Have we really forgotten how to remember?

A new book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, has been creating some buzz recently. The book (I haven’t read it) is apparently about a journalist’s year of memory training that culminated in him making the finals of the U.S.A. Memory Championships. Clearly this sort of achievement resonates with a lot of people — presumably because of the widespread perception that forgetfulness is a modern-day plague, for which we must find a cure.

Let’s look at some of the points raised in the book and the discussion of it. There’s the issue of disuse. It’s often argued that technology, in the form of mobile phones and computers, means we no longer need to remember phone numbers or addresses. That calculators mean we don’t need to remember multiplication tables. That books mean we don’t need to remember long poems or stories (this one harks back to ancient times — the oft-quoted warning that writing would mean the death of memory).

Some say that we have forgotten how to remember.

The book recounts the well-known mnemonic strategies habitually used by those who participate in memory championships. These strategies, too, date back to ancient times. And you know something? Back then, just like now, only a few people ever bothered with these strategies. Why? Because for the most part, they’re far more trouble than they’re worth.

Now, this is not to say that mnemonic strategies are of no value. They are undoubtedly effective. But to achieve the sort of results that memory champions aspire to requires many many hours of effort. Moreover, and more importantly, these hours do not improve any other memory skills. That is, if you spend months practicing to remember playing cards, that’s not going to make you better at remembering the name of the person you met yesterday, or remembering that you promised to pick up the bread, or remembering what you heard in conversation last week. It’s not, in fact, going to help you with any everyday memory problem.

It may have helped you learn how to concentrate — but there are far more enjoyable ways to do that! (For example, both Lumosity and Posit Science offer games that are designed to help you improve your ability to concentrate. Both programs are based on cognitive science, and are run by cognitive scientists. Both advertise on my website.)

Does it matter that we can’t remember phone numbers? It’s argued that being unable to remember the phone numbers of even your nearest and dearest, if your phone has a melt-down, is a problem — although I don’t think anyone’s arguing that it’s a big problem. But if you are fretting about not being able to remember the numbers of those most important to you, the answer is simple, and doesn’t require a huge amount of training. Just make sure you make the effort to recall the number each time before you use it. After a while it’ll come automatically, and effortlessly, to mind (assuming that these are numbers you use often). If there’s a number you don’t use often, but don’t want to write down or record digitally, then, yes, a mnemonic is a good way to go. But again, you don’t have to get wildly complicated about it. The sort of complex mnemonics that memory champs use are the sort required for very fast encoding of many numbers, words, or phrases. For the occasional number, a few simple tricks suffice.

Shopping lists are another oft-quoted example. Sure, we’ve all forgotten to buy something from the supermarket, but it’s a long way from that problem and the ‘solution’ of complicated mnemonic images and stories. Personally, I find that if I write down what I want from the shop, then that’s all I need to do. Having the list with you is a reassurance, but it’s the act of writing it down that’s the main benefit. But if someone else in the household adds items, then that requires special effort. Similarly, if the items aren’t ‘regular’ ones, then that requires a bit more effort.

I have an atavistic attachment to multiplication tables, but is it really important for anyone to memorize them anymore? A more important skill is that of estimation — where so many people seem to fall down is in not realizing, when they perform a calculation inaccurately, that the answer is unlikely and they’ve probably made an error. More time getting a ‘feel’ for number size would be time better spent.

Does it matter if we can’t remember long poems? Well, I do favor such memorization, but not because failing to remember such things demonstrates “we don’t know how to remember anymore” . I think that memorizing poems or speeches that move us ‘furnishes the mind’, and plays a role in identity and belongingness. But you don’t need , and arguably shouldn’t use, complex mnemonic strategies to memorize them. If you want to ‘have’ them — and it has been argued that it is only by memorizing a text that you can make it truly yours — then you are better spending time with it in a meaningful way. You read it, you re-read it, you think about it, you recite the words aloud because you enjoy the sound of the words, you repeat them to friends because you want to share them, you dwell on them. You have an emotional attachment, and you repeat the words often. And so, they become yours, and you have them ‘in your heart’.

Memorizing a poem you hate because the teacher insists is a different matter entirely! And though you can make the case that children have to be forced to memorize such verse until they realize it’s something they like, I don’t think that’s true. Children ‘naturally’ memorize verse and stories that they like; it’s forced memorization that has engendered any dislike they feel.

Anyway, that’s an argument for another day. Let’s return to the main issue: have we forgotten how to remember?


