What can I do? I'm in my 30's and I can't memorize anymore.
July 8, 2016 3:25 PM   Subscribe

My job requires me to memorize text on a regular basis. There was a time when I never had any problems memorizing quickly... I've noticed it's become increasingly difficult.

This is seriously concerning me. I took 2.5 off from working to help take care of a very ill family member. Upon returning to work,I found that I couldn't memorize like I used to... not even close. At first I thought I was just out of practice, but it's been months now and there hasn't been any improvement.

Before I was coming up with excuses why I just didn't have it memorized "this time" but The latest example was the one that really made me have to accept my brain doesn't work like it did a couple of years ago. I was given 3 small paragraphs and 10 sentences to memorize in 4 days. In my 20's 4 days would've been MORE than enough time to have these down. Well, knowing that I had been having trouble recently I decided to spend many hours of each of the 4 days going over them. I probably spent a total of 20 hours on this small thing and in the end I amazingly still ended up not remembering everything correctly. Everyone else of course had their work down pat- even those that had double the amount to memorize than I did. I fear I will soon be out of a job.

There are no memory problems in my family and I have a very large family. I'm not forgetting basic daily things like keys or anything like that. I went for a normal checkup at my primary doctor and he said he didn't see anything out of the ordinary.

Can I fix this problem? Has anyone gone through something similar and found things that worked for them?
posted by olivetree to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Are you getting enough sleep? If not, your short term memory might suffer (which compromises long term memory).

Regular exercise can help with memory (especially if it's done after a learning episode).
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:32 PM on July 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I took 2.5 off from working to help take care of a very ill family member.

I'd put it down to stress (from the caretaking and related issues, and now from maybe anxieties about going back to work). Suggest working on stress relief and getting the basics right (sleep, food, exercise, etc). If that doesn't help, maybe look at other possible explanations.
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:32 PM on July 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I recently went to the doctor because of fatigue, trouble remembering words, things like that, and found that my ferritin (iron storage) levels were practically non-existent. I started taking iron pills and my brain magically came back. Stopped the pills after about six months, the memory problems cropped up again (and my ferritin went back down), so I'm back on them. Especially if you're a menstruating female or not much of a meat eater, get checked for anemia. Oh and FYI I'm 36.
posted by jabes at 3:48 PM on July 8, 2016 [10 favorites]

Are you taking any medication? I know I've had problems with memory after I started taking a statin for high cholesterol. Lot of medicines can seriously mess with memory.
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 4:17 PM on July 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Practice, practice, practice. Memorization is a skill that you can lose if you quit using it.
posted by irisclara at 4:20 PM on July 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

The physical solutions above sound good. As a short-term strategy - and please forgive me if you already have tried any/all of these things - the more I vary my methods, the quicker I memorize. So I write out the text, or write it out progressively adding a new word each time, or I recite it while moving or exercising as well as while bent over a desk, or I record myself saying it and play that recording both attentively and in the background (that one is huge for me)...all these things help me sometimes when something just won't stick.
posted by fast ein Maedchen at 6:28 PM on July 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I once had to memorize a script for a video at work shortly after coming back from maternity leave. I absolutely could not do it - they had to splice my part together sentence by sentence. It was mortifying to sit there under the spotlight and completely fail to make my brain work, but the edited version wasn't half as bad as I feared.

I hadn't slept more than 2.5 hours straight in 6 months and had an ill baby, so sleep deprivation and stress were major factors. Hopefully things will settle down for you soon.
posted by Maarika at 6:51 PM on July 8, 2016

Clinical Depression sometimes manifests as cognitive problems, in fact there is a (somewhat old fashioned) term for related symptoms called Pseudodementia

Any chance you are suffering from a mood disorder?
posted by soylent00FF00 at 7:05 PM on July 8, 2016

Nthing jabes. I was foggy, making egregious errors on simple tasks, and had self-diagnosed myself with a host of neurological disorders. Nope - B12 deficiency. What fixed the cognitive instability was weekly B12 shots for a spell and now a daily sublingual as we determine what's causing my pernicious anemia. I feel like a functioning person again.

I hope your issues gets quickly diagnosed and resolved!
posted by ovenmitt at 9:39 PM on July 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Certainly check on the medical stuff (good job on getting a physical!) and get enough sleep and all, but for help memorizing: spaced repetition is amazing. There are many software options you can use, and you can set them up to help you memorize pretty much anything in any format on any electronic device you have available. I've mostly used Anki, but different programs have different features.

Definitely produce your own cards, and try different formats for them -- perhaps with the ones where you're doing a whole paragraph, you might have the software quiz you on different sentences, or different phrases or words in a sentence. Or whatever works for your purposes.

The idea is that if you don't remember something, you'll be asked that question again sooner. If you do remember something well and quickly, you get more of a break before that one comes up again. It's also an easy format for friends to use to quiz you -- just tell them how to rate your answers.

