Memory Lame: Why You Keep Forgetting Things

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Why We Forget

Most of us experience forgetfulness because of memory-sapping behaviors and habits, not illnesses. Check out the top reasons for memory loss -- I'll bet they sound familiar.

Too Much Stress
Just the right amount of stress hormones -- cortisol and adrenaline -- keeps you sharp by heightening the senses and boosting energy and awareness. But too much can flood the system. "In almost every way that can be measured, chronic stress hurts our ability to think," says Dr. Medina. "Stressed people can't concentrate or problem solve well. They have trouble processing language and processing new information."

Even short bouts of anxiety -- worries about your 401(k), anger over an argument with a spouse -- can damage the brain's memory pathways. So you then forget to stop at the bank on the way home from the office or blank on the name of the woman you met at your son's soccer game last weekend.

Too Little Sleep
"Sleep loss cripples your ability to think logically, pay attention, and remember," Dr. Medina says. While you snooze your brain moves information it takes in during the day from short-term memory to long-term storage. Studies conducted by Mary A. Carskadon, PhD, a veteran sleep researcher at Brown University, revealed that losing just one hour of sleep per night on a regular basis can have a significant negative impact on health, alertness, and memory.

Returning a friend's e-mail while you're finishing a report at work and simultaneously fielding a call about your son's homework assignment may feel super-efficient. But research shows that, in fact, you're kidding yourself. Your ability to learn and remember is seriously compromised when you divide your focus.

"Think of a book," says Dr. Medina. "Though many words might exist on a single page, you can only read that page one word at a time. Similarly, the brain can only focus on one thing at a time unless the other skills are so familiar as to be automatic." That's why you can speed-walk with a friend and still carry on a conversation. But the details of your son's homework assignment? You weren't focusing, so your brain wasn't able to lay down the memory.

Working on Autopilot
Not paying attention to what you're doing when you're doing it could be the cause of absentmindedness, one of the most common memory glitches. When you can't find your eyeglasses and tear around the house looking for them until someone points out that they're on top of your head (where you pushed them when opening the mail) you're struggling with what Harvard University psychologist Daniel L. Schacter, PhD, calls "amnesia for the automatic." In other words, certain tasks are so routine that you don't even realize that your mind has started to wander until you try to remember where you put something or what you were doing at the time.

Continued on page 3:  Get Your Brain Back


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