Memory Stuck (Part 1): 8 Ways to Optimise Your Internal Storage

Because everyone knows that elephants never forget.

I want to start this post with a disclaimer – I actually hate productivity blog posts. The capitalist climate that we live in means that we are constantly bombarded with ideas implying that our worth is a function of our productivity, that our value is determined by our ability to consistently get out of bed and do stuff, and that if we don’t for whatever reason then we are labelled as lazy and subjected to all of the stigma surrounding it. It’s exhausting, it’s terrible for both mental health and your sense of self worth, and I honestly wish we could go back to being hunter gatherers where our only tasks for the day were to locate some food and to not get eaten.  

However. Given that we have been born in the time and place that we have, learning how to reconcile our biological programming with the expectations of society might not be such a bad idea, if only to make life a bit easier. Your brain is constantly being saturated with excess facts and information, you’re constantly trying to mentally juggle 10,000 different things at once and sifting through all the noise to focus on what actually needs focusing on can be a difficult exercise.  

Not being able to remember something is a horrible feeling, it gets in the way of your day to day life, it’s terrible in any sort of learning environment and actively contributes to a decreased sense of self.  

So, here are a few tips to help organise your mind, optimise your internal storage and make navigating your daily tasks as easy as possible. The first 4 tips are about decluttering. Essentially, making your headspace as junk free as possible, lifting the mental burden of simultaneously containing every last little thing in your head, and making room for the things that actually need to be remembered. The final 4 are about optimising, using how the brain was originally designed to your advantage, so you need never forget anything ever again.  

Well, at least until you forget what you’ve read here today.  

Spring Clean the Mind 

  1. Organise your ideas outside of your head 

Or in other words: write everything down. Super obvious, and a cop out, I know. But hear me out. Your brain is not designed to be used as a hard drive. In the 1980s, Thomas Landauer attempted to work out just exactly how much storage the human brain actually has. Through working out the amount of bytes it would take to store the average human’s vocabulary and extrapolating this to estimate an adults entire store of knowledge, he calculated that your brain only has around 1GB of storage. One tiny little gigabyte. Your smartphone alone probably has more than a hundred times that amount, never mind your computer.  

Simply put, your brain did not evolve to be a repository of knowledge. In fact studies show that it is basically impossible for most people to hold more than four things in their mind successfully at any given time.  

Instead, your brain is armed with billions of neurons. The more neurons a brain has, the better it is at making intelligent connections, and this is where the human brain shines.  By writing everything down, making to-do lists, making use of calendars, shopping lists, planning essays or just writing any thoughts you have down on paper, you’re freeing your brain from the strain of struggling to hold everything in its limited capacity and allowing it to focus on what it’s actually good at: diagnostic reasoning, making connections and prioritising.  

A good rule to follow is the two minute rule: if something takes less than two minutes, do it straight away. If it takes any longer, immediately write it down. 

2. Reduce the number of stimuli you expose yourself to at any given time  

The brain processes and organises information using its ‘attentional system’. In short, this determines anything that the brain chooses to pay attention to, and you can only remember what you choose to pay attention to. Billions of things are happening around you every day, but the only things you remember are the things you chose to focus on.  

Your brain has evolved over the years to pay attention to one thing at a time: the thing it judges to be the most important.  

If you’re in the presence of a predator, or about to get eaten, it would not be in evolution’s interest for you to suddenly be distracted. When it’s clear what the priority is, your brain is pretty good at filtering out the noise and allowing you to focus on what needs to be done.  

How the brain decides what’s the most important thing is another matter. This is determined by change. When your senses notice a change, your brain is programmed to draw attention to it. If you were driving along and the road suddenly became bumpy, your attentional system would alert you to this fact, even though before you probably weren’t consciously thinking about how nice and smooth the road is.  

These days, we are constantly exposing our brains to multiple stimuli at once. Listening to music, driving, thinking about what the day holds, writing essays, exercising, texting: it’s not uncommon for us to be doing several of these things simultaneously. When we do this however, we wear out the attentional system, overloading our senses with information trying to get everything done, and ending up getting nothing done.  

