Practical solutions for remembering details and making them stick?
January 20, 2014 7:41 AM   Subscribe

Asking for a friend, who is worrying about this. He is in his 20's. He has a very difficult time remembering details, and is very self-conscious about it. It seems to take him a lot more work to remember facts, figures and details compared to his peers. He would like to know if there are methods to improve this kind of memory, or whether this is a handicap he will have to deal with.

He gave me approval to post this, and I am planning on sharing the answer with him.

He is intelligent and well spoken, and very creative. But he says that both his long-term memory has been shot for as long as he can remember. He beats himself up because he can't remember details that others seem to get with ease. He crams well for tests and aces them, but any information he learned is gone the following day. So he seems to have a hard time moving things into his long-term memory. He can remember specifics if he really works hard, but little "sticks" otherwise. He feels that he has learned very little from college (and school in general) because of this.

He told me that he was at a party the other day, and popular music from the 90/00`s was playing. Even though he grew up on this stuff and loved it at the time, he couldn't remember the lyrics from even the songs that he was familiar with - everyone else was singing along, and apparently people didn't understand why he couldn't sing any of these songs. He also has trouble with birthdays, names, dates, phone numbers, etc. People who can remember these things well seem to amaze and baffle him.

He also played many video games as a child, and has many fond memories of them, but again cannot remember details from those games. His friend, who he played many of those games with, was describing to him games that he had played before, and he did not remember much of what his friend was talking about, which worries him more.

He is considering trying out the memory-training site Luminosity to see if that helps. He also might try forcing himself to memorize song lyrics to Any other suggestions? Has anyone with a poor memory been able to improve it? Or if you had to learn to live with it, what tricks did you use to cope? He's been like this for a while, so it isn't something where he should see the doctor, right?

PS: He says he was recently diagnosed for ADD, I'm not sure if that is a factor.
posted by BuddyBoo to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
There is no evidence for any of the brain training things out there. It's pure snake oil.

Memory is mostly built through attention and rehearsal.

I don't remember lyrics because I don't sing. I don't remember things I don't spend a fair amount of time regularly remembering. I don't remember dates because I don't pay much attention to calendars, etc...

There are some individual differences in memory but they are not as great as people think. Also people who have strong confident memories are quite often wrong. Confident and accuracy of memories are not as correlated as people think.

The trick to memory is deciding what you want to remember and then using conventional study methods to memorize it and then refreshing the memories at intervals to retain them.

Know you memory is faulty and take organized notes - this will actually improve your memory and protect you from statistically inevitable memory failures and inaccuracies. You may appear to be less clever but you will end up being more accurate than people who do not take notes. There is a reason why they have people take minutes at meetings.
posted by srboisvert at 8:11 AM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is your friend in school or otherwise health insured? He would benefit from visiting an ADHD Coach. He doesn't need to train his memory, he needs to train his habits.


Problem: Can't remember a list of assorted things.
Solution: Write down the things on a list, look at the list to see what the things are.

Problem: Can't remember when things are.
Solution: Put the things on the calendar, look at the calendar to see when things are.

An ADHD coach would help your friend get a reasonable, doable, habitable system in place, and I think that's what your friend needs right now. Memorizing song lyrics is just another distraction.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:13 AM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

He should get a cognitive assessment done at a psychologist's office, to be honest. That person could really help figure out what's up.
posted by discopolo at 8:21 AM on January 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Could be temperamental-- you don't remember events so much as you remember your memory of those events. So if you are not the sort of person to use your mental downtime to reminisce and replay events/songs from your past, those memories will fade. You say he "crams for tests and aces them," which implies to me that he simply doesn't prioritize long term learning in the first place, so he possibly never built up those habits of "internalizing" things from his past.

But it couldn't hurt to see a doctor and see if something is up.
posted by deanc at 8:32 AM on January 20, 2014

I am just like your friend and I have struggled with it my whole adult life. What has helped me a lot is just accepting that is who I am. I have stopped trying to cover for my poor memory and just tell people I don't remember meeting them or where it was. Someone suggested I watch a tv series and I thought it sounded interesting. When I went to Netflix I saw that I had already watched (within the last year) every single episode and hadn't remembered. I don't know to what extent ADD affects memory but it certainly affects the focus required to absorb new information. When I meet new people I am already thinking of the next thing when they tell me their name so of course I won't learn it. I have learned to slow things way down. I write everything down and because my job requires frequent reports I write them as soon as possible.
I have tried many supplements and still take ginko, lecithin, piracetam and vitamin d. I am a very suggestible person so even a placebo effect is worth it to me.
I think the bottom line is I will never retain that which isn't interesting to me and only part of what is. Stress, lack of sleep and poor diet seem to make it a lot worse.
posted by InkaLomax at 11:26 AM on January 20, 2014

Is your friend able to visualize? By which I mean, does his internal mental flow include things like imagery, audio (voices or music), simulations of touch or taste or smell, or kinesthetic and spatial mappings (like being able to imagine walking through a house).

