Do you have memory issues? Don’t you remember where you put your car keys or what you were supposed to do? There are a thousand systems to help you remember these small details of daily life, but understanding how our mind works can help you more than a thousand alarms or sticky notes.
First, however, let us try to understand why we forget things, starting with what should remember them: our memory.
How short-term memory works
First, what is short-term memory? It is that part of memory that remembers facts or things for a very short period of time, usually 20 seconds. However, it is not about the memory in which recent events from a few hours or a few days ago are stored. Those are stored in long-term memory, which then also collects everything that has happened recently.
Short-term memory (STM) is also called working memory because it is used to remember a finite number of things (5 to 9 generally) that are erased after a short time. It is a kind of RAM: it quickly provides our mind with things to do, or to remember, precisely. If these short-term memories are not erased, they become part of the Long-Term Memory, which then also retains things that happened a few minutes ago but that our mind considers important and wants to continue to reprocess.
Why all this explaining? Because the operation of the LTM is very sensitive to distractions-the memories it stores are in fact very volatile, and it only takes the breath of a distraction to wipe them out.
And speaking of distractions, how many do you know of now? Phone calls, notifications, thoughts, worries, etc. Everything conspires not only to ruin your mood but especially to distract you and … make you forget things that are perhaps important.
A distracted memory does not remember, thus you must try to keep it from being distracted, and to achieve this, it is not enough to tell it or impose it on it: it must be trained, little by little and with exercises of short duration that must, however, be performed with some constancy.
Why meditation helps your memory
Let’s start from a fact: the main tool for strengthening your memory is meditation. What do memory and meditation have in common? Apparently nothing, but if one investigates a little deeper, the reason is soon explained: meditation helps to focus on the present moment and to control-learning to ignore or at least keep in check-distractions. The more one is able to meditate effectively, the more one strengthens the mind: not because meditation is a mnemonic exercise but because, indirectly, it helps the mind not to be distracted by anything and to be focused only on the present moment.
“Oh my God, do I have to learn to meditate to remember things?” No, fear not: you don’t have to challenge the Dalai Lama in the World Meditation Championships to succeed. Actually this method uses exercises that are employed in meditation and that is all. That’s all, so breathe deep, banish the anxiety and come back here with us.
A few simple exercises, in order of difficulty
Let’s start with the simplest ones, also called “mindfulness.”
How and where and when are they done? Everywhere, theoretically even every moment of your life: what you have to do in fact is nothing more than pay attention to what you are doing now. It can be a walk, the shower, the dishes you are washing, something you are eating. Try to pay attention to what you feel if water runs over your body and how it reacts, try to really pay attention to what your food tastes like. Often-very often-we think we know these activities and don’t pay much attention to them anymore, letting our minds wander to other things. Instead, bringing it to reflect on what you are doing is a way to get it to focus on the present and what is happening to you, not on what has already happened or what you think might happen.
As mentioned, you can do these exercises whenever you want, perhaps starting with small observations about your life and then expanding them to others of much longer duration.
To be able to do this effectively, one must know how to breathe properly, that is, using the diaphragm (diaphragmatic breathing) and focusing on it.
You can practice this technique with your eyes open or closed, the important thing is that your focus is on just breathing. And of course on its precise execution.
Breathing is also a very simple way to train concentration. During meditation it is easy and normal for the mind to wander and take unpredictable paths. When you notice it, however, you just bring it back to the breathing observation and magically it will regain its gravitational center.
Mind you: it is perfectly normal to get distracted, and doing so does not mean you are unable to focus. If this happens to you, remember to return to the breath. And that’s it.
There are different breathing techniques, and here I tell you about six different ways to do it.
Ultimately, breathing helps:
– To focus only on the present moment
– Not to be distracted by thoughts related to the past or future, what has happened/what you have done, and what you hope/fear will happen
– a focus on the present moment, eliminating or controlling distractions, thus fortifying memory.
Mindfulness and breathing-that is, the two methods explained so far-constitute the basis of actual meditation. I will not go into explaining what this is all about because I am not a master but just a practitioner.
In fact, I have been meditating for some time, and among the many benefits it has given me, I have observed precisely an improvement in short-term memory. To better explain how obvious this was, know that I didn’t even know it was a benefit of meditation, yet it revealed itself so blatantly that I couldn’t help but notice it.
For my part, I just feel like giving you some simple advice:
- If you want to start meditating, the easiest advice is to start by using apps (such as the ones I have recommended here), then following up with guided meditation sessions, or to do it with someone experienced who knows how to start you on the path that you will then walk on your own two feet.
- Meditating even a few minutes a day is still helpful, and you don’t need to do it for a long time (which would discourage anyone, I know). Rather do it for a few minutes but several times a day. The great thing is that you can do it anywhere, even on the train or at the park.
- Getting distracted is normal; the important thing is to bring your thoughts back to the present, focusing on your breathing and body sensations.
There was also something else I wanted to tell you but I can’t remember it anymore. Just kidding. Or not?
Better to meditate on it.