We've got pretty good tech available to assist with memorization. Better to try it than to put in more hours with a method that's not working for you right now.
posted by asperity at 9:43 PM on July 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Seconding the b12. When I was deficient I was an idiot, I couldn't concentrate and those whole two or three years pre diagnosis I didn't form good memories, I can barely remember them. Even if you're just borderline or lowish, it's worth a try, there is no real downside, you just pee any excess out.
posted by fshgrl at 11:24 PM on July 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Could be thyroid problems as well.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 11:53 PM on July 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I wanted to add one more comment regarding anemia/iron levels/thyroid/B12 - I went through my litany of complaints to my doctor (and I generally think she's a good doctor), and her response was basically, "Huh. Maybe you need a low-dose antidepressant?" I had to ASK to be tested for hormone levels, and iron, and B12, and say, "You know, I'm a thin, pale woman in my 30s who menstruates and doesn't eat much meat, maybe you could test me for anemia?" Which to me is insane, but there you go. And for some reason a "complete blood count" doesn't actually include everything, so specify exact what you want to be tested for. Good luck!
posted by jabes at 8:55 AM on July 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think the suggestions to seek medical advice above are spot-on.

In the short term, there may still be hope for improvement. You don't mention what kind of strategies you are currently using to memorize the text, or whether you have tried switching them up. My problem wasn't as severe as yours, but I found that in my thirties, the techniques I used to use in my teens and twenties didn't work any more. Specifically, I used to start with the first sentence, repeat it, then add the next sentence, then repeat both, and then add the next, and start from the beginning, etc. Basically just addition and brute force repetition. It worked ok until it didn't. Even when it worked I was weaker with the end of things since I typically spent less time repeating them.

No what I do is plant little visualizations into the lines, to help me get from one thought to the next like breadcrumbs. For instance, let's say I'm trying to memorize this text from your question:

There are no memory problems in my family and I have a very large family. I'm not forgetting basic daily things like keys or anything like that. I went for a normal checkup at my primary doctor and he said he didn't see anything out of the ordinary.

I am going to imagine a large bunch of people in a house, all holding a lot of stuff because they remember it all. You could picture your own family crowding in one room, with everyone laden with bunches of stuff, all the things they remember. "There are no memory problems in my family and I have a very large family." Next, I'm going to imagine myself in the crowd, holding my keys and a daily newspaper, detaching myself from the crowd and leaving the house. "I'm not forgetting basic daily things like keys or anything like that." I imaging walking into a very ordinary looking doctor's office. "I went for a normal checkup at my primary doctor" and the doctor looking closely with a magnifying glass at a piece of paper with totally straight lines. "and he said he didn't see anything out of the ordinary."

The helpful thing the visualizations are doing in my example above is giving you a simple visual arc to accompany the text. Even if you can't remember the precise wording, the visuals may stick with you enough to help you get mentally from the topic of one sentence to the next.

If you're having trouble with larger chunks, or if the text is very abstract, you can go much, much smaller. For instance, say you have to memorize a more abstract line that doesn't lend itself as easily to a visual story - you can make up weird looking images to remember certain phrases. For instance, let's say you need to remember these lines:

Symptoms of these conditions are present in certain cohorts, while others report none or fewer. Analysis suggests contributing factors may include age of the subject at time of exposure, frequency of ingestion, and overall health.

Pretty dry - but we can still find some colorful images to make it stick. We'll start with the symptoms. Let's pretend they are huge red blotches. So we'll start out picturing a face with huge red blotches. "Symptoms." Next, we're going to imagine the person with the blotches looking at an air conditioner which is topped with a big red bow - a present. "Symptoms of these conditions are present." I don't have a good visual association for the word cohort, so I'm going to imagine three of horticulturalists all looking very certain as they look at the air conditioner..."in certain cohorts" while three others stare at a blank spot on the floor, holding clipboards and writing on them. "while others report none or fewer." This is a very odd sight, so it's not a stretch to then imagine Freud, an "analyst" on the scene making recommendations. "Analysis suggests" next we have a bunch of animated fractions dancing around him, all trying to pitch in by turning the pages of a calendar "contributing factors" they get to the month of May. "May include" when you notice that one of the fractions is your age divided by 1, "the age of the subject" and has tossed a clock out the window, where it is very cold "at time of exposure" the clock begins eating the snow in handfuls, one after the other, "frequency of ingestion" and is now wearing sweatbands and a towel and looks like it just went for a run. "and overall health."

Once you have that down, you'll still want to repeat frequently. You can probably stop consciously thinking of your visual cues, but if you get stuck, the weird visuals should hopefully still be there in your brain to cue you.

This particular technique may not help at all, especially if you are not a visual thinker, but fortunately there are many, many other techniques and strategies out there for memorization. You could record yourself saying the text out loud and play it back to yourself, you could use flashcards like someone else suggested, practice with a friend, or look up more methods online. Heck, the additive strategy that stopped working for me might work for you! Good luck!
posted by prewar lemonade at 1:02 PM on July 9, 2016

Grief and caretaker exhaustion can do this to you. I'm speaking from personal experience. Can you talk to your boss about some temporary accommodations?

As for memorizing itself, my method used to be
- reading the text out loud several times
- copying it out by hand
- copying it by hand and replacing key words with symbols, then reading out loud again
- paying attention to the words that tripped me up and making a cheat sheet with just those words
- visualizing the key words as mentioned in a comment above

But if at all possible, I'd talk to the boss.
posted by M. at 4:34 AM on July 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I hope the possible medical/well-being sides of this resolve, if there are any. For me, the Method of loci to which prewar lemonade alludes above works wonders (and worked for Cicero, Quintillian etc etc: in case it is a factor, using such "tricks" is nothing to be ashamed of).
posted by Hadrian at 9:08 AM on July 10, 2016

« Older Backfired: The Briefing   |   What are "essential" apps for a new smartphone... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.