May 18, 2024

Why forgetting things is the BEST way to improve your memory: Offbeat tips to boost your brainpower from top neuroscientist Lisa Genova

August 23, 2021

To understand what her grandmother was suffering when diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, neuroscientist LISA GENOVA researched the disease and then wrote an emotionally powerful book, Still Alice, about a woman living with the condition. It was turned into an Oscar-winning film starring Julianne Moore. Harvard-trained Genova has now published a fascinating book about how memories are made and how we retrieve them. 

Every day your brain performs myriad miracles: it sees, hears, tastes, smells, feels pain and processes a wide range of emotions. It plans things and solves problems. It keeps you from bumping into walls or falling down stairs. It comprehends and produces language. It mediates your desire for chocolate and sex, and your ability to empathise with the joy and suffering of others.

And it can remember.

Of all the complex and wondrous miracles that your brain executes, memory is king. Indeed, memory allows us to have a sense of who we are and who we’ve been. But for all its miraculous powers, memory is fallible.

Although forgetting is usually cast as the ‘bad guy’, it can actually be very good for you – being a perfectly normal way to adapt to the onslaught of information that you receive all day.

Our brains have evolved to remember what is meaningful. The brain isn’t designed to retain routine or predictable information. Forgetting allows us to get rid of any unnecessary, irrelevant, interfering or even painful memories that might distract us or make us miserable.

The ability to perform a previously learned skill – muscle memory – is different, being your unconscious memory for motor skills and procedures such as driving a car.

Ultimately, an optimally functioning memory involves a finely orchestrated balancing act between data storage and data disposal: remembering and forgetting.

Now, where did i put my glasses?

The most common reason for not remembering facts and information is not having paid attention. Attention is the first necessary ingredient in memory formation. So, if you don’t notice where you put your glasses, you can’t form a memory of where you placed them.

As we age, we also become less able to concentrate on more than one thing at a time. So, if two things are going on at once, we’ll be less likely to remember either of them, or possibly both.

But be reassured, all this is perfectly normal and not a sign of imminent dementia.

Keys do not belong in the fridge

There’s a very clear distinction between ‘normal’ forgetting and dementia.

If you eventually find your lost keys on the table or in your coat pocket, that moment of forgetfulness is probably normal. Frustrating, yes, but nothing to worry about. 

Most likely, you simply didn’t pay attention to where you put them.

However, if you find you’ve put your keys in the fridge, that’s more concerning.

More worrying still is if, when you find your keys, you wonder: ‘What are these for?’ 

This could be a symptom of dementia.

Oh, it’s on the tip of my tongue…

A very common memory failure is called ‘blocking’. You’re trying to fetch a word, most often a pronoun (a person’s name, film title, city), but even if it feels as though it’s on the tip of your tongue, you can’t produce it. But, rest assured, blocking on a word is a normal glitch in memory retrieval and no reason for concern.

Sometimes it helps to get a sneak peek of the forgotten word by way of the first letter or the number of syllables. The elusive word often eventually pops into consciousness, usually thanks to a ‘retrieval cue’ that’s strong enough to trigger its activation.

My advice? Look it up on the internet. No need to be a memory martyr. You don’t think twice about augmenting your vision with spectacles, so why not your memory?

Memory is scattered throughout the brain as neural activity that was stimulated when the original smell, sound, sight or emotion was experienced. So the process of remembering is a scavenger hunt around all these disparate, but connected, parts of the brain.

If you stimulate one aspect of the memory (a smell or an image), you can trigger activation of the linked memory circuit, which then brings forth the whole memory.

That’s why you might be unable to remember a single word of Abba’s Dancing Queen until someone else sings the first lyrics. Then you can belt out the entire song.

Now master the 3Rs – and ignore the pain

If you don’t revisit a memory, it’ll erode with the passage of time so, to retain it, you need to keep activating it with the 3Rs: reminiscence, rehearsal, repetition.

And if you want to forget a painful memory, don’t repeat the story of what happened, either with others or in your thoughts. If you discipline yourself to leave those memories alone, they’ll fade.

I know i came in here for something…

Often, you may find yourself having walked into a room but don’t know why you went in. 

Instead of standing there, trying to force the answer into your conscious brain, return to the previous room – either physically or in your mind’s eye – to revisit the context. 

It should graciously deliver the answer.

12 secrets of a better memory 

Memory is affected by meaning, emotion, sleep, stress and context. So you can influence what your brain remembers and what it forgets.

1 PAY ATTENTION This means decreasing distractions (TV, radio and phone) and stop multi-tasking. Be present to the sensory, emotional and factual information in front of you: try yoga and mindfulness.


Ensure you can see what you’re trying to remember in your mind’s eye. A mental picture adds more neural connections, deepening the associations and making that memory more robust.


Taxi drivers can recall more streets if they are listed in an order that can be driven. So create a story about the information or event you’re trying to remember and relate it to something you care about.


People with the best imaginations have the best memory. So visualise the memory – attach bizarre, surprising, sexy, vivid, funny, interactive elements to ensure it sticks.


Your brain is wired to remember where things are located. Take a moment to attach a special image to what you want to remember.


You’re more likely to remember a detail about yourself or something you did. So associate things with your personal history and opinions.


Emotionally charged, pulse-zapping life experiences – both good and bad – are more likely to be consolidated and to be resistant to forgetting.


The memory system isn’t interested in the dull. If you want to remember more, step out of your routine and look for ways to make your day special, different or unusual.


Create multiple strong neural pathways (such as smell and emotion) that can lead to your memory’s activation.


People who use negative words perform worse on memory tests. Your memory will function better if it has high self-esteem.


Chronic stress is no good for our ability to remember. Train your body to be less reactive to stress through yoga, meditation and exercise.


You need seven to nine hours a night. Sleep is critical for locking in long-term memories.

Much more from this fascinating article at:

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