We remember naturally. We forget naturally too. Both of these are processes that happen to us regardless of our education, of our intelligence, of our tendencies to out-source part of our memory. We have the same instinctive understanding of how to remember that we have always had, and the ability to remember long speeches or sagas is, as it has always been, restricted to those few who want the ability (bards, druids, Roman politicians).

It’s undeniably true that we forget more than our forebears did — but we remember more too. The world’s a different place, and one that puts far greater demands on memory than it ever did. But the answer’s not to pine after a ‘photographic memory’, or the ability to recite the order of a deck of playing cards after seeing them once. For almost all of us, that ability is too hard to come by, and won’t help us with any of the problems we have anyway.

The author of this memoir is reported as saying that the experience taught him “to pay attention to the world around” him, to appreciate the benefits of having a mental repository of facts and texts, to appreciate the role of memory in shaping our experience and identity. These are all worthwhile goals, but you can rest assured that there are better, more enjoyable, ways of achieving them. There are also better ways of improving everyday memory. And perhaps most importantly, better ways of achieving knowledge and expertise in a subject. Mnemonics are an effective strategy for memorizing meaningless and arbitrary information, and they have their place in learning, but they are not the best method for learning meaningful information.

Let me add that by no means am I attacking Joshua Foer’s book, memory championships, or those who participate in them. I’m sure the book is an entertaining and enlightening read; memory championships are fully as worthwhile as any sport championship; those who participate in them have a great hobby. I have merely used this event as a springboard for offering some of my thoughts on the subject.

Here are the links that provoked this post. Two reviews of Joshua Foer’s book:…

An account and a video of a high school team’s winning of the US memory championship (high school division)…


After writing this, I discovered another article, this time by Foer himself. He makes a couple of points I’ve made before, but are well worth repeating. Until a few hundred years ago, there were very few copies of any text, and therefore it behooved any scholar, in reading a book, to remember it as well as he could. (In passing, I’d like to note that Foer wins major points with me by quoting Mary Carruthers). Therefore, the whole way readers approached books was very different to how it is for us today, when we value range more than depth. Understandably, when there are so many texts, on so many topics. To constrict ourselves to a few books that we read over and over again is not something we should wish on ourselves. But the price of this is clear; we can all relate to Foer’s comment: “There are books up there [on my bookshelves] that I can’t even remember whether I’ve read or not.”

I was also impressed to learn that he’d taken advice from that expert on expertise, K. Anders Ericsson. And the article has a very good discussion on how to practice, and Ericsson’s work on what he calls deliberate practice (although Foer doesn’t use that name).

Finally, just to reiterate the main point of my post, Foer himself says at the end of this excellent article: “True, what I hoped for before I started hadn’t come to pass: these techniques didn’t improve my underlying memory … Even once I was able to squirrel away more than 30 digits a minute in memory palaces, I seldom memorized the phone numbers of people I actually wanted to call. It was easier to punch them into my cellphone.”

Note that you can also test your memorization abilities with games from the World Memory Championship at


Retraining the brain

A fascinating article recently appeared in the Guardian, about a woman who found a way to overcome a very particular type of learning disability and has apparently helped a great many children since.

As a child, Barbara Arrowsmith-Young had a brilliant, almost photographic, memory for information she read or heard, but she had no understanding. She managed to progress through school and university through a great deal of very hard work, but she always knew (although it wasn’t recognized) that there was something very wrong with her brain. It wasn’t until she read a book (The Man with a Shattered World: The History of a Brain Wound - Amazon affiliate link) by the famous psychologist Luria that she realized what the problem was. Luria’s case study concerned a soldier who developed mental disabilities after being shot in the head. His disabilities were the same as hers: “he couldn't tell the time from a clock, he couldn't understand bigger and smaller without drawing pictures, he couldn't tell the difference between the sentences ‘The boy chases the dog’ and ‘The dog chases the boy’.”

On the basis of enriched-environment research, she started an intensive program to retrain her brain — 8-10 hours a day. She found it incredibly exhausting, but after 3-4 months, she suddenly ‘got it’. Something had shifted in her brain, and now she could understand verbal information in a way she hadn’t before.

The ‘Arrowsmith Program’ is now available in 35 schools in Canada and the US, and the children who attend them have often, she claims, been misdiagnosed with ADD or ADHD, dyslexia or dysgraphia. She has just published a book about her experience (The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: And Other Inspiring Stories of Pioneering Brain Transformation - Amazon affiliate link).

