You walk into the kitchen with purpose, then stand in the doorway wondering what you went in there to do. Add to your grocery list? Look for your keys? Get a glass of water? Who knows? Your mind is completely blank.
"Though we jokingly refer to these as 'senior moments,' they happen to everyone -- from the very young to the very old," says Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD, founding director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California, San Francisco.
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Gazzaley has spent years researching memory issues using brain-imaging technology. "Your brain works as a series of networks, with different areas communicating with each other at all times," he says. "When you're trying to remember something, your brain establishes a new network. Memory glitches occur when there's a break in that network."
What causes the break? Interference, which impairs your ability to focus. Interference can be anything from your cellphone ringing to background chatter at a restaurant to your mind wandering. "We've found that when a person is exposed to interference, their ability to recall info, even over very short periods of time, declines significantly," says Gazzaley.
Preventing Memory Loss
Some people can maintain their networks in the face of interference -- you know, those friends who never forget a face or always remember everybody's birthday. Why is that? "Some people are better at maintaining or reactivating their networks than others, and that's the main focus of our research right now -- understanding what causes the individual variability of memory," says Gazzaley.
What can you do? Try to limit interference. "You can't always shut off the world, but you can learn how to focus your attention on the task at hand," says Gazzaley. So if you go into the kitchen to write something down on your grocery list, don't answer your cellphone or let your mind wander to a meeting that morning. "Mentally rehearse what you're doing, and hold it in mind, until you're finished with the task," he says.
You can also train your brain to recall information by practicing. "Our brains have plasticity, or the ability to get better at something when challenged," says Gazzaley. "I often test my memory so that it continues to get better." Try this: Next time you go to the grocery store, don't make a list, and see how many items you can remember. "Four or five is my sweet spot," he says. "Nine is pushing it."
"Last week, a friend introduced me to a potential client for my business," says Laurie Rowland, 32, a chef/caterer from Smyrna, Ga. "Ten minutes into our conversation, I couldn't remember her name. Why would I forget something so important