Multi-tasking both slows you down by 50%, and increases your chances of making a mistake by 50%. When you put so much stress on your attentional system, you find it harder and harder to maintain focus on anything, and the efficiency of all your cognitive functions decreases. Reduced focus equals reduced memories. To alleviate the brain strain, focus on doing one thing at a time. You’ll do it more effectively, mindfully, and find it much easier to remember the salient elements.  

3. Have a designated place for every object 

Ever been rushing around and you can’t find your phone? Keys? Wallet? The part of the brain used to remember location is called the hippocampus. It’s an extraordinarily powerful part of the brain and is responsible for your internal GPS system. In evolutionary terms, this was a critical part of the brain for survival: it allowed our ancestors to remember where watering holes were, where bushes with either good fruit or poisonous berries were, etc. The hippocampus is so responsive to geographical information, that it almost doubles in size in London cab drivers who pass ‘the knowledge’ – a qualification requiring them to memorise every single one of London’s 25,000 streets.  

However, the hippocampus only works effectively at remembering objects which have a fixed location. When trying to remember where you put something temporarily, it just doesn’t form as strong a memory as when trying to remember where something permanently resides. This is why you so often forget where you’ve put the things you carry around with you, such as your bus pass, but very rarely do you forget where you’ve put things that stay put, such as your toothbrush.  

The obvious solution to the mental athletics we so often do just as we’re rushing out the door, is to have a permanent, designated place for everything that we carry around with us, and to stick to it. A small bowl for your keys, a drawer for your glasses, or even just designated pockets in a bag or a jacket where you always place miscellaneous items. 

4. Mindfulness  

Finally, declutter your mind by practising regular mindfulness. When given a regular, compulsory meditation class, the average verbal SAT scores of students improved from 460 to 720.   

Meditation improves your focus. In a technology fuelled world where we have all grown so accustomed to the instant gratification yielded from dopamine targeted social media design, your internal chatter, or the brains Default Mode Network (DMN) is being constantly stimulated. This is the part of the brain Buddhists refer to as the ‘monkey brain’: the part that is constantly interrupting your thought process with thoughts about the future, or the past, or what you’re going to eat later, or if somebody looked at you a bit weirdly when you made that joke, on and on and on.  

Meditation quietens the DMN. Practised meditators have greatly reduced DMN activity, allowing them to focus much more easily and for longer periods of time than non-meditators.  

More meditation equals more focus equals more memories. Easy.  

How does memory work, and how can we use this to our advantage? 

There will always be some things which require memorising. Here, our biology can help make forming stronger memories a more efficient process. 

In a nutshell, experiences which are tied to narratives, locations, and emotions form the strongest memories.  

  1. Narratives  

The human ability to form and understand stories is the key to our ‘success’ as a species. The telling of stories enables learning at an exponentially faster rate than if we could only learn through our own experience.

Stories also facilitate coordination – essential for survival. If I believe that me and 100 million others are all part of the same imagined construct, for example, a nation, and that being part of this nation means I must follow certain laws, rules and behaviours in order to have access to its benefits, then suddenly me and the millions of others who I have never and will never meet are all living our lives in perfect harmony.  

It is of little surprise then that it is evolution’s interest that stories form powerful memories. In a study where participants were asked to remember a string of words, those that were told to string them together in a narrative of their choice remembered 73%, whereas those who just memorised them as an independent list of words only remembered 13%. 

It’s the same logic as all of those acronyms you learnt as a kid – you’ll probably never forget Richard Of York Giving Battle In Vain

There are less than a dozen people throughout history who have managed to memorise more than 20,000 numbers of Pi. Yet actors play Hamlet and memorise all 50,000 letters worth of their lines all the time. This is how powerful a narrative is in our brain. When we memorise letters, we group them into words, add concepts to each word, and weave a story out of these concepts (sentences and paragraphs). Suddenly, memorising hundreds if not thousands of letters becomes quite a simple task, but memorising even 10 random numbers is quite mentally strenuous.  

If you have a list of names, facts or information to remember, transform it into a story. Learn the story, and you’ve learnt the information.   

2. Emotion 

Moments that are emotionally charged are also form the strongest memories. When you have an emotional experience, your amygdala (the part of the brain that processes emotions) up-regulates the hippocampus and enables it to form an even stronger memory.  

