"Why can't I remember?" How memory works and why we need to forget.

In a world full of “Post-it” notes, Google Alerts and Calendar reminders, why do we forget so much? That terse note advising us of the “non-attendance” fee, a sharp reminder of our human fallibility. “But I didn’t mean to forget!”

Despite having access to Google, the iCloud and an App for everything, it seems we’ve never had so much to remember. With busy lives and hectic schedules we are always chasing our tails, planning what’s coming next while still worrying about what happened before.

How can we remember better?

To remember something, anything, we have to create a memory, which starts with paying attention. Ah yes, attention, that brain function at increasing risk of extinction as it becomes more superficial, fleeting and fragmented.

“Where is that urgent document I asked you for yesterday?” asks your boss. You’re sure you sent it – but did you? It was just as your colleague popped in to ask you a question and your phone was ringing. Oops, it’s still sitting in “Drafts”.


"You're sure you sent it - but did you?" Image via iStock. 

Assuming you did pay attention to take in exactly where you put down your wallet, the second stage of forming a memory is encoding. This occurs at a subconscious level with the critical time being when we sleep. Our clever brain rapidly replays the days' events, picking out the salient details it believes you are most interested in and want to keep for long-term storage. While you are sleeping your brain strengthens those synaptic connections required for that memory to last. Rehearsing and practicing your newly acquired memory whilst awake also helps.

The key to boosting your attention is to first identify and corral your distractions. Then apply your complete and undivided attention to one thing at a time. Monotasking - it's a miracle, the most effective performance and memory enhancing strategy since sliced bread.

Giving your brain enough down time is essential to remember more. When not focused we default to a little mind wandering, the perfect opportunity for the mighty subconscious to start looking for associations and patterns and create more enduring memories. Plus sprinkling in a little extra emotion, especially the stronger ones helps strengthens memories too.


Where did you file that memory?

"Where did you file that memory?" Image via NBC. 

Our memories are not stored neatly in the filing cabinets of our mind but are broken down to their component parts and scattered across the cortex. When it comes the time to recall an event these are then quickly reassembled to reform the whole, a potentially problematic time as that fragile memory can be easily lost or changed. We might remember our distant cousin Maurice as having a flaming red beard and glasses - whereas the reality might be he is clean-shaven and blond.

Our memories do not become fixed for many years - implying there is much room for embellishment and alterations along the way!


We need to forget.

Yes, you read that right. Forgetting is essential so the brain can continue to learn new information. While remembering some automated skills such as how to ride a bicycle or tie our shoelaces stays with us, let's face it, we don't need to remember what we learned in chemistry class in Year 10 unless it is relevant to us now.

Once more sleep is critical to this process, loosening up those connections that no longer serve us, and creating more room for new ones to help us retain important current information.

A reminder of the importance of sleep. Post continues below. 

To remember more and recall what matters is about applying our full and undivided attention, taking regular brain breaks and getting enough sleep, and perhaps most importantly of all, staying in the present moment, because that's what's most important to focus on right now.

Dr. Jenny Brockis is the Brain Fitness Doctor. A medical practitioner, speaker and author of Future Brain (Wiley) she specialises in the science of high performance thinking and better brain health.