Journaling practices to improve long-term memory?
October 28, 2020 3:39 AM   Subscribe

My whole life, my long-term recall of events has been poor. Once something is beyond approximately 5 years out, I often forget many events that other participants remember (don't you remember when we went to X and saw person Y). I don't think of these things as too substantial, because they're genuinely not that critical to remember, but other people have commented about my really poor memory in the long-term. In the short and medium term, and when I need to remember something (e.g., for exams, for work, etc.) my memory is normal or even above-average when I make an effort. However, I would like to improve my ability to recall things in my personal life. One technique I'm considering is journaling to become more reflective, and perhaps to serve as a reference.

My main theory for why my memory is so poor is I often become very immersed in other things. I have moderate anxiety, and have sometimes internationally focused myself in work or studies either due to that anxiety (as a distraction/coping mechanism) or because of it (when I have a particularly high workload). In other times, when I am very relaxed, such as vacations that I have taken even 5+ years ago, my memory recall is quite good.

After reflecting on this a bit, I was thinking journaling (perhaps on a weekly basis?) may help me become more reflective on what I've been doing, and better retain memories of getting together with friends, family, etc.

I'd appreciate any advice on journaling practices, or other practices which may help towards my goal. Any sort of medical evaluation of my memory isn't really feasible now, due to poor insurance and my financial situation (however, I also tend to think these practices would be more focused on assessing my short/medium term memory anyway).
posted by unid41 to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
If you decide to take up journaling, you could use a one line a day journal like this one. You write one sentence or so on each day, but there is space for five years worth of days on one page. That would let you review the previous years quickly when you write the next year’s entry. It will also give you something compact you can use to review in the future.
posted by Night_owl at 5:52 AM on October 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry for not answering your question directly, but I want to offer some words of encouragement. I too have had people in my life tell me that I have a lousy long-term memory. My ex-wife used to say it. My current girlfriend says it. My family says it. But here's the thing.

While I used to think they were right, I've come to realize it's merely a matter of perception. It's true that I don't remember certain things that other people do. But, as you say, the things I don't remember aren't "too substantial". On the other hand, I remember tons of stuff that these other people don't. Is that true in your case, as well? Do you remember things long term that these other people don't seem to recall?

I ask because after putting up with 20+ years of being told I have a bad memory, I'm over it. Now when people say this, I challenge them on it. I've come to believe -- with no empirical evidence, mind you -- that different people are wired differently, that our memories work in slightly different ways. So, while I can't remember the name of my girlfriend's cousin, I can tell you the date that we last saw him. While I can't remember where and when my girlfriend and I last ate in a restaurant, I can tell you what we both ate. And so on.

So, I want to be a voice of encouragement. Maybe you do forget some things. And maybe it would be smart to try journaling in order to remember more. But unless you too think you have a lousy long-term memory (and it sounds like you're skeptical), don't let that become part of your self-perception. It's damaging. I know because it was part of my own identity for a couple of decades and it felt lousy.

I hope that's helpful, even if it doesn't answer your question.
posted by jdroth at 6:05 AM on October 28, 2020 [12 favorites]

To what extent is your memory (or lack thereof) causing you problems? What would happen if you were to own it as part of your personality ("Yep! That's me! Memory like a goldfish's!") - encourage others to see this not as some grievous moral failing in you but as a personality trait (because that's what it is).

Are people's feelings hurt that you don't remember events related to them, and that's causing rifts in relationships? Then make an effort to make the people in your life feel valued and cherished and appreciated by you in other ways. Your bad memory isn't what's causing your bad relationships, but rather your failure to make compensatory efforts.

Self acceptance is super important. Life gets so much better when you focus on honing your strengths and finding ways to shine using your best qualities. Stop focusing on what you're bad at, stop trying to fix your weaknesses. Unless these weaknesses are ruining your life in some way, they don't need to be fixed. You are a perfectly wonderful and worthwhile person even if you never have a great long term memory. You are fully capable of building great relationships without it.

Now, if your memory is causing you serious distress and life troubles, and/or you believe that journaling would be intrinsically rewarding and enjoyable for you, go right ahead.

For your memory purposes it seems like your phone's native calendar app might be the most convenient way to accomplish your goals. Instead of journaling once a week, just record 2-3 descriptive sentences about every meeting or event in the notes section of the calendar entry for this event, straight after the event. If you just finished a 15 minute phone call with X, open up your calendar app, create a (retroactive) event on your calendar, and write down a couple of salient points you discussed. Boom, logged. Then maybe set aside time once a week to look through all your notes and events for the past week to refresh your memory.

