single greatest misconception people have about memory
is that it works like a camera. That would imply that
your brain automatically creates objectively accurate
records of everything it experiences.
Nothing could be farther from the
truth. In many cases, your brain will not remember
something until it has interpreted it in a personally
meaningful way. For the most part, remembering something
demands your full, active participation. “Objective
memory” is an oxymoron.
Never underestimate your ability to
forget. Your whole life — at age 5, 15, 35 — you’ve
demonstrated expert skill at forgetting things, and you’ll
remain that way until the end of your days. How does
it help to know that? For one thing, it changes the questions
you have to answer. Instead of asking “Why do I
forget?” maybe what you should really
be asking is “Why do I remember?” That
question has many answers, but if you’re worrying
about your memory the simplest answer is probably this:
because you paid attention.
The memory systems of concern here –
the ones that most people are concerned about – are ones
that are accessible to consciousness. Those are the memory
systems that handle memories of facts about the world
(sometimes known as “knowledge”) and more
personal memories of doing a certain thing with a certain
person at a certain time.
older you get, the more knowledge you have, for the
most part. So why do people complain about their memory
as they age?
In part because it becomes harder
for the brain to learn and remember new things. That
seems surprising, in a way. After all, if you remember
things by interpreting them in a personally meaningful
way, the more experiences you have had in your life
the easier it should be to do that. The main reason
it becomes harder to learn new things is that your
brain’s processing speed gradually slows. It becomes
harder to do more than one thing at once, so it’s
easier to get confused. Your brain may also become
less flexible, so it’s harder to change learning
strategies in mid-stream. All these things mean it
becomes harder to focus.
There’s nothing you can do to
change your brain’s processing speed. So far, researchers
haven’t found a way to upgrade your brain’s
hard drive the way you can do with a computer. But there’s
a lot you can do to increase your learning performance
even if your processing speed has slowed. It’s all in
the techniques you apply.