Do you remember where you were when you had your first kiss?
It's funny, the things our memory can dredge up.
I remember what I was wearing the day I passed my driver's license road test and became a driver.
We probably all remember where we were when the Twin Towers fell in New York, no matter where we were in the world.
So many of our memories are defined by, or at least associated with, major life events. We can recall these things, and yet since becoming a dad, there are days I can't quite remember what I had for breakfast!
There's a reason for that.
A research study led by the University of Edinburgh explored the science behind the biological processes that drive the creation of our memories. It's called "flashbulb memory," and understanding this one little concept can help you improve your own ability to remember important information.
Researchers found that when they exposed mice to attention-grabbing experiences either right before or right after something they wanted them to remember, their ability to store that information was improved.
For example, a test subject that had to walk across a new and different floor surface was then better able to remember the location of a food source.
So how does this work in humans?
Basically, when we're excited or exposed to something new, our brains release a chemical called dopamine and transport it to the area of our brain responsible for memory formation. That little rush of dopamine helps us form a memory in that moment.
So, surprise! The key to improving your memory is... well, it's surprise.
Professor Richard Morris, of the Centre for Cognitive and Neural Systems at the University of Edinburgh, said: "Little surprises happen all the time in subtle ways that reflect our personal lives and interests. Somehow, the novelty of surprise creates a halo of better memory for all the otherwise trivial events of one's day that we ordinarily forget."
We've long known that dopamine played a role in memory formation, but this study demonstrated the involvement of the hippocampus. Interestingly, that part of the brain is believed to be the center for our emotions, too. Think about how, in advertising and marketing, we're constantly trying to make an emotional connection, to get audiences to really feel the message. Well, here's why.
So how can you use this little tidbit to improve your own memory?
Try these tips for improving your recall when you want to remember important information:
- Distract yourself. You might feel like you're being super productive and focused by sticking to your work, but you're less likely to recall it later. You're not a bad person for taking a two-minute YouTube break, and for crying out loud, stop buying into the myth that multitasking = greater productivity.
- Celebrate quick wins. Dopamine is released when you finish something, so have a list of small tasks you can tackle to get some quick wins in throughout the day.
- Take regular body breaks. Get a jump rope. Run up a flight of office stairs. Even if all you have time to do in get up and do 10 jumping jacks beside the desk, you're giving yourself a little boost of endorphins and dopamine. (Bonus: it'll make you more creative, too.)
- Take the opportunity to try something new. It doesn't have to mean learning a whole new skill. Maybe it's a sensory surprise--run your hands over different materials, or go outside when it's cold and come back in. Maybe (outside of a scent-free workplace) it means a warmer with different scented oils. The point is to create change in your workspace so it's not always the same old, same old.
There you go--improving your memory doesn't have to be boring and tedious. Surprise!