New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Secrets That Will Improve Your Memory


Having a bad memory is like your brain is perpetually stuck in airplane mode — it’s technically functioning but not really connecting to anything useful. At times, our minds feel less like steel traps and more like sieves with personality. We’ve all dealt with forgotten passwords and end up answering security questions that might as well be riddles posed by a bridge troll. Isn’t adult life fun?

And then there’s aging: nature’s ultimate bait-and-switch. Sure doesn’t make your memory any better. The good news is most of the memory issues we deal with as we age are normal. But it doesn’t make memory issues any more fun.

So what do we do about it? Well, we’re going to dive into the science to learn about how your memory works, why it doesn’t sometimes – and how we can make it better.

We’re gonna get some help from Daniel Schacter. He’s a professor of psychology at Harvard and his excellent book is “The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers.

We’re only gonna cover 4 of the 7 because those are the big ones (and if I covered all 7 we’d run into attention span issues – and that’s a topic for another post).

Alrighty, let’s get to it…



Transience is the weakening or loss of memory over time. Thanks to transience, we can forget embarrassing moments from high school, only to replace them with new embarrassing moments from adulthood. Daniel says with age our memories generally go from “reproductive and specific recollections to reconstructive and more general descriptions.”

In people’s forties, story recall begins to decline. Word recall gets trickier in our fifties. It’s usually not huge – generally a 10-15% decline versus younger cohorts. When you reach your sixties and seventies this accelerates, but it varies from person to person. Roughly 20% of people in their seventies still have memories as sharp as college students. What’s their secret?

It’s likely due to the effects of education. More schooling builds up what neuroscientists call “cognitive reserve.” Strengthen those brain muscles early on and you have a lot more to spare when aging starts doing its withering work. Research shows cognitive reserve not only prevents the memory decline caused by normal aging but also provides a buffer against dementia.

Now it might be a little late to go back and get that Master’s degree. So what can we do to keep our memories from fading?

You want to do more “elaboration during encoding.” That’s fancy talk for relating new information to things you already know. This helps to produce less transient memories. When new information has no relationship to old information your brain doesn’t know where to file it and it ends up getting lost. By hanging new memories on hooks provided by previous memories you make more natural connections and are more likely to remember things longer.

Memory tricks can help. When we convert things we want to remember into vivid or bizarre visual images, they’re more likely to stick. Images and locations are stored differently than words or ideas and are stickier. This is why you might struggle to remember someone’s name but you rarely forget how to get to their house.

You may have heard about “memory palaces.” This is a powerful technique where you mentally stroll through an imaginary location, placing memories in specific spots. Problem is, it’s a lot of work and as complex as trying to follow the plot of “Inception” after a few too many glasses of wine. I’ll stick to writing things down on my hand, thanks. But there’s a lesson here: hard work is the signal your brain responds to when it comes to memory. Just like lifting heavy weights tells muscles, “You need to grow”, effort tells the brain “This needs to be remembered.”

A less involved method for reducing transience is “retrieval practice.” The more frequently you remember something, the easier it is to remember it again later. This is why smart students use flash cards. Distributing that practice over time increases the power of this technique. And that’s why cramming for a test rarely results in long term retention.

No, I don’t expect you to use flash cards for remembering everyday stuff. So what’s a dead simple way to fight your memory’s tendency toward transience?

Studies show the more we talk and think about things in our everyday life, the better we retain them. So if you want to remember something, discuss it with friends. Read more about it. Even conversing with yourself about stuff you want to retain has been shown to help.

And the next memory issue we need to tangle with? Wait — where’d I put it? It’s around here somewhere…



This isn’t when memories fade with time – it’s when you can’t find your keys or forget you had a lunch meeting today.

You walk into a room and suddenly your brain pulls a Houdini on you. You’re left standing in the kitchen, holding a can opener, wondering if you were about to fight a robot or make tuna salad. It’s like your brain is playing a never-ending game of hide and seek with your intentions. Your brain laughs at you like Vincent Price in a campy horror movie, followed by maniacal organ music.

What causes this? It’s not transience – it’s because you didn’t really encode the information to begin with. You weren’t paying attention when you put your keys down, so you never created a memory of where they are. The reason this happens so frequently with keys and eyeglasses is because these are things we do on autopilot. We’re not thinking and so the information doesn’t get stored. Of course, this problem gets worse with age because memory encoding isn’t as efficient in our later years.

How do we deal with absent-mindedness? The basic recommendation is simple: pay attention. (I used to think I had the attention span of a goldfish, but I think I owe goldfish an apology at this point.) If something is important, get off autopilot and deliberately focus on it.

May be easier said than done. In that case, convert memories to physical reminders. You put lunch meetings on your calendar. Always put your keys in the same place. Set alarms. Get things out of your head and into the world. There’s a reason Post-It notes are a multi-zillion dollar industry. (My living space looks less like a home and more like the scene of a conspiracy theorist’s last stand.)