I had similar problems until I realized a few years ago that my natural brain-state was totally blank. No visualizations of any kind. Which put me, and maybe your friend, in the perhaps 3% of the population unable to form mental images.

I did learn to visualize but it was very hard. Anecdotally, my ability to remember names, dates, plots, lyrics, stories, and jokes shot way up as my powers grew. Also I was less clumsy and better with sports and directions. In the meantime, compensatory strategies must by necessity be external... calendars, alarms, notes, organizational habits.

For example I used to forget any possession I owned unless I could see it or had an external cue that I needed it. Like, I would never forget my backpack because I used it every day, but if I tucked a favorite shirt in a drawer, it didn't "exist" until I pulled it out by accident six months later. So I learned to take my closet door off the hinge and hang all my clothes. Now they're in constant view!

See these threads and this questionnaire.
posted by fritillary at 12:29 PM on January 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

I don't know a lot about memory-training, especially not for long-term recall. If there were specific things that he wanted to remember then there are exercises for fixing them in the mind and building associations to help make them easier to call up from storage so to speak, but for general recall I'm not sure. It's possible (though of course I can't speak for your friend) that a lot of his problem stems more from unhappiness about a perceived deficit than from the actual deficit itself, though. It's pretty normal to draw a blank from time to time on things that one feels one really ought to be able to remember. However, while we always notice it when it happens to us we are rarely aware of when it happens to other people. His perception that other people have much better recall than him might not be as accurate as he thinks it is.

Regardless, the mere fact that he is unhappy about this and that it is undermining his confidence and sense of self worth is reason enough to take the issue seriously. I really think that this is a job for a trained professional; he should see a psychologist, psychiatrist, and/or neurologist to get an assessment leading to a diagnosis and treatment plan. If this is something that's affecting his quality of life (and "it really bothers me" is enough of a QoL impact to warrant going to a doctor to talk about it) then he should see a professional and get it checked out.

There are definitely ways to assess this sort of thing, and often ways to treat it. Treatment may include therapy, cognitive training, medication, or some combination of the above. Regardless, seeing a professional who is schooled in dealing with this sort of problem will be an excellent first step on the road to understanding and dealing with this issue.

And yes, ADD may be involved here. (I also have ADD but am not an expert by any means.) As far as I know it's more common for it to affect short-term rather than long-term memory, but in general inability to attend to details is a classic part of the syndrome. Medication often helps greatly with this, and most people who have ADD respond well to some form of medication. Certainly not all, but the success rate is much better than for most other psychiatric conditions. If he's not already taking medication for his ADD or in the process of arranging for a prescription, I'd highly recommend it.
posted by Scientist at 1:29 PM on January 20, 2014

Dates, phone numbers, and birthdays are things that most people keep track of with a calendar or contact list.

If he can't remember his own birthday or phone number, that's something to be concerned about and improve on, but there's no reason to feel like you have an unusually bad memory just because some people are unusually good at remembering these things.

Hopefully others will have good suggestions that work for remembering names.
posted by yohko at 2:03 PM on January 20, 2014

Though we're more alike than different, there are some individual differences, and motivation and other skills and knowledge matter as well.

I have a family member who can recall a street he drove on once in a foreign city, twenty years later. Excellent spatial memory, for sure, but also, he's highly interested in places/cities/geography and loves driving.

I get lost until I've taken the same route 5+ times. But faces and details about individuals (even if I met them once, years ago) stick to me the way streets do for my family member. (I'm a people-watcher.)

I sing, but can't remember lyrics half as well as I'd like, until I marry syllables together with melodic line, dynamics and phrasing, but it works best when I connect these with an emotional feeling and especially with bodily movements. A movement or gesture can trigger the lyric when digging for the words by themselves doesn't. Overlaying a piece of information with multiple kinds of knowledge and sensations can help it stick, especially when you're really motivated to get that piece of information. This is what happens with mnemonics, but it doesn't help beyond the specific list or whatever you're working on. Much easier to attend to types of information that already matter to you.

If ADD is going on, perhaps it's a question of the initial encoding process, which is a question of attention, as noted, and that can be checked out (it could also be at the retrieval point, or somewhere else). But I bet your friend can remember information about the kinds of things he really cares about, and maybe these kinds of things are different from what his game-playing friend remembers.

(For me: any kind of specific facty or numbery information, no chance without repeated drills. Very happy with my smartphone.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:52 PM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, very few people can remember the content of university courses even a few years out, or a semester out, if you crammed.

Cramming is good for short-term memory only. To hold onto things longer than that, spaced repetition is the way to go.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:12 PM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

« Older What is happening in Thailand right now?   |   Will an unlocked iPhone with a TMobile sim work... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.