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What Controls Your Memory: 5 Reasons We Forget, It's Not What You Think

Have you ever experienced zone-out moments, something I call a “brain freeze” when you know you should totally remember something that has apparently been deleted from your brain’s hard drive against our will. That’s because the human brain is a haphazard, messy machine that glitches at the slightest provocation.

Have you ever wondered if someone close to you, maybe someone you know intimately is going through early stages of alzheimers or may just be losing their mind in general? Well, I’ve got great news, science has tracked down some of the completely random things that decide whether or not your memory will choose to function at that particular moment.

Things like …

#5. Walking Through A Doorway

You’re standing in a room, looking around, confused. You know you came in here to get something, but what? All of a sudden you don’t remember what. You’ve completely forgotten why you got up from the sofa in the first place, as if the mere act of walking from the living room into the kitchen wiped your memory completely clean of any semblance of what you were there for.

You try to decide if this is the sign of a cripplingly short attention span or early onset Alzheimer’s. But don’t worry these “What was I looking for?” memory lapses happen to all of us, and science has figured out a very strange and almost unbelievable reason why this happens. Gabriel Radvansky and his “partners in crime” at the University of Notre Dame performed a series of experiments to determine exactly what causes this weird “brain freeze”. Turns out it’s not ADD, ADHD, or even plain old stupidity.

It’s doorways. Seriously.

Your brain uses a very similar directory system to that of your computer. Only instead of neat folders labeled “Downloads,” “Documents” and “My Pictures” your brain tends to compartmentalize by physical location. This means that the information readily accessible to you in one room i.e.(“I must get a glass of milk to wash down all this delicious fudge”) suddenly becomes a lot harder to access when you go to another room (“Why am I in the kitchen? I know it had something to do with the toaster???…”). The moment you cross a doorway, you’re essentially sending a signal to your brain that you’re in a new environment now and that nothing that happened in that previous one matters, so just delete it.

Radvansky tested this by having students examine a box containing objects such as red cubes and blue spheres. Then, the students tried to remember what those objects were after either walking into another room or just walking that same distance without crossing any doorways. The results were so dramatic that researchers proceeded to rename doorways “event erasers,” a name so graphically accurate that it is what we’re all going to call doorways from now on.

And the effect of doorways is so strong that you literally don’t even have to physically move for those internal delete specialists to push the delete button in your memory bank. In another experiment, the researchers had people sit at a computer and do the same test, where the new “room” was just an animation on the screen. The effect was exactly the same every single time their avatar crossed a virtual doorway, their ability to recall objects escaped them like Houdini performing at his best.

The great new is, our door-riddled culture is not doomed to a collective lost in space disease. Saying things out loud as you pass the doorway can apparently squash this effect. It stands to reason, really, even if you managed to forget that you entered the office exclaiming that you need to buy tampons for your wife, you’d probably be reminded plenty of times by your male peers watching you with that emasculating stare that forces you to remember the consequence of returning home without them.

#4. Crazy Fonts

Isn’t it strange how textbooks and official documents just flat out refuse to stay in your head? The words just drip away like water off a duck’s back, no matter what Big Textbook tries. And try they do: Short of coming into your house to slap you every time you don’t pay attention, they’ve used every trick to catch your wandering eye, from bolding, printing in red, to italicizing and underlining important terms and sentences like “read all directions first and do not answer this questions on this test,” I received an “f” on that test.

You know what, all of this academic failure is making you hungry. Now there’s one thing you never forget, the fact that the local Taco Bell exists, and what’s on their menu, and which day of the month is 2-for-1 quesadillas. Now let’s look at their ads, and notice how they do their text:

What the heck? Was this a five-year-old child labor infringement act happening when this was created? In fact, if you look at any restaurant’s ad, it’s a typographical nightmare. You’re mixing four or five different fonts, and interrupting one kind of font with another in mid-sentence…

Other times, the text is just a jumbled mess. What the heck are they thinking?

Actually, they know what textbooks don’t: When information is provided in a weird, difficult-to-read font, you are more likely to remember it because your brain takes a permanent snapshot of this information.

Unless you’re really interested in the subject matter, your brain has a tendency to lump anything written in tedious Times New Roman or brain freezing dull Courier with all the hundreds of miles of writing that you’ve ever read in those same, sane, boring fonts. But throw in some comic sans, chalk duster or Wingdings, and all of a sudden the information begins to catch your eye in a way you never thought possible, through your subconscious.

Researchers at Princeton and Indiana University proved this by having one group of people read stories in 16-point Arial and others in the much more difficult to process 12-point Comic Sans MA and 12-point Bodoni MT. Quite simply, they found that the people given the seemingly confusing font retained the information better. This was confirmed by a longer 200-person trial where the lucky kids who got their textbooks replaced with doppelgangers with funky fonts retained the material better and got higher test grades. The effect was most noticeable in physics, which is strange, as a physics book written in Comic Sans would be quite close to our definition of cruel and unusual punishment.