Again, this makes sense. Memories which are associated with a strong feeling of emotion – fear, happiness, hunger, sadness – are way more likely to hold an evolutionary lesson than events where we felt neutral.  

Studies which have asked participants to remember a number of different faces are 70% more likely to recall ones which were making an emotionally distinguishable face – smiling or frowning et cetera.  

A different study examined the strength of memories held by 70 year olds. As you would expect, there was a pretty strong negative correlation between the number of memories they held for each period and the length of time that had passed. However, there was a significant increase in the amount of memories they held from their early 20s. This is because your early adult life is often a very emotionally charged time, fuelled with lots of change and uncertainty.  

If you need to remember something, try and attach an emotional image to it. This will activate your amygdala in encouraging your hippocampus to form a stronger, long term memory, and you’ll be more likely to remember it.  

3. Location  

As we’ve already discussed, the hippocampus is responsible for both your GPS system and your memories. It makes sense, therefore, that it’s going to find it far easier to create memories which are associated with a place.  

In a study asking New Yorkers about their memories of 9/11, the first thing 80% of participants could remember is where they were. If you think back to any childhood memories you have, the first image is likely to be of the place you were in and then the rest follows from there.  

If you need to remember a string of information or facts, associate them with a location or journey that you know really well. For example, if you wish to recall the names of all the American presidents, place them at different points along your journey to work. George Washington is there as you leave your front door, John Adams is at the end of your street, Thomas Jefferson is there at the bus stop… you get the idea. It sounds crazy, I know, but trust me and give it a go.  

4. Sleep

The final, best thing you can do for yourself and your memory is to get 8 hours of sleep every night. Sleep is when your brain presses save on all of your memories from the day. Without sleep, there are no memories. It’s that simple.  

Sleep is responsible for consolidating your factual memories, your episodic memories, your ‘muscle’ memories, just about everything you learn to do in the day is perfected and optimised by a good night’s sleep. 

Get your 8 hours, and wake up full of knowledge and information. 

Related: Slept On: Why Sleeping More Will Change Your Life

Memory athletes 

I know some of these techniques might sound a bit far fetched… surely nobody actually uses these? Well, meet Yanjaa Wintersoul. 

Yanjaa is a memory athlete and polyglot and has won three world records in memory championships. She continually performs amazing memory feats in interviews and on TV shows, such as successfully memorising 500 numbers in 10 minutes.  

When asked how she does it, Yanjaa explains that it’s actually very simple. She turns every number into a letter. 5 becomes an S, 4 becomes an A, etc. This makes it very easy to turn a string of numbers into words. 546788 becomes SAG TBB. Yanjaa says that she envisions a saggy man covered in tabbouleh – the more emotionally charged the image the better, and places this image at the first step of her route to work.  

Suddenly, 500 numbers becomes 166 words. If an average sentence has 20 words in, she now has to memorise 8 sentences in 10 minutes – a feat made much easier by associating each part with her route to work.  

This is a technique which will of course take a lot of practice, and unless you are Yanjaa Wintersoul you might not have a 100% success rate, but even if you remember 60%, I promise you that’s going to be a marked improvement on how you would have done had you just tried to memorise by rote learning a string of 500 numbers.  

Yanjaa has often said that the book ‘Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything’ completely changed her life. You can find her talking about it here, and purchase it here.  

To sum up: 8 Tips to Optimise Your Internal Storage: 

Step 1: Declutter Your Mind  

  • Organise your ideas outside of your head 
  • Reduce the amount of stimuli you expose yourself to  
  • Have a fixed, designated place for every object  
  • Practice regular mindfulness 

Step 2: Use Memory Techniques that Take Advantage of Your Biology 

  • Compose narratives out of facts
  • Associate information with strong emotion  
  • Mentally place visual stimulus along your daily commute 
  • Sleep for at least 8 hours every night  
Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon… Memory Stuck: Flexible Brains & The Justice System  

Want to read more? Try Daniel Levitin’s ‘The Organised Mind’, available here or Kevin Horsley’s ‘Unlimited Memory: How to Use Advanced Learning Strategies to Learn Faster, Remember More and Be More Productive’, available here.

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