Journaling for reflection and for cultivating reflectiveness would be different. You might want to use a notetaking or journaling app or web service, or you might use a notebook... depends on your preference. I've journaled since I was 14 years old, and the best thing I ever did was get an account on - I try to journal every day and now I have 12 years' worth of journals easily accessible on that one site. (I lose notebooks constantly, it's a nightmare.) Reflective journaling is also best done with some guidelines and a template in mind, IMO. Without it I tend to just ramble or word vomit and it's useless except as venting. But instead of word vomit, I focus on a basic template (e.g. describe salient events of the day, record some things I am tracking like mood/food/movies watched/books read, then write about whatever larger issue or theme I am working on this week/month/year). This way my journal is partly a record of day to day events and partly a record of my reflections on larger life goals.
posted by MiraK at 6:21 AM on October 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have the same problem, especially with names, and I find writing stuff down very helpful. When I take a class or meet new people at a party, for example, I focus on names and details and write down what I can remember in a notebook or on my phone on the train going home. The next time I'm going to see those people, I review my notes (e.g., Sandra, blond, programmer, knows Andy from college) briefly just before. After a few times, I remember without the notes. I do the same for old friends I talk to a few times a year--I write down stuff like that their spouse got a new job or that they were going to paint their house and review it before the next time I talk to them--then ask them about it. People actually think I have a pretty good memory, but I wouldn't if I didn't record it on paper.
posted by pangolin party at 7:10 AM on October 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Journaling doesn't have to be about writing every day. I keep yearly lists of books I've read, and films and concerts I've seen (and I note people who were there for the latter). It's low effort and enough to prompt the Proustian memory response for me.

I also do a Year Compass every year, where the opening exercise is going through your calendar and noting important events from the past year, which you then use for some reflective exercises. That would be a terrific way to get started.

Finally, getting a pen pal can help! It's a fun way to get what you are experiencing at a moment in time on paper (or email), which itself helps with memory retention, while also connecting with a friend.
posted by veery at 7:28 AM on October 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

If you're a visual learner, you might try taking pictures on your phone that encapsulate a moment. For me, there's something about the deliberate act of framing and composing the photo, regarding the scene, and then intentionally pushing the shutter button that helps inscribe a moment in memory, even if it's just a cell phone snap. And, of course, it creates a dated record.
posted by carmicha at 7:52 AM on October 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

There's an old suggestion that people who are anxious live in the future and people who are depressed live in the past. We remember things that we think about. Just writing them down doesn't make the memory, but recalling it multiple times does.

Keeping a diary could help but you'd also have to reread it. You may also be someone whose memories are more visual than verbal, or more geographical or more social. I would think the first thing to do would be to figure out what sort of memories you do have. Recall is critical. If you learn something really well and never think about it ever again the neurological paths for recall will not be laid down and you will not know how to find it.

Memories come in three types. The first is short term, such as when you remember where you put that spoon down. Then there are memories of things that are recent, such as remembering that yesterday you left the spoon on the stove. Long term memories are almost impossible to access unless you have developed a neurological pathway so you can find it. A photograph can bring back memories that are totally gone. You can't reach them unless you have build up pathways or have a door such as a photograph that gives you sudden access to a memory.

You might wish to spend five or ten minutes journaling at the end of the day to recall the events of the day but you will also need to spend time remembering them after that. Memory works by using it. So you will also need to remember those things actively, perhaps once a week and once a month, and not just reread your journal which is reminding but not remembering, but actively staring into space and thinking, what did I do last weekend? What did we do at the beginning of this season? You will remember things you write down a tad better than things you don't write down but they key to actually remembering is recall, not review.

If you have to study for a test it is much more effective to open up a blank text document and write down everything you can recall about the subject than it is to simply skim and read the notes. The first gives you practice finding the memory, the other merely repeats it but doesn't create a way to access it when you need it in the test hall.

Our memory is designed for us to remember other people and what we owe them and predict if they are going to be harmful, helpful or neutral. Our memory is also designed for us to remember how to find our way home and where resources are. We may not remember what the houses are in a given city block we walk if we don't know anyone who lives there, but we may remember those stores that matter to us in a retail block, while only retaining a vague idea that there are a couple of clothing stores somewhere around there, just not ones we would never go into. Locations and people are almost always the two strongest hooks for memory.

If you want to remember things, the first question is why do you want to remember them and how important is it to remember them and what is actually important enough for you to want to remember it? The solution may be to link them with the geography/spatial locations or to link them to the people, depending on which part of your memory works better, places or people, and to link anything important to both places and people.