I can’t, I’m afraid, speak to the effectiveness of her program, because I can’t find any independent research in peer-reviewed journals (this is not to say it doesn’t exist), although there are reports on her own website. But I have no doubt that intensive training in specific skills can produce improvement in specific skills in those with learning disabilities.

There are two specific things that I found interesting. The first is the particular disability that Barbara Arrowsmith-Young suffered from — essentially, it seems, a dysfunction in integrating information.

This disjunct between ‘photographic memory’ and understanding is one I have spoken of before, but it bears repeating, because so many people think that a photographic memory is a desirable ambition, that any failure to remember exactly is a memory failure. But it’s not a failure; the system is operating exactly as it is meant to. Remembering every detail is counter-productive.

I was reminded of this recently when I read about something quite different: an “inexact” computer chip that’s 15 times more efficient, “challenging the industry’s 50-year pursuit of accuracy”. The design improves efficiency by allowing for occasional errors. One way it achieved this was by pruning some of the rarely used portions of digital circuits. Pruning is of course exactly what our brain does as it develops (infancy and childhood is a time of making huge numbers of connections; then as the brain matures, it starts viciously pruning), and to a lesser extent what it does every night as we sleep (only some of the day’s events and new information are consolidated; many more are discarded).

The moral is: forgetting isn’t bad in itself. Memory failure comes rather when we forget what we want or need to remember. Our brain has a number of rules and guidelines to help it work out what to forget and what to remember. But here’s the thing: we can’t expect an automatic system to get it right all the time. We need to provide some direct (conscious) management.

The second thing I was taken with was this list of ‘learning dysfunctions’. I believe this is a much more useful approach than category labels. Of course we like labels, but it has become increasingly obvious that many disorders are umbrella concepts. Those with dyslexia, for example, don’t all have the same dysfunctions, and accordingly, the appropriate treatment shouldn’t be the same. The same is true for ADHD and Alzheimer’s disease, to take two very different examples.

Many of those with dyslexia and ADHD have shown improvement as a result of specific skills training, but at the moment we’re still muddling around, not sure of the training needed (a side-note for those who are interested — Scientific American has a nice article on how ADHD behavioral therapy may be more effective than drugs in long run). So, because there are several different problems all being lumped into a single disorder, research finds it hard to predict who will benefit from what training.

But the day will come, I have no doubt, when we will be able to specify precisely what isn’t working properly in a brain, and match it with an appropriate program that will retrain the brain to compensate for whatever is damaged.

Or — to return to my point about choosing what to forget or remember — the individual (or parent) may choose not to attempt retraining. Not all differences are dysfunctional; some differences have value. When we can specify exactly what is happening in the brain, perhaps we will get a better handle on that too.

In the meantime, there is one important message, and it is, when it comes down to it, my core message, underlying all my books and articles: if you (or a loved one, or someone in your care) has any sort of learning or memory problem, whatever the cause, think very hard about the precise difficulties experienced. Then reflect on how important each one is. Then try and discover the specific skills needed to deal with those difficulties that matter. That will require not only finding suggested exercises to practice, but also some experimentation to find what works for you (because we haven’t yet got to the point where we can work this out, except by trial and error). And then, of course, you need to practice them. A lot.

I’m not saying that this is the answer to everyone’s problems. Sometimes the damage is too extensive, or in just the wrong place (there are hubs in the brain, and obviously damage to a hub is going to be more difficult to work around than damage elsewhere). But even if you can’t fully compensate for damage, there are few instances where specific skills training won’t improve performance.

Sharing what works is one way to help us develop the database needed. So if you have any memory or learning problems, and if you have experienced any improvement for whatever reason, tell us about it!

Forgetting a skill or procedure

  • Memory for skills — procedural memory — is stored as action sequences, in our unconscious memory.
  • Because this type of memory is very reliable, failures are usually particularly puzzling and even distressing.
  • Because the memory is less accessible, we also tend to have problems dealing with failures.
  • Failures occur when an action sequence becomes disrupted for some reason. When this happens, we have to retrieve the knowledge stored in our conscious memory, that we used when learning the skill.

Have you ever been driving a car and suddenly you’re not sure what to do? You’re traveling along in usual automatic fashion and there comes a moment when you need to engage a new subroutine — say, you need to give way at an intersection, or you stall at the traffic lights, or you stop the car — and suddenly, you don’t know what to do. There’s a flash of panic, even while you’re thinking, “This is stupid, I’ve done this a thousand times”, and then, maybe it’s all right, maybe you have to take a moment to get your head in the right space, and ... okay, you’re off again, control safely in the hands of the automatic pilot.