The process behind the phenomenon is simple: When the brain has to work harder at decoding the font, it also spends more time and effort in figuring out just what on God’s green earth it’s reading and therefore tends to hang on to the information better so we won’t be forced to go through all of that agony again.

So the next time you open your laptop to go over your notes for that exam on particle physics, highlight all of the text and switch it to some wacky taffy font where all of the letters are shaped like a Taco Bell campaign ad. You can thank me for the A later.

#3. Deep Voices

We, as a society and even more as women, love deep voices. That’s what our ads and documentary voice-overs are made of. That’s why Darth Vader is so intriguing. Really, that’s how Barry White managed to become synonymous with sex despite having both the looks and a nickname that simply don’t “fit.” As we will soon discuss, this has a lot to do with sex appeal. But there’s way more to it, memory-wise.

Let’s lead in with an experiment.

Imagine Morgan Freeman. Now, imagine he’s reading the rest of this article to you in that deep, soothing voice of his. If you’re a man, wow, cool Morgan Freeman just read you an article on memory retention! If you’re a girl, it’s an entirely different experience, well, you stand a decent chance of being able to recite every word of this article from memory. See, just like men have that special trick for writing in the snow, there is one ladies-only method women can use to their advantage when they need that extra edge in the memory department. And before you ask: Yes, of course it is related to arousal.

According to researchers from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and McMaster University in Canada, evolution has trained women to remember everything associated with men they find desirable, including anything that they ramble about when they open their sexy mouths. This means that if you happen to be a male with a deep Sean Connery voice, which women tend to find very attractive, then your voice alone can actually enhance a woman’s memory for absolutely anything you’re saying, no matter how pointless or ridiculous it might be.

The researchers proved this by having the female subjects look at objects on computer screens while the names of said objects were read aloud by computer-manipulated male voices at various pitches, with some female voices mixed in for control. Then, they were tested with one of those frusterating “Which is the correct object?” memory games.

The women correctly picked out way more objects when they were initially introduced by deep male voices. A similar experiment using real human voices yielded the same results. This led the researchers to the inevitable conclusion: Deep male voices light up more than just a woman’s nether regions, but also her neurons.

#2. Looking at the Floor

Take a moment and picture, in your mind, an elderly person who is desperately struggling to remember a name or event. He’s got his hand on his chin, he’s muttering to himself (“Was that John? No, John was in jail that year. Maybe it was David?”). Now let us ask you: Where is he looking?

He is either looking at the floor or the ceiling, almost as if he expects to find the answer written there. He may also just stare off into space, anywhere, as long as he’s not looking at you. Why?

Psychologists at the University of Scotland got curious enough to whip out their research equipment and begin an experiment to find out what the score is.

It’s faces. Your memory is ruined by other people with their anxious expressions, silly faces and looks of frustration even with a blank expression, this is too much for you to process other thoughts of total recall.

The researchers figured this out by recruiting a bunch of young students at a nearby elementary school and tasking them with a bunch of memory-related games. Some of the kids were told they could look anywhere they wanted, including at their teacher, and the rest were instructed to look at a blank piece of paper on the floor.

The kids who looked at the blank sheet did almost 20% better than the ones who were allowed to look at their teacher. The reason appears to be that, as social animals, human faces are mentally captivating to us, and thus deplete quite a lot of our concentration skills. If you want to devote more mental horsepower to solving a problem, you need to look away.

Despite the fact that most people are not actively aware of this problem, our brains are usually able to hone in on this skill the older we get. That is why the older you get, the more you start to instinctively look away from people when you’re thinking and the more the “stare muttering at the ceiling while fiddling with your white beard” habit sets in.

#1. Hand Gestures

Here’s something you’ve probably never wondered: Why do people talk with their hands? Almost everyone gestures when they’re talking, I know I do, when they’re counting down something, they hold up a hand and point to a finger to track off each point. During an argument, most people can’t illustrate their point without almost accidentally karate chopping you in the throat. And Hitler would have been forced to quit politics and try art school again if he hadn’t been allowed to use violent hand gestures to swat home each point in his speeches.

The reason for this is that the learning/remembering parts of your brain and the “move your hands” part work together. And yes, this means that if you come up with a little preschool hand dance to help you remember a theorem, it will totally work on exam day.

A University of Rochester psychologist proved this by teaching a bunch of kids to solve math problems using this method. Some were told to talk the problems out as they solved them, others were told to gesture and the last bunch was told to do both. Sure, all were able to solve the problems after a while but when the kids were tested again a few weeks later, the group that was only allowed to talk the problems out retained a measly 33% of what they’d learned. The kids who just gestured? They retained 80% of the information, while the kids who were allowed to gesture and talk came in at a whopping 92%.

And yes, another experiment showed that the system is totally applicable to adults as well. So, what are you waiting for?

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