The Real Reason You Have Such A Terrible Memory

Technology is distorting the way our brains process memories. Shut the smartphone off during meetings, and tune into music to recharge.

The Real Reason You Have Such A Terrible Memory
[Photo: Flickr user Kolin Toney]

In a recent training program, I had to write down one career development goal that I’d work to achieve over the next year. I thought about all of the projects I work on daily, my writing skills, and how my role might evolve as the company grows. What I landed on wasn’t a key success metric or some hack to help me write faster–it was to improve my listening skills.


Very few people consider themselves poor listeners. But with the growing number of distractions created by tech innovation in and out of the workplace, it’s easy to tune out and misinterpret the truth.

What’s more, our increasing reliance on technology changes how our brain retains information. Today, we don’t commit as much to memory because we know we can always Google the answers to our questions.

There is an important link between our ability to listen and store memories. When we’re able to cut out distractions and focus on becoming better listeners, we set ourselves up for success. Note the connection between listening and memory performance, and digest the following to keep your wits about you for longer.

1. Learn How to Disconnect

If you still don’t believe technology affects your memory, a December 2013 study by Fairfield University might change your mind. Researchers wanted to understand if our newfound love for Instagramming, Facebooking, and tweeting pictures of every experience we have influences how we remember life.

The report discovered that people do not remember the moments they take pictures of as they’re happening. Our brains turn off–to some extent–when we’re taking pictures because we rely on that technology to remind us of the event down the line.


A March 2015 report published in the journal Nature Neuroscience explains this occurrence in a different way. Essentially, people’s ability to remember something diminishes when a competing memory gets stronger, suggesting that our memories prioritize what we hear and experience. Unless we remind ourselves of what’s important, those ideas fade away.

Lesson: In the professional world, it pays to disconnect from technology during important meetings and focus on the task at hand. If we try to do too much at once, then our brains don’t understand what information to prioritize.

2. Learn to Take Work Home With You

Even when you finish all of your work within normal business hours, you have an obligation to take one aspect of work home with you–the promise to return the next day refreshed and restored. Not getting enough sleep can affect your ability to remember important information, listen clearly to your peers, and innovate within your role.

A team of researchers at Saarland University discovered even a short nap lasting no more than 60 minutes significantly improves memory performance. Our bodies require a certain amount of time to recharge. When we deprive ourselves of a proper night’s sleep, we put our work and mind at risk.

While getting enough sleep might not sound like work responsibility on the surface, deep down, rest is what allows you to push forward and come up with new ideas.


Lesson: You owe it to yourself and your team to get the right amount of sleep. If you’re unable to remember what you hear at work, you won’t be able to act on direction in the future. Learning to listen sometimes requires you to tune everything out with some shut-eye.

3. Listen to Music

History proves that humans have had a long love affair with music, turning to it in times of sorrow and joy.

While studies have suggested listening to music can do wonders for the body, such as reducing blood pressure, causing the release of dopamine, and improving muscle function, March 2015 research from scientists at the University of Helsinki have found listening to music actually alters the function of our genes.

The study found that listening to music increases expression of the glucocorticoid receptor, which regulates stress, depression, and additive behaviors. Many music therapists have already bought into this idea, but finding ways to incorporate music into the business world has yet to become commonplace.

Listening to music at work can be a tricky thing. Sometimes it’s exactly what you need to focus, while other times it’s a complete distraction. This study provides context to this event–listening to music in times of stress might be the perfect sedative to bring you back down to earth and focus.


Lesson: Music changes the way your brain behaves, period. Finding ways to incorporate music into your work, as means of keeping your brain and memory active, might be exactly what you need to stay alert during long meetings later in the day.

Whether you have a hard benchmark you’re trying to reach this year or a more abstract, long-term goal, learning to listen to the world around you can transform you into the leader you’ve always wanted to be.

About the author

Ted Karczewski is a writer and marketing strategist who focuses on bridging the gap between the creative and business worlds. He is the managing editor of the Content Standard, a media site covering creativity, innovation, leadership, and business transformation for Skyword, a content marketing platform and services company