Neuroscientist shares 3-step brain exercise she does for stronger, healthier memory

Memory can be tricky. We assume that we will remember a lot more than we actually do. Then we come up against a moment of struggle, failing to identify the specific details of an event that we have experienced, and we wonder how much of our life we ​​are fully taking.

You might be making a mistake because something you know doesn’t surface when you need it; you have a frustrating and fuzzy feeling of I should know that. Why do we sometimes lack our ability to “record” and what can we do about it?

Training your brain to remember better takes focus

What we think of as a memory problem is often actually an attention problem. As a neuroscientist and professor of psychology who studies attention, I have discovered that there are three essential things you need to do in order to successfully remember something:

1. Repetition

Use your attention to trace information – the name you just heard when a new coworker showed up; the most important facts of the vocational training you are in; the details of a fun experience you just had.

At school, when you studied with flash cards, it was a rehearsal; when you review the nuances of a happy (eg, family wedding – toast, taste of cake) or painful moment, this too is a rehearsal.

2. Development

Elaboration involves using attention to tie new experiences or information to knowledge or memories you already have. You can store much richer memories by crafting in this manner.

Example: Imagine an octopus. Now I tell you: an octopus has three hearts. If you didn’t know this already, as you read this, you are attaching this new knowledge to this existing image you have of an octopus.

The next time you see one or a video, you might suddenly remember turning to the person next to you and saying, “Did you know that an octopus has three hearts? “

3. Consolidation

The two processes mentioned above take care of the initial formation of memory. But moving from those initial stages to storing information in a more durable form over an extended period, called long-term memory, requires consolidation.

It involves forming connections between specific sets of neurons that encode elements of memory by replaying targeted brain activity. Repeated reruns solidify the trail of long-term memory.

Being too focused on tasks can damage our memory and creativity

At the grocery store, you fill your cart and walk over to the checkout line and pull out your phone. There is a business email and a personal email – you read both, then start composing a response to the business email.

A ping notification and you click on it. The draft email is automatically saved and you are taken to Twitter, where someone has replied to something you tweeted earlier. You want to show solidarity, so you retweet it. A newspaper article grabs your attention and you press it.

You’ve gone halfway through the item when the cashier announces your total, loading plastic bags into your cart, because the eco-friendly canvas bags you brought are still under your arm.

Seems familiar? We lead busy lives, so the urge to put as much as possible into each pocket of time is intense. If you hadn’t written that work email while in line, you should have done it later when you could have done … something else.

And this downtime also has another big benefit – it supports memory consolidation.

We value and prioritize being continuously task-focused. And we don’t see mental downtime – when we deliberately disengage from seeking, gripping, and narrowly focusing our attention on an occupying task – as a valuable thing to do. And why should we? If focusing our attention, as well as using it for repeating and elaborating, promotes successful memory, why shouldn’t we be aiming for full focus all the time?

Consider your direct experience for a moment. Have you ever had a great idea in the shower? It might not be because the smell of the shampoo inspired you. It is because the shower forced a mental pause. You couldn’t take your phone or computer there. You were trapped in that wet little box with nothing requiring your attention.

Taskless downtime can lead to some of our most creative and generative times – new connections are made, new ideas are born, daydreams can appear that are not only satisfying, but also personally or professionally encouraging. And this downtime also has another big benefit – it supports memory consolidation.

So remember to be careful when you want to remember, but also let the mind wander more often – the better to remember!

Dr Amishi Jha is professor of psychology at the University of Miami and author of “Peak Mind: Find your focus, control your attention, invest 12 minutes a day.” She is Director of Contemplative Neuroscience for the Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative, which she co-founded in 2010. Dr. Jha’s work has been presented to NATO, the World Economic Forum and the Pentagon. She received coverage in the New York Times, NPR and Time. Follow her on twitter @amishijha.

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