writing the information down, the students were processing it rather than merely transcribing it, the researchers said.
Teach it to someone else
There’s something called the Protégé Effect: We unconsciously put more effort into learning something if we’re going to teach it to someone else. Also, when we do teach it to someone else, we’re reinforcing the information in our own brains. So if you’re learning some new computer software program at work, think about passing along that knowledge to a colleague — it’ll help cement your own know-how.
Use visual linking
Want to remember a coffee meeting with a client at 2 p.m., and can’t stop to write it down? Visualize that client holding a cup of coffee and sitting on top of a clock that reads 2 p.m. Make it vivid in your mind (maybe even a little silly or outrageous!) so that it sticks. Again, this helps cement the thought by calling on different senses. A similar technique could help you remember people’s names, if you make a connection when, say, you’re meeting them at a party: George has glasses. Linda’s in leopard print.
Do you tend to forget your car keys when you walk out the door, and then need to retrace your steps when you get to the car? Always, always put your keys in the same place —preferably right by the door — as soon as you get home. Our lives are so busy; make it easy on yourself to remember important things by setting up routines that support you.
This is an oft-suggested tactic from experts in the memory field: Whatever it is you’re trying to remember, divide it into chunks of information. You can more easily remember a series of numbers (say, 5-6-8-7-4-2-2) as groups (56-87-422). And maybe you’ll be able to remember to pick up things at the supermarket if you group your mental list into aisles: dairy (milk, yogurt, eggs), produce (berries and asparagus), and bread (rolls and wheat bread). Still, Genova is right: To make sure you remember, it’s better to write that list down!
Lifestyle changes to boost your memory
You can help keep your brain humming and better able to retrieve memories by focusing on these simple factors — all of which have other multiple benefits for your overall health.
A longterm study published last year in BMJ Public Health underscored other findings on the benefits of exercise on memory, including by the CDC: It found that moderate and vigorous physical activity was associated with higher cognitive scores, including on memory tests. Besides the physiological benefits of exercise to the brain, the researchers pointed out that getting structured exercise involves self-motivation, social interaction and planning, all of which are said to be stimulating for cognition. This doesn’t mean you need to run marathons: It can include brisk walking, HIIT workouts, dancing and swimming. “Exercise is a total brain activity,” says neurologist Douglas Scharre, M.D., of the Center for Cognitive and Memory Disorders at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center. “As you exercise you’re building up brain connections and brain reserve, and forming more neuron-to-neuron connections. The more complex the exercise, it’s likely the more connections are made. However, any exercise is beneficial.”
When to see a doctor
If you’re feeling more forgetful than not during the day and nothing seems to help, if your memory loss is associated with increasing confusion or behavior changes, or if your family and friends are concerned that your forgetfulness seems to be increasing, you should speak to your doctor right away. There are cognitive and neurological tests that can determine if you have a more serious medical situation.
Lisa (she/her) is the executive director of the Hearst Health Newsroom, a team that produces health and wellness content for Good Housekeeping, Prevention and Woman’s Day. Formerly the executive editor of Women’s Health, The Good Life and Parenting magazines and a senior editor at Esquire and Glamour, she specializes in producing investigative health reports and other stories that help people live their healthiest possible lives. She has won many editing awards, including the National Magazine Award.