But you’re unsettled. There are lots of ways our memory fails us. Some of these are very common, so common we just accept them — noone (well, few of us) expect our memories to be 100% perfect all the time. But procedural memory — the memory that allows us to drive a car, ride a bike, type, play the piano, etc — is different from other types of memory. We don’t say “it’s like riding a bicycle” without reason. Once we’ve truly mastered a skill, we expect to have that, for ever. And, for the most part, we do.

The thing about procedural memory — the big difference between it and so-called declarative memory — is that it is not in conscious memory. That’s its huge advantage; we could never perform skills fast enough if they were under conscious control. As we acquire a skill, the declarative information we learn (‘use your little finger on the “a”; the “s” is next to the “a”; the “d” is next to the “s” ’ etc) is transformed into so-called “procedural rules”, which are completely internalized, beyond our conscious manipulation. This greatly reduces the involvement of working memory, and protects the skill from the types of interference that other types of memory are vulnerable to.

It also means that when we do have a failure, we really don’t know how to deal with it. A conscious mental search is not going to retrieve the needed information, because the information we want is not in our accessible database. So what usually happens is that we are forced to default to our backup — the declarative information we encoded during the original learning process. It is this that accounts for the lack of fluency in the subsequent actions; to regain fluency, you must engage the unconscious action sequence.

I don’t know of any research that has looked into these occasional glitches, but I presume that what happens is that the action sequence doesn’t immediately engage. As soon as it doesn’t, we pay attention — that makes it even more likely that the action sequence won’t be triggered, because conscious awareness is precisely what we don’t want.

One piece of research that is relevant to this is a recent study that looked at the phenomenon of “choking” — top athletes performing below par at crucial moments. It’s suggested that the problem lies in part in the athlete paying too much attention to what they’re doing. Skills are the one area of memory where too much attention is deleterious to performance!

I think the best way to deal with this very occasional glitch in performance is to relax, stop thinking about what you’re doing, go back a little in the action sequence to an obvious starting point (if you can’t or don’t need to physically re-do earlier steps, mimic the steps). Remember that skills are stored as sequences, and it’s hard to break in halfway through a sequence, you need to start at the beginning.

You can read more about skill memory and about the best way to practice.

You might also be interested in a related (but separate) issue, that of action slips, which are a product of a lack of attention, not a surfeit.

This article originally appeared in the November 2004 newsletter.

Forgetting to do things

  • Forgetting future tasks and events is the most common type of memory failure
  • Older adults are in general no worse at this type of remembering than younger adults
  • Older adults may have more difficulty at remembering to do actions at particular times
  • Older adults also need to make more effort in situations when an action cannot be performed immediately, but must be held in memory for a brief period.

The other day I was sitting in the sunshine in my living room going through some journal articles I'd photocopied. I realized I needed to staple the pages together and went down to my study to get the stapler. Approaching my desk, I decided to check my email while I was there. And then, I decided to check my library account online to see whether a book I had requested had turned up. When I'd done that, I went back upstairs to my papers. Where I realized, of course, that I'd forgotten the stapler.

This type of memory failure — going to do something, getting sidetracked, doing something else and forgetting the original task — is familiar to all of us. As are everyday memory failures like forgetting to put the garbage out; forgetting to take medication at the right time; forgetting a dentist appointment (although there's more than one reason for that!).

This type of memory failure — forgetting the future, as it were — is a failure of a type of memory called prospective memory, and it is probably the most common type of memory failure older adults suffer from. And probably the biggest concern.

It's a concern because it's a failure of memory that has consequences, and those consequences are often not only obvious to ourselves, but also to others. Which makes us feel worse, of course.

But it's not just a matter of being embarrassed. Older adults are particularly vulnerable to thoughts that they are "losing" their memory — and the fear of Alzheimer's lurks in all of us.

So, should you be worried if you forget what you're doing?

Like other types of forgetting or absent-mindedness, it depends on the degree of your forgetfulness. But prospective memory failure is common among older adults for a very good reason. Not because it's a precursor of cognitive impairment, but because it's the most common type of memory failure for everyone.

In fact, older adults in general are no worse than anyone else in this particular memory domain, although they may worry about it more (because they worry about any memory failure more).

In some aspects of prospective memory, older adults are actually better than younger adults! One reason for this is that they are more likely to use memory aids — like writing down reminders, or putting reminder objects in strategic places — to help them remember.

