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A Memory Exercise for Stressful Times

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Friday, April 10, 2020 - 14:45

By Amanda Sacks-Zimmerman, PhD, and Jessica Spat-Lemus, PhD

In last week’s blog post (Information Overload), our chairman, Dr. Philip E. Stieg, wrote about how difficult it is to process the amount of information coming at us every day right now. The barrage of information, combined with high levels of stress, can make it difficult to accomplish anything. Working on attention skills, including slowing down and practicing mindfulness, can help us absorb information in a meaningful way and be more productive during these difficult days.

Your ability – or struggle – to focus and pay attention can play havoc with your memory as well as your productivity. The same factors that threaten your attentional domain (the overall stress of the current crisis combined with psychosocial stressors at home or at work) can also harm your memory. Fortunately, just as there are ways to protect your brain’s ability to pay attention, there are also some steps you can take to protect, and even strengthen, your memory.

Before you can improve your memory, it helps to understand how complicated it can be to form a memory in the first place, let alone retrieve it later. When we talk about memory we are referring to the complex process of encoding (learning) and storing a piece of information, then retrieving it at some later point. The brain structure called the hippocampus is critical to memory, but memories are not stored in one central location in the brain – there are different areas in your brain responsible for memories related to language, one for music, another for emotions, and yet another for smell.

A song whose lyrics you remember decades after you first heard it is a good example: You remember those lyrics not only because you’ve referred back to them so often over the years but also because there is likely a strong emotional component to the song, because you sang it over and over again, because your brain was processing the tune as well as the lyrics, and perhaps because of where you usually heard it (your first car, a friend’s basement, or your school gymnasium). You heard the song and liked it, paid attention to it, and stored all those different pieces of it in the right place in your brain. When you hear it again today on the oldies station, your brain quickly re-assembles all those pieces of the memory and allows you to sing along.

Stress is well known as a factor that diminishes the brain’s ability to encode information, and information that doesn’t get stored can’t be called up later when we need it. For example, right now you are likely watching or reading a lot of news from a lot of different sources, but it’s also likely that you’re feeling very stressed at the time. It’s a good bet that you are so overwhelmed that you are not effectively forming well-encoded memories right now, and not retaining as much as you would under less stressful circumstances.

Since you need to be paying attention before any information makes it into your memory, part of the ways to enhance your memory is to improve your attention to tasks.  But there are also exercises you can try to enhance your ability to encode a memory properly so you’ll be able to retrieve it later. Here’s one for you to try this week while you are watching television or reading a book or newspaper – and it doesn’t have to be related to the pandemic!

A Memory Exercise: Concise Notetaking

1. First, capture the main ideas of what you are reading or listening to by writing them down

2. Use the “5W” template: Organize your brief notes by who, what, where, when, why

3.  Alternatively you can write 5 to 10 bullet points (keep them short, no more than 7 to 10 words each)

4. Review your notes or bullet points at least five times

5. Each time you review, see how many notes or bullet points you retained; keep reviewing until you are able to retain all of them

By consolidating information, writing things down, and repeating, you are enhancing your attention and processing of this information and thereby improving your retention of it (ie, your memory)

Good luck, and please stay safe (and calm) during these troubling times.

More about Information Overload on the podcast:

You can find all of Dr. Stieg's previous podcast episodes on or wherever you listen to podcasts. Be sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode.