You know the answer. You know you know the answer. But you Just. Can’t. Remember.
Maybe it’s a name, an answer to a trivia question or a statistic you were supposed to report on in this morning’s meeting. Maybe it’s all three and it’s only lunchtime. Everyone experiences moments when they can’t call something to mind, and it’s annoying. But some people are better than others at accessing information they’ve committed to memory. The good news is you can become one of them.
Kevin Madore, a Stanford postdoctoral fellow in the Stanford Memory Lab, studied the neural activity and pupil size of subjects to determine why some people recall information better than others and how media multitasking affects our recall skills. These are his top tips for better recall. You know, if you can remember them.
While you can likely chop vegetables and talk at the same time, only one of those activities is taking up cognitive bandwidth (provided you are experienced at chopping). So consider how many cognitive tasks you’re performing at once. “The ability to single-task is really important and can help your memory,” Madore says. “People say they’re great multitaskers: ‘I can do 17 things at once.’ And that’s not really how the brain works.” Madore says “heavy” media multitaskers (defined as frequently attending to four media sources at once) have worse memories in general, and when they need to call information to mind, their recall tends to be worse. He recommends eliminating—or at least cutting down on—your media multitasking. “If it’s blocking your cognitive flow, it’s bad,” he says. (Don’t watch your favorite medical drama while executing a new dinner recipe or respond to emails while listening to a podcast.) “If it’s not blocking your cognitive flow, it’s probably fine.”
Take a three- to five-minute break before a presentation, a social event or any other time you want your memory to be in top form. Madore says you can use the time to clear your mind and focus on your upcoming task—mentally going over the points you want to cover, the questions you want to ask, etc. “You’re getting into this state of being focused,” Madore says, and that can improve your memory in the moment. But the benefits of taking a time-out extend beyond your immediate tasks. Walks, Madore says, can be good for your memory in general. “A walk is basically a pause in your day when you’re not so strapped with your attention. Walking and being in nature are really good for problem-solving and memory.”
If you need to be able to recall specific information—whether for a quiz or for testifying in court—actively testing yourself works better than simply reviewing or rereading the information. Old-school flash cards are a great tool for this (which explains why your index card–loving college roommate got better grades than you). Be sure to attempt to answer the question before flipping the card over—it’s the self-testing that makes the information stick.
As for those people who drive you crazy—er, leave you in awe—with their ability to spout Winston Churchill quotes on a random Tuesday? “Honestly, I don’t know,” says Madore. “They probably have good sleep habits.”
Summer Moore Batte, ’99, is the editor of Stanfordmag.org. Email her at email@example.com.