However, it does seem that older adults may do less well at remembering things that have to be done at particular times, and one reason for this seems to be that they tend to be poorer at monitoring time. In these cases, it's therefore a good idea to use timers as reminders.

Older adults also seem to have more trouble in the situation when a remembered intention cannot be performed immediately, but must be held in memory for a brief period. Even 5-10 seconds is too long! Tasks that you are "just about" to perform, but in fact are not doing that very second (because you have some other intervening task to do first) are probably particularly dangerous because you don't feel a need to make an effort to remember them (because you are "just about" to do it). But without rehearsal, information falls out of working memory (the stuff we're holding in the conscious "forefront" of our mind) in seconds. So you do need to make an effort. And often, that's all it needs.

You can read more about planning memory strategies in my book on planning memory.


Planning to Remember


  • Doing more than one task at a time requires us to switch our attention rapidly between the tasks.
  • This is easier if the tasks don't need much attention.
  • Although we think we're saving time, time is lost when switching between tasks; these time costs increase for complex or unfamiliar tasks.
  • Both alcohol and aging affect our ability to switch attention rapidly.

A very common situation today, which is probably responsible for a great deal of modern anxiety about failing memory, is that where we're required to “multitask”, that trendy modern word for trying to do more than one thing at a time. It is a situation for which both the normal consequences of aging and low working memory capacity has serious implications.

There’s an old insult along the lines of “he can’t walk and chew gum”. The insult is a tacit acknowledgment that doing two things at the same time can put a strain on mental resources, and also recognizes (this is the insult part!) that well-practiced activities do not place as much demand on our cognitive resources. We can, indeed, do more than one task at a time, as long as only one of the tasks requires our attention. It is attention that can’t be split.

You may feel that you can, in fact, do two tasks requiring attention simultaneously. For example, talking on a cellphone and driving!

Not true.

What you are in fact doing, is switching your attention rapidly between the two tasks, and you are doing it at some cost.

How big a cost depends on a number of factors. If you are driving a familiar route, with no unexpected events (such as the car in front of you braking hard, or a dog running out on the road), you may not notice the deterioration in your performance. It also helps if the conversation you are having is routine, with little emotional engagement. But if the conversation is stressful, or provokes strong emotion, or requires you to think … well, any of these factors will impact on your ability to drive.

The ability to switch attention between tasks is regulated by a function called prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain appears to be particularly affected by aging, and also by alcohol. Thus, talking on a cellphone while driving drunk is a recipe for disaster! Nor do you have to actually be under the influence to be affected in this way by alcohol; impaired executive control is characteristic of alcoholics.

More commonly, we get older, and as we get older we become less able to switch attention fast.

The ability to switch attention is also related to working memory capacity.

But multitasking is not only a problem for older adults, or those with a low working memory capacity. A study [1] using young adults found that for all types of tasks, time was lost when switching between tasks, and time costs increased with the complexity of the tasks, so it took significantly longer to switch between more complex tasks. Time costs also were greater when subjects switched to tasks that were relatively unfamiliar.

Part of the problem in switching attention is that we have to change “rules”. Rule activation takes significant amounts of time, several tenths of a second — which may not sound much, but can mean the difference between life and death in some situations (such as driving a car), and which even in less dramatic circumstances, adds appreciably to the time it takes to do tasks, if you are switching back and forth repeatedly.

To take an example close to home, people required to write a report while repeatedly checking their email took half again as long to finish the report compared to those who didn't switch between tasks!

In other words, while multitasking may seem more efficient, it may not actually BE more efficient. It may in fact take more time in the end, and the tasks may of course be performed more poorly. And then there is the stress; switching between tasks places demands on your mental resources, and that is stressful. (And not only are we poorer at such task-switching as we age, we also tend to be less able to handle stress).

There is another aspect to multitasking that deserves mention. It has been speculated that rapid switching between tasks may impede long-term memory encoding. I don’t know of any research on this, but it is certainly plausible.

So, what can we do about it?

Well, the main thing is to be aware of the problems. Accept that multitasking is not a particularly desirably situation; that it costs you time and quality of performance; that your ability to multitask will be impeded by fatigue, alcohol, stress, emotion, distraction (e.g., don’t add to your problems by having music on as well); that your ability will also be impaired by age. Understand that multitasking involves switching attention between tasks, not simultaneous performance; and that it will therefore be successful to the extent that the tasks are familiar and well-practised.

This article originally appeared in the February 2005 newsletter.

