How to improve your episodic memory

These tips can help you recall the details from past events and learn from them.

Does this sound familiar? You can’t recall the name of someone you met before. Or you forget the time-saving shortcut from a previous car trip. Or you repeatedly make the same silly mistake doing a once-familiar task.

It’s frustrating when you can’t recall certain past details. You may chalk it up to “senior moments.” But, the actual problem is a breakdown in your episodic memory, the brain’s largest and most complex memory system.

Yet, we often think of this kind of memory loss the wrong way. “Episodic memory is not only about recalling the specific details of a past event, but rather taking what you learned from that experience and using it in the future,” says Dr. Andrew Budson, a lecturer in neurology at Harvard Medical School and chief of cognitive and behavioral neurology at Harvard-affiliated VA Boston Healthcare System. “Many times, remembering details is less important than learning the lesson from that memory.”

The brain in action

Your episodic memory comes from two brain regions working together: the hippocampus and the frontal lobe. The hippocampus is the seahorse-shaped part of the brain responsible for recording new thoughts, perceptions, and sensations. The frontal lobe helps you focus attention, retrieve memories, and remember the context of the information you learned.

Here’s an example of how episodic memory works: You’re on a dinner date with Mary, and you bring up the topic of past relationships. Mary does not want to share that so soon, gets turned off, and doesn’t want a second date.

Much later you attend a dinner date with a different woman. This time you recall how that topic ruined an evening, so you avoid it. You probably don’t remember specifics about the first date with Mary, like the restaurant, the meal, or your attire. But your brain focused on the important lesson from that time — don’t talk about previous relationships — and you remembered it. That is your episodic memory in action.

“Episodic memory does not have to include only long-ago memories,” says Dr. Budson. “It could be involved in events from days or weeks ago, or even a few minutes or several hours.”

Learn and retain

Episodic memory tends to wane over time. As you age, frontal lobe function tends to decline. This is why you sometimes need new information — like a phone number or instructions — to be repeated for it to get into the hippocampus.

A weaker frontal lobe is also why you fail to retrieve the lessons from past experiences, forget vital information, or repeat errors. (Besides normal aging, this decline in the frontal lobe can also be caused by strokes or the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, according to Dr. Budson.)

While you can’t reverse the effect of aging on this type of memory loss, you can improve how well your existing episodic memory works. “It’s still possible to learn and retain new information, better access past details, and, more importantly, use that knowledge to your advantage,” says Dr. Budson. Here are three strategies he suggests you can try.

Focus your attention. If you have trouble retaining first-time information, like when you meet someone, practice mindful awareness. As the person says his or her name, focus on the name’s sounds. For example, if the name was Elizabeth, pay attention to the syllables, E-LIZ-A-BETH. An effort to focus on information when you first encounter it can help you better retain it, says Dr. Budson.

Get a cue. If you can recall only some parts of a memory, using a mental hint or signal often triggers more details. For example, if you cannot remember someone’s name, think about everything you know about him or her, like a job, hometown, or hobby. You can also go through the alphabet and see if you can match a letter to the person’s first name.

“This can also teach you to remember the name for the next time,” says Dr. Budson. You can apply this to other situations, too. If you can’t remember directions, focus on what you do recall, such as visual markers or the name of a street. “Use whatever information you have, and often your memory can fill in the rest,” says Dr. Budson.

Make a mental link. When you learn information you know you want to use later, make a mental link to it. For instance, if you want to recall an article you read, focus on a keyword or phrase in the title, or a picture that goes with the context. “If the story was about an exercise routine, picture a muscular person, or one exercise it mentioned,” says Dr. Budson.


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