Think back to the days of the clamshell phone with the rotary dial and the twenty-foot cord. If you’re not quite that old, harken back to cordless phones when their range extended to most but not all of the rooms in your house. How many numbers could you recall by picking up the phone and dialing? How many phone numbers do you know today?
The invention of the smartphone made remembering phone numbers about as handy as your VHS copy of Die Hard. For that matter, the only useful piece of repetitive memory we rely upon today is the dreaded password. And let’s be honest, almost all of our passwords are some combination of birthdays and pet names with an ampersand or exclamation point replacing a similar-looking character. Yeah, you thought you were clever, but we all do the same thing.
To make it even easier, we use the same password or a slight variation for everything. If that’s still too difficult, we write them down in a secret notebook or a piece of paper taped under a desk drawer. Once again, we’re not that clever.
How can we be expected to remember all those passwords when most of us can’t recall what we had for lunch a couple of hours ago? Maybe that’s our problem. If not forced to remember some things, we fail to memorize most things. Our memories are like muscles; without occasionally flexing the connections in our brain, they begin to atrophy.
When we recall a phone number, password, or where we left the car keys, it’s our working memory that we rely upon for information. Working memory is a specific aspect of our cognitive function that enables us to complete tasks in our daily lives. This type of memory is vital in everyday reasoning and decision-making.
Unfortunately, our working memories develop as children and peak in our twenties. It’s all downhill on the memory slope once you hit thirty. The pace at which memory declines also depends on how much we exercise our brains. As technology requires using our memories less and less every day, our ability to remember deteriorates that much more quickly.
Working memory for a series of digits or characters, phone numbers, and passwords, relies upon continuous rehearsal. When you visit a site that requires your password, you’ll remember the password each time you log on. If you’re computer automatically inputs the password, you won’t likely memorize it. That’s why setting up a new phone or computer is such a nightmare – you forgot all your passwords!
Here are some other examples of poor working memory:
- You get directions yet still get lost.
- You have many unfinished projects because you get distracted easily.
- You need to reread sentences and paragraphs.
- You have trouble following a conversation because you either forget what you want to say or what the other person said.
- You consistently misplace things like your phone or wallet.
If you or the people around think you may have ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) or early-onset dementia, see a doctor. For most of us in this situation, we may only need to start flexing our working memory muscles.
Train Your Brain
There are various ways to improve your working memory, but the best thing to do is stop cheating. Commit numbers and passwords to memory and use them often. Here are some tips and tricks to help you get started.
Write a list
Develop a routine of writing down items you need to remember. Isn’t that cheating or not relying upon memory? No, it actually improves memory.
Making a list using a pen and paper, not a smartphone or computer, forces you to organize your thoughts and process the information more deeply into your brain. Handwriting lists imprint the data into memory.
“To do two things at once is to do neither.” – Publilius Syrus
Contrary to popular belief, multitasking tasking is less efficient than completing a single task and moving to the next. According to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, multitasking inhibits productivity and undermines efficiency.
Multitasking shortens attention span by forcing your brain to switch between tasks continuously. When you multitask, areas of your brain shrink, leading to less cognitive control and a reduction of your working memory.
A mindfulness practice, meditation, may change the way our brains process information. This type of practice doesn’t need to be sitting cross-legged on a cushion for an hour while trying to make your mind blank. Try focusing your attention on something for two minutes a few times per day.
Learning to pay better attention is a great way to train your brain and improve working memory.
You play games to improve your physical performance. So, why not gamify your cognitive abilities. Flex your memory muscles by playing card games or chess. These games involve both hemispheres of the brain by using object and pattern recognition.
Can I Get Your Number?
We bet that if you sat down and really put your mind to it, you might be able to get at least close to remembering your high school best friend’s phone number. Think about how many times you dialed it in your life. Give it a try.
The next time you meet someone new, challenge yourself to remember something about them. When you introduce yourself to the attractive person at the other end of the bar, get their number and write it down.
The number of the last person who texted you their digits is probably still on your phone but damned if you can remember them. Now that number only exists as a nameless entry in your contacts with the hopes that someday they’ll call and you can figure it out. Please don’t be that guy.
Take care, even down there.
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