Planning to Remember


Rubinstein, J.S., Meyer, D.E. & Evans, J.E. 2001. Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology - Human Perception and Performance, 27 (4), 763-797.

Everyday memory problems

  • Frequent failures to retrieve information that should be readily accessible can generally be attributed to physical, environmental, and strategic reasons.
  • Physical reasons encompass health problems, lack of sleep, and stress.
  • Environmental reasons mainly concern how distracted you are.
  • Strategic reasons concern a failure to adopt effective memory strategies as situations and abilities change.

I was recently asked for advice in the case of increased “brain blocks” — failures to retrieve information that should be readily accessible. This question is, I suspect, of interest to many of my readers, so I thought I would answer it here.

There are many possible causes for an increase in this type of memory failure. These causes fall into three main categories: physical, environmental, and strategic. Let’s deal with the physical first.

Physical reasons for memory failure

Before looking at applying new strategies or making changes to your environment, you should first rule out the possibility that your memory difficulties are caused by health problems. To do this, you should consider whether memory failure is your sole symptom. If it is (and I have to say, I suspect this will rarely be true), then, fine, go straight to considering your environment and your habits. However, if you have other symptoms, however unrelated, then consider the possibility that your mental problems are part and parcel of some underlying physical dysfunction.

It may be something as simple as lack of sleep. In fact, considering how widespread the modern trend of not getting enough sleep is, I’d say look at that first. Don’t underestimate the importance of sleep in ensuring your brain is firing on all cylinders.

After sleep, I suggest you look at the other modern disease: allergies / sensitivities of various kinds. (I am assuming you don’t have a major health problem — presumably you would already be aware of this). If you suffer from these, you will have a raft of symptoms, possibly minor, but startling in their array if you stop and think about them.

For example, in my own case, I first considered food sensitivities because of serious fatigue. However, once I found the major offender (wheat), and realized that, indeed, food sensitivity was to blame, I listed all the various things “wrong” with me — things I was used to, that I just thought were how I was, such as achy joints. I filled a page with such ailments! (And, yes, to my complete astonishment, after having achy joints most of my life, I no longer get them now that I know the offending foods). My point is that if you’re suffering from food or chemical sensitivities, you will almost certainly suffer from multiple symptoms.

And, of course, the final modern disease is that old bugbear, stress.

I think it’s fair to say that adequate sleep, adequate exercise, and appropriate diet will ameliorate most of the “minor” physical ailments that impede memory (I hasten to add that I’m using “minor” only to distinguish such complaints from major disorders that require medical intervention).

I’m not saying that ensuring you eat right, sleep well, and exercise sufficiently, is easy! But don’t expect these things not to affect you, particularly as you age (and we’re not talking serious age, here; even in your thirties, you can’t get away with the complete disregard you may have shown in your twenties).

So much for physical causes. What about the environment?

Environmental reasons for memory failure

If you’re madly busy, if you’re having to keep many different things in mind, then you must expect this to take its toll on your mental resources, especially as you age. Don’t compare yourself to others — we are all different, and all have different capacities. Some people thrive on situations that would send another person to a hospital bed. You know yourself if you feel too stretched, if you’re juggling too many things, have too many responsibilities or too many people looking to you ... Don’t go by what you think you ought to be able to manage, go by what you can manage.

Strategic reasons for memory failure

And then there’s strategies. What you do to manage your life, your tasks, your memory needs. Most of us developed strategies for dealing with these matters early in life, when our mental and physical abilities were at their peak, when we had fewer complications in our lives. When these strategies begin to fail, most of us blame ourselves — that there is something “wrong” with us. In most cases, however, the fault is simply that the strategies were not particularly good ones. We got away with using them because we did not, at that point in our lives, require particularly effective strategies. Now we do. Accept that, and move on.

What to do

So, my advice to those of you suffering from this type of forgetfulness is to first consider whether your health is compromised or your capacities too stretched. Secondly (and whether or not these conditions are true), look for strategies that will relieve some of the burdens on your memory. Remember that, in today’s world, most of us put far more demands on our memory than has been the case at any previous point in human history. So don’t be afraid to use external aids to memory. Design your life, and build routines, that minimize the demands on your memory as best you can. And never take for granted that you will remember anything that you have made no deliberate attempt to remember.

You can find more specific advice for specific memory problems at:

Action Slips

Short-Term Memory Problems

Word-finding problems

Tip-of-the-tongue experiences

Multitasking problems

Forgetting a skill or procedure

This article originally appeared in the June 2004 newsletter.