How 'memory palaces' can cure your forgetfulness

We’ve all been there: whether it’s walking into a room and forgetting why you entered it in the first place, throwing your keys down and finding it impossible to locate them again, or – god forbid – forgetting your best friend’s birthday, the times our memories fail us can lead to the most irritating moments of the day.

Scientists and psychologists have long-theorised the reasons behind forgetting – and, most importantly, ways that we can remember, too.

The thing is, while we might think that some of us are blessed with a good memory and others cursed with forgetfulness, studies are increasingly showing that most humans have the same brain capacity: it’s just about training our brains to remember.

That’s what journalist Joshua Foer discovered when he visited the USA National Memory Championship to ask competitors when they discovered their talent for memorising. He found that their answer wasn’t what he expected – instead, the competitors explained that Joshua could be just as good as them at memorising, if he used the right techniques.

The main technique Joshua employed was creating a ‘memory palace’ (fans of Sherlock might be familiar with the concept). Humans’ visual and special memory is far better than our ability to remember abstracts words and figures. Joshua explains that once he gave words and items he needed to remember some context (for example, instead of remembering someone is called, ‘Baker’, imagining them as a literal baker) he was able to remember them far easier than before.

The technique is millennia old and was used by Roman emperors like Cicero to memorise entire speeches. It’s so adaptable, in fact, that when Joshua returned to the National Memory Championship the following year with his new skills, he won the entire contest!

So, if the technique is so effective, why have we stopped using it?

Joshua thinks that technology might have something to do with it. Over hundreds of years, the invention of paper, pens, the printing press, computers and smart phones has meant that we are more easily able to ‘externalise’ our memory.

This means that instead of keeping our memory active by constantly memorising new information, we can store it in external filing systems and access it when we need it – meaning, we are less easily able to memorise chunks of information.

It’s all well and good to be able to memorise a pack of randomly shuffled cards, but what about the day-to-day forgetting: you know, like not remembering to buy milk when you pop to the shop?

While our long-term memory can be impacted by a range of factors, day-to-day, scientists including Adam Gazzaley, who researches memory issues, explains that ‘interference’ is one of the main causes of memory loss.

Interference is easy to explain and easier to recognise in our own behaviour. Simply put, if you’re trying to do one task – say, put your keys down on the kitchen counter – while another task is ‘interfering’ with that – like replying to a text on your phone – you’re not going to be able to process the first task. And so, you won’t be able to remember where you put your keys.

So there’s a pretty easy solution, really; Gazzaley says that we need to focus on each task as we’re undertaking it. That means sticking your keys down and then answering the text. Focusing on task by task will help you process each one and remember it’s been done.

But, like Joshua said, we live in a world where we’ve grown to rely on things other than our brain to remember – and creating a memory palace takes time and effort that we haven’t always got. So, now that we understand why we don’t remember things, what can we do to prompt ourselves to complete our daily chores when we might have forgotten them?

There are some super quick fixes for remembering those day-to-day tasks.

Setting alarms and reminders is the most fool proof solution to remembering to do something – mostly because it avoids having to remember once you’ve logged it. If you need to get something handed in before the end of the day; to call that friend; to take your laundry out of the machine, just stick an alarm on and worry no more.

Making to-do lists at the start of the day to remind you of everything you’ve got to do is another way to stay focused. You can consult your list throughout the day, every time you feel a bit aimless or lost. Plus, it’ll help you to stay focused, stopping that interference from spoiling your memory processing.

Or, there’s the option that requires no remembering at all – getting stuff done immediately. When you remember that there’s a chore that needs doing, if you can do it, get it out of the way.

There you have it – a scientific explanation behind why we forget, and a bunch of not-so scientific solutions to help you remember.

So, next time you get into bed and realise you've forgotten to brush your teeth, run back and stick something in the bathroom that'll help you remember for next time: whether it's a sticky note, phone alarm, or a toothbrush-focused memory palace!

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