8 Ways To Remember Something Right Now

06/15/2015 08:46 am ET | Updated Jun 15, 2015
Shutterstock / Peshkova

By Anna Medaris Miller for U.S. News

Yesterday, it was where you parked the car. Today it’s the new co-worker’s name. If tomorrow you can’t remember an item on your mental grocery list, you may think you’re losing your mind. More likely? You’re human. “What I know about memory is how fallible it is,” says Neil Mulligan, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina. Still, there are strategies to better find memories the moment you need them. Mulligan and others share eight:

1. Do the groundwork.
If you want to recall something right now, you’ll be most successful if you effectively committed it to memory in the first place, says Mulligan, who conducts basic memory research. For example, if you anticipate needing to remember that you’re supposed to buy an artichoke, imagine how the veggie will look when cooked with another item on your list. Creating interacting visuals is one research-backed way to store your thoughts so they’re primed for retrieval, Mulligan says.

2. Practice makes perfect.
Another way to stash a thought for later is to test yourself on it in the interim, Mulligan says. For example, if you want to remember that you parked on level 4B, don’t just repeat “4B, 4B, 4B” over and over. Instead, tell your travel companion to ask you where you parked every hour or so. Then, when the time comes to find it, answering that question will be old hat.

3. Be mindful.
Sure you’ll never forget a story because it’s so weird and funny? Common mistake, says Steven Smith, a professor of psychology at Texas A&M University who studies memory. “You do forget because it’s so weird and funny.” Instead of banking on a thought’s distinctiveness, be mindful when observing it, Smith says. “The more attention you pay to the thing you want to remember, the more likely it is that you’ll remember it later on.”

4. Set the scene.
Criminal eyewitnesses are often encouraged to mentally return to the incident’s place and time. The rest of us can take note, Smith says. “We associate our experiences with places where we had the experiences,” he says. Want to remember a recipe? Conjure up the sights, smells and feelings of when you first learned it. "That’s more useful than telling people to go back to wherever the event occurred," Mulligan says.

5. Cheat.
Mulligan often gets the question: Does using Google decrease our ability to remember on our own? Fortunately, he says: “There’s very little evidence for this concern about our memory muscle withering away in the face of media that help us remember.” So if you’ve got a reliable smartphone, notepad or even spouse, use it to "offload" memories, Smith says. You’ll save yourself mental space for thoughts that Siri lacks.

6. Close your eyes.
There may be something behind that urge to close your eyes when trying to remember. A study published in January in the journal Legal and Criminological Psychology found eyewitnesses answered 23 percent more questions correctly when they closed their eyes. “[If] you close your eyes to shut out your immediate environment, that does free up some of your mental resources to possibly remember something,” Smith says.

7. Give up.
On the other hand, it’s quite possible to try too hard, Smith says. Say you’re trying to remember someone’s name you believe begins with “R” and has two syllables. If you’re wrong, “trying harder is counterproductive because it just gets you more and more stuck on the wrong thing,” Smith says. Instead, give it a rest. “When you do that, it at least allows for the possibility it will pop back into your mind,” Smith says.

8. Fess up.
Still can’t recall if it’s Jody or Julie? Time to admit it. “The best thing to do is just ask them right away,” Smith says. “Then, you’ll remember it the next time.” And take heart: Jody (or Julie) has been there too. Being honest, Smith says, is “an admission that you can’t always rely on the memory being there right when you need it.”

8 Ways To Remember Something Right Now was originally published on U.S. News & World Report.

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