If I ask you to recall your elementary school, can you bring anything back? If so what do you bring back? Names? Feelings? The layout of the building? Objects? When you figure out that you can use that as an access point to remembering things. If you remember the layout and location of things, then start by recalling that and then fill in the people and the actions. If you recall feelings remember that, and then fill in the details of the who what where and why.

I can't remember the people, but I do recommend the details of objects. Many people only remember people and feelings, or the spatial lay out of the place, so they would say that my memories don't count. I can tell you how the grade three mathbook was apple green on the lower half and pale grey on the top half and the room where the books were stored during the summer had grey metal shelving. I can recall the smell of paste and poster paint and the the wet snow and dirty boot smell of our cloak room and the brass coat hooks in there. But the people I don't remember and the organized activities (when did I study geography??) I don't remember because for some reason my memory for things is way better than my memory for people.

It may be that your memory has some non-standard hooks, and you remember feelings, data or objects better than your recall people and relationships or spatial lay out. Whatever you do remember is the scaffold you can use for remembering additional things.

You may want to consider if your memory has been damaged. If you go through stress you lay down fewer memories. Any period of time that is significantly stressful is apt to shrink the hippocampus. Bad things are not supposed to be remembered in detail as it will re-traumatize us, but are ordinarily remembered as feelings - You might for example have a strong feeling of aversion for a place, and do not need to remember the bullying you experienced there.
posted by Jane the Brown at 10:28 AM on October 28, 2020 [5 favorites]

Wow, thank you all for the really thoughtful responses. I'm most likely going to employ a combination of them and see what works for me.

Responding to questions about my reasons for wanting to do this:

Yes, some of it is perception, but other people have made me worried it's something more serious and I do partially want to improve in order to prove to myself that it's not a more serious memory condition. I also find it somewhat upsetting, because there are apparently really great memories from years ago that I've completely forgotten, and I'd like to be able to remember them as the people telling me about them do. I know I won't "get those memories back" but I'm just hoping that moving forward I can be more mindful about enjoying the good times, and capturing positive memories about them.

I'm not particularly worried about people's perception of me - it doesn't bother me that they think I have a poor memory, rather it bothers me that I think I do.

Responding to some of the comments from Jane the Brown (which was incredibly insightful, thank you!),
my memories do seem to be quite visual. When I think back on elementary school as asked, people and locations are most distinct. I can remember specific times other students did something unusual, funny, etc., and I see it quite clearly. I can also remember the layout of most of the rooms I was in throughout the school, though not such specifics as where my desk was.

I'm think that carmicha's picture idea could be really useful in combination with other techniques people mentioned. I also think I may enjoy looking at pictures more than rereading journal entries. Combining this with a regular reflection period, where I openly try and recall things that happened (e.g., for the past month, or even using the year compass method) and then after "exercising" my memory I review the pictures, might be a helpful approach.
posted by unid41 at 12:29 AM on October 29, 2020

So, I literally wrote a book on memory.

It sounds to me like you're running up against the Curve of Forgetting... although it would probably be more accurate to talk about the Curves of Forgetting, because there's no single curve for all memories. How long a memory lasts depends on a bunch of things, including the intensity of the experience you're remembering, and your own particular brain.

But broadly speaking, if you don't review a memory, it will naturally fade over time.

On the plus side, every time you actively retrieve a memory, you stretch out the curve.

There's a practice called spaced repetition where you review a fact at steadily increasing intervals. The more often you've reviewed it, the longer you can wait until the next review. You can keep track of the intervals manually with physical flashcards in a Leitner box, but I think that's going to get unwieldy over the time frame you're talking about.

Instead, I'd suggest you get a flashcard app for your phone or computer. I personally like Anki and it's extremely powerful, but it can be a little fiddly to get started with. If you have an iPhone, Cleverdeck is less customizable but easier to dive into. You can also search for "spaced repetition" in whatever app store you use. (Be warned that not all flashcard apps are spaced repetition apps. Make sure you get one that will keep track of the steadily increasing intervals that define spaced repetition.)

Once you've got your system set up, you can put anything you want to remember into it. For example, you might make a flashcard that says "This person danced on the table at my 40th birthday party" on one side and "What my sister did at my 40th birthday" on the other. Then quiz yourself on both sides of the cards. That is, sometimes look at "This person danced on the table" and try to remember who the person was, and sometimes look at "What my sister did" and try to remember what her actions were.

You make new flashcards a day or once a week, or just whenever something happens that you want to remember. The important thing is that every time you review this flashcard, you will be retrieving the memory from your mind, and the act of ongoing repetition at steadily increasing intervals will prevent the memory from fading.