Alright, next memory issue is… Oh, what’s the name. It’s on the tip of my tongue. Starts with a “B”…



Blocking is when the memory is in there but you can’t get it out. It’s like a mental paywall on an article you really want to read. You’re standing there, mouth agape, trying to remember that celebrity’s name, and your brain is like a lazy cat that just flicks its tail and stares at you. Suddenly “That actor from that movie with the thing…” becomes a fun group activity.

Depressingly, blocking gets more common with age. Research shows college students have 1-2 “tip of the tongue” experiences per week while elderly folks have twice that. And middle-aged people score right in between. Studies show it’s the #1 biggest cognitive complaint of people over 50, by far. Blocking keeps life spicy. Who needs the monotony of always knowing what you’re talking about?

The research here is fascinating. Blocking occurs most often with proper names. They even have a cool name for the underlying issue: “the Baker/Baker paradox.” If someone’s name is Baker, you’re more likely to struggle with remembering that than trying to recall that their profession is being a baker. Why?

Proper names are arbitrary. The fact that someone’s name is Baker doesn’t connect with anything about them. It’s random. But remembering that someone’s profession is a baker calls up a wealth of associations and connections in your mind. (Ooh, fresh bread.) So you’re much more likely to recall that someone works as a baker, but remembering that their name is Baker is a challenge. (There’s even an amusing study that showed people were more likely to block on the names Aladdin, Mary Poppins, and Pinocchio than with Grumpy, Snow White, and Scrooge. The latter are all descriptive.)

Also, with most words our brains can quickly compensate with synonyms (if you don’t remember “banker”, you can say “works in finance” and nobody’s the wiser). But with proper names there’s no substitute – you either remember “Christopher Nolan” and “Memento” or you end up saying, “Um, that director-guy who did the movie about not remembering anything.”

So what can we do about it? First off, don’t give up. Time helps. The majority of blocks resolve within a minute and the more time people spend the more likely they are to recover the memory.

Another trick is to go through the alphabet. Research shows when people are blocking on a famous face, having the initial letters to the person’s name is more helpful than contextual information.

Okay, time to talk about a very different type of memory issue: what happens when you want to forget – but can’t?



There are moments when the issue with memory is not getting it to work but figuring out how to make it stop. Persistence is when you keep recalling things you don’t want to. You enter the enormous mental Costco warehouse of regret, guilt, and shame but can’t find the exit. Internal monologue becomes infernal monologue.

We retain emotional memories better than unemotional ones. It makes sense. If something is dangerous or strange your brain is like, “Hmm, better keep this one at the top of the pile.” And it’s why a powerful mnemonic trick is creating bizarre or silly images. But in this context, it really sucks. Persistence is like a sinister gym membership for the brain that you can’t cancel, no matter how many times you call, write, or scream into the void.

Pushing the ugly memory away doesn’t help. That’s the “don’t think of a white bear” issue, first explained by Harvard’s Daniel Wegner. So how do we hit the “mark as read” button on those distressing memories?

Discussing these thoughts can help. May sound ironic given that earlier we saw that talking about memories strengthens them, but here the talking helps dissipate the emotion that keeps them coming back. This is why therapists — the human equivalent of IT support for emotions – can help.

Another trick is writing about them. Writing creates a narrative around the memories that helps you make sense of them. This is extraordinarily powerful. Putting your thoughts on a page means there are fewer of them jangling around inside your head. People who write about their problems report improved mood, higher GPA’s, reduced work absenteeism, and higher rates of reemployment after losing a job. (To learn more about how to best do it, click here.)

Okay, we’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it all up and learn about another memory issue – but this one is truly wonderful…


Sum Up

This is how to improve your memory…

  • Transience: Memories fade, especially as we age. It’s like being on a game show where the subject is you, and you’re still losing. But if we keep recalling the things we wish to remember, through work or in conversation with loved ones, we can retain more.
  • Absent-mindedness: Forgetting where you put your keys (even when they’re in your hand). It’s usually an issue of not sufficiently paying attention in the first place. Turn off autopilot or start using physical reminders.
  • Blocking: This is when your brain decides to play keep-away with names and facts. Usually it’s just a matter of waiting, but cycling through the alphabet can help as well.
  • Persistence: We all have regrets, worries and memories that have the half-life of uranium. To end the carousel of angst, talk about what bothers you or, even better, write about it.

And if you want to make your memory even better, click here.

But a lot of people don’t want a “better” memory. They dream of having a perfect one. I don’t burn a lot of calories fantasizing about that. As I wrote about in one of my books, there are a small number of people who, in some areas, do have a perfect memory. And you wouldn’t want to be them.

People with a cognitive anomaly called “HSAM” remember everything that happens to them as if it was yesterday – literally. In some ways this is a blessing, but in many other ways a curse. Most deal with depression. There are many things we don’t need or want to remember. They also have trouble with romantic relationships. Forgive and forget is a lot harder when the latter is impossible.

Their unique condition removes another documented quirk of human memory: positive bias. As time goes by, we better recollect the good things than the bad things. We enhance the past. We gloss over the pain and remember things as better than they really were. This keeps us sane and happy. HSAM robs you of this merciful bias. You don’t want a perfect memory.

But you can have a “pretty good” one.

Give the above tips a shot, and your memory will be as reliable as my ability to forget the one item I actually went to the store for.


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