Thursday, March 29, 2007

So You Think Your Memory's Bad by Barbara Chapman

In defense of your memory - give it a chance before you accuse it of being bad

You walk into a room and realise you’ve forgotten why you’ve gone in there.

You’re always losing your keys.

You forget where you parked the car.

What else can it mean? Your memory isn’t just bad – it’s terrible!Or is it? What if there is another explanation?Let’s focus on what’s going on in your mind in the build up to, and during, these episodes of forgetfulness.

As someone who was infamous for losing car keys, and who would end up rushing out of the house late due to the frenzied hunt for the delinquent object, let’s start with the keys.

You pull onto the drive, turn the engine off, get out of the car, lock the car, go into the house … or, put another way, you perform a sequence of actions that you’ve carried out hundreds of times before, a sequence of actions that has become automatic and doesn’t require your conscious attention.

So what are you thinking about? Any number of things – if you’ve driven home from work you may well be preoccupied with what’s gone on in the course of your day; you might be anticipating the evening ahead and considering what to prepare for dinner - wondering if you’ve got enough eggs left, and berating yourself for not stopping off at the shops.

You are in the past (caught up in what happened earlier in the day), or the future (making plans for the evening ahead); you are not in the NOW.

In fact the NOW is somewhere we frequently aren’t!

The NOW is where our bodies are and our minds often are not – even when they should be.

Think about yourself over the course of an ordinary day – where are your thoughts? How much time do you spend in the now? You may be surprised at how little!

The fact is we live a lot of our lives in the past (mulling over what has happened) and in the future (anticipating what will happen). The space between is often filled by actions that have become automatic by repetition and don’t require our conscious attention. So we pull onto the drive, turn the engine off, get out of the car, lock the car, go into the house … Somewhere between stepping inside, putting our bag down, seeing the post (Damn! Is that another bill) and walking through to the kitchen (I thought I told the girls to clear that stuff away last night!) we have put the car keys away – just one action in an unthinking sequence of actions. So when we need the car keys (and they’re not in the obvious place) we accuse our memory – “I have a terrible memory! I’m always losing my keys!”

But chances are you never gave your memory the opportunity to play its part. In order to recall something you need to have been aware of it in the first place. What all our supposed examples of bad memory have in common is that they arise from actions performed on automatic pilot – that is, without conscious awareness. They are, in fact, the result of not paying attention.

ATTENTION VERSUS MEMORY: You can demonstrate the difference between attention and memory and prove the point for yourself.

Next time you lock the car make a conscious effort to come into the now. Because you are trying to break a longstanding habit of non-awareness it may help to do something like snap your fingers or, if you can do this without feeling embarrassed, say out loud as you perform the action “I’m putting the keys [on the hall table, next to the vase of flowers]”.

Create a hook that will help you pull the information back out of your memory by imagining something weird and unusual (the exact opposite of the mundane and automatic). So if you put the keys by the vase of flowers on the hall table imagine that the flowers in the vase suddenly transform into keys. Engage as many of your senses as you can into this image – make the flower-keys huge and brightly coloured; imagine they have a strong scent, and a distinct texture.

So is your memory really bad? If you put the following tips into action and see an improvement then your memory is not guilty.


• Be aware of the difference between attention and memory

• Make a deliberate effort to come into the NOW

• Pay attention to what you need to fix in your memory

• Remember you need to alert your memory to what you want it to retain

• To bring you fully into the present add a physical cue like snapping your fingers or speaking out loud

• Hook the memory by creating an image that will stick in your mind and which establishes a strong association (as per our car keys and the hall table which associated the keys with the location).

• Make your image as strange, colourful, comic and bizarre as possible – your brain likes things which are unusual – let your IMAGINATION run amok.

Above all, don’t judge yourself (or your memory) too harshly! Understanding why you can’t recall something is the first step to doing something about improving your memory. So relax! Then take the necessary steps to work with your memory.

Do I still lose my car keys? Hand on heart - no, I don’t!

Barbara Chapman is founder and director of Learning Curve for Languages. After spending several years in Canada, where she successfully took her Master’s degree, she returned to the UK and continued her career teaching languages in the adult sector.

It is her many years’ experience of teaching languages in the workplace that has prompted her to deepen her knowledge of the processes of learning, and led to the formulation of her “stress-free” approach. Learning Curve for Languages is the result of her conviction that everyone has the potential to be a Perfect Learner - they just need to be shown how.

Contact Barbara at

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1 comment:

Carolina said...

God gave same memory for every person but the each person have different way and think o memory.
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