If you don't want to bother with flashcards, you could keep a journal and review past entries on some regular schedule. EG, every day, you might review the entry from yesterday, and from one month ago today, and from one year ago today. If you do this, I'd encourage you to cover half of the entry with your hand before you read it, and challenge yourself to recall the missing bits. Actively quizzing yourself has been shown to be much more effective than just passively re-reading.
posted by yankeefog at 8:27 AM on October 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

I would just add that, for me, there's a big difference between typing something and writing something. I find that writing something with a pen does more to wedge the thing in my memory than typing which slips away much faster. So, though I would prefer a digital calendar and journal for ease of searching and tagging, I keep a paper bullet journal because of this tactile boost I get from writing things down.
posted by ruddlehead at 7:20 AM on October 30, 2020

I'm glad I'm late to this thread, because a bunch of the other answers, plus your follow-up, reminded me of two exercises by Lynda Barry that you might find really rewarding.

I THINK they are both in her fantastic book What It Is.

The first one is - sort of a daily diary, but not really. You can see an example in the second image (with the yellow background) in this excerpt from Lynda Barry's website.

Basically, you take a piece of paper and divide it into four parts, where you write down:
* write down some things you did
* write down some things things you saw
* write down something you heard someone say
* draw a picture of something you saw

Note that the point isn't to "write down what happened today" the way most diaries seem to work; the point is to get you NOTICING things during your day, so you can remember them later to write them down. It's about noticing your day. Here's an example from someone who tried it and more thoughts on the practice; there are LOTS more on the web. (Try searching "lynda barry diary".)

The other is a really cool way of remembering things from your past. There's a video and description at Seven and a Half Minutes of Writing on her blog. There's a description from a blogger about this practice, writing the unthinkable, that summarizes it like this:
close your eyes, and picture a car
Okay, good. Now:
Are you inside or outside?
Is it day or night?
What’s to your left?
What’s to your right?
I believe in the book, she has you write down a bunch of words (car, house, mother, book - that's from my memory, I think it's a better list in the book) and use those as starting points for that exercise above.

Anyway - Lynda Barry is brilliant at this, at writing to remember - not so much to remember so other people don't complain, but rather to remember for ourselves, to hold our memories and cherish them and explore them and fully see them.

There's a ton of her info on her blog, but her books are also just fantastic.
posted by kristi at 6:55 PM on October 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

I had a traumatic childhood and did my best to forget everything until I was about 40 and in the ICU maybe being dead in a few days before I seriously thought about trying to remember things. It took a while (I got better) but the thing that turned the memory knob to ON was a random (probably Metafilter) link to an IMDB entry for Independence Day (1996). My brain went poof and I was in Albuquerque sleeping in my Subaru station wagon on my way back from Phoenix and it was hot and I went to the movie for some AC and I hadn't yet run into my friends from my last time in Albuquerque. Then the light bulb went off and I realized that I could make a big text file of hears and look up various media things (movies, TV, music) and narrow down events. Go from now until birth, fill in school. It helps if you moved a bit or can section off things into had to be before or had to be after. Keep going. Random things just kept coming back. This had to have been before here because I wasn't there after that. This had to have happened around here (I burned my retinas watching my father weld when The Man From Atlantis was on TV). Look up everything that pops into your mind, Uncle took us to Michael Jackson's Thriller Tour near Sugar Mountain (the place with the decrepit Land of Oz theme park) because there was no snow to ski. Look that up and put it in your timeline. My roommate and I had this crush on the this girl in the show Earth 2, when was that? Look it up and put in down.

Warning... this may eventually lead you into remembering more things than you originally wanted to remember and lead to old man shaggy dog stories where everything has decades of surrounding context and you really need an editor. You might remember pre-school shenanigans or shitting your pants in first grade or hating those big fat pencils. Or going to Disney World and the Jules Verne submarine ride and the Swiss Family Robinson tree house when you siblings laugh because you were in a stroller at the time, but they can't take away sitting at a rest stop playing on the stairs with a matchbox car.

Journaling is adecent idea, take some pages and do it by year and look up stuff. Think about who and where that stuff was. Make a note. Start narrowing down events. When you remember something even as a flash it probably has a place to go. Things will start bubbling up and you have a framework to place them. The involuntary memories will get triggered. Hope you don't have a Grateful Dead show in the midwest when there was a storm brewing on the horizon, there a a bazillion GD shows.

You'll get the hang of it. Whether it's a good or bad thing only time will tell.
posted by zengargoyle at 12:11 AM on October 31, 2020

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