If we ever meet and then we meet a second time, and I greet you by saying, “Hey man,” it’s not because I’m an ultra casual kind of guy, it’s because I’ve forgotten your name.
But please, don’t feel bad. It’s not because you’re boring or unimportant or uninteresting. It’s not because of you at all. It’s me. Or more specifically, it’s this thing I have (this thing we all have, actually), called continuous partial attention (CPA). The term was first coined in the late 1990s to describe how we started to deal with the increasing influx of “never-ending” information. Back in the 1990s, this was basically our cell phone and the Internet (whenever we were at our desk, that is). We began giving a lot of information all a little bit of attention. We were adapting—and it was manageable.
Jump forward almost 20 years and our desk-bound Internet has become our everywhere Internet, and our cell phones have become smartphones with more pings and notifications than we ever thought possible. Combine that with social media, our laptops, our smart watches, and our CPA is in overdrive. Our brains can’t keep up with all the stimulation, so it begins to push things we should remember—simple things like names—out of our minds to make room for a very broad overview of our social media mentions and push notifications. The great irony of our 21st-century tech utopia could be that, though my iPhone 6 can remind me to call Bob when I leave my geofenced office, I can’t actually remember who Bob is.
“We’re constantly scanning the environment for the next buzz, or bing, or whatever it may be that’s more interesting, more exciting,” says Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Longevity Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. “I think that does put our brains in a state of chronic sub-acute stress, which is not good for us.”
That chronic sub-acute stress manifests itself in numerous ways. High blood pressure, anxiety, and, for me, sometimes the inability to remember stupid simple things. Not wanting to have the memory recall of a centenarian when I’m only in my 30s, I spoke with Dr. Small, who is also the author of 2 Weeks To A Younger Brain, to find out simple memory boosting exercises I can do to reverse this memory decline, and get back to having the memory of, well, a man of my age.
Here are three simple steps Dr. Small recommends for anyone who wants to improve their memory.
When Dr. Small mentions meditation as a memory exercise, my first thought is: “I don’t have 30 minutes to light candles and incense and find my inner animal spirit guide.” But thankfully Dr. Small is more patient than I am, and he explains that while long deep meditative sessions do have significant mind and body benefits—I don’t need to go all Buddhist monk to improve my memory.
“You can take 10 minutes, 5 minutes, 2 minutes—whatever you do it has a big impact,” says Dr. Small. What matters is that you just take some brief time to let go of the noise and focus on yourself.
So if you have a big meeting coming up where forgetting a new client’s name could potentially cost you the deal, Dr. Small suggests shortly beforehand you sit quietly in a chair and close your eyes. Take a deep breath, let it out, and continue to breathe deeply and slowly. While doing this, focus your attention on nothing but groups of your muscles. Start with your forehead and then relax those muscles. Go on to your shoulder muscles, then your stomach, legs, feet, toes. This systemic relaxation will bring on a kind of meditative state in a matter of minutes.
“Our minds are constantly chattering,” says Dr. Small. “What this exercise is doing is training your neurocircuits to focus attention, to relax, to let go; you’re teaching your mind to let go of the mental chatter. That way you have better mental focus and attention.”
And once you are in this state of attentiveness, your mind is free to focus on the next step.
Dr. Small’s mini-meditations help prime the body to focus—the number-one component of a strong memory. “The biggest reason people don’t remember is they’re not paying attention,” says Dr. Small.
Admittedly, that’s not entirely their fault as today’s world of information overload makes it hard to concentrate on any one thing. That’s why Dr. Small likes to teach clients a powerful memory exercise he calls Focus and Frame.
“Focus is a reminder to pay attention,” says Dr. Small, and if you’ve done a mini-meditation you brain should be in a state of mind to focus. “Frame encompasses different techniques to give the information meaning—frame it around something meaningful. If something is meaningful it will be memorable.”
So just how does Focus and Frame help you make that new client in the meeting meaningful so you’ll remember her name the next time you see each other? The key is visualization.
“One of the most common memory complaints is names and faces,” says Dr. Small. “[With Focus and Frame] you focus your attention, create a visual image for the face, create a visual image for the name, and link them together.”
For example, if that new client introduces herself as Lisa and if she has a nice smile you might think of the painting, Mona Lisa, and the smile of Mona Lisa. Or if you meet Mr. Bender, you might visualize him drunk on a bender. If you’re focused when you create this visual linkage your brain will remember it the next time you see the person.
It may sound comical—even simple, but this technique works wonders for memory, says Dr. Small. “Use whatever first association comes to mind. These are really basic techniques, and memory masters use them to memorize mountains of information. They’re quite simple, and easy, and fun.”
Of course, remembering names of people aren’t the only memory problems we have—just ask anyone who’s forgotten to take an important file with them to the office for the day’s meeting.
“A major problem people have is with what we call prospective memory,” says Dr. Small. Prospective memory is the ability to recall that you need to do something in the future. “You leave the house and you forget your phone or the file you need for a meeting.”
While an exercise like Focus and Frame will do little good here—after all, chances are you can remember what your file looks like, but remembering what it looks like won’t help you if you’ve already left the house without it—another one-minute exercise Dr. Small recommends can help overcome prospective memory loss.
“This has to do with teaching memory habits,” says Dr. Small. “We all tend to do this to some extent—we have memory places that remind us to do things. For example, next to the dinette table, I have my vitamins in the drawer, and that reminds me to take my vitamins in the morning.”
But while memory places in the past may have served as helpful reminders—for example, a person could leave their planner on the table by the front door to remember to look over what they have lined up for the day, and what they might need to bring for it—now that so much of our world is virtual, living behind our smartphone’s glass screens, many of us don’t have the option to have the physical waiting-by-the-door reminder anymore.
To counteract the loss of memory places, Dr. Small recommends getting into the habit of replacing them with prospective review times.
“At the same time of day every day in the morning, before they leave the house, people should check their phone’s calendar and systematically go through all their appointments and think through what they’re going to need for that day,” says Dr. Small. Doing this repeatedly, he says, will imprint a mental command in the person’s brain, so they’ll automatically perform prospective reviews each time before they leave the house. These reviews will trigger memories of tasks they need to perform for upcoming future events.
While the three exercises above might seem like a lot to do every day, Dr. Small says that once you begin practicing them, they can all be accomplished in no more than four or five minutes a day.
“Some of these kinds of techniques seem quite elaborate and complex at first, but if people start simple and they build up the skills, it gets very easy and becomes second nature,” says Dr. Small. “And you learn shortcuts. With Focus and Frame, for example, it’s like learning a language. You have a whole menu of images that you conjure up to help you with different names and words.”
As for when you can expect to see results? A lot sooner than you think.
“When teaching [these practices] to people in a classroom, you see significant effects in a short period of time,” says Dr. Small. “Even with people teaching themselves, we found that within two weeks, people could improve their memory performance and even alter their neurocircuitry as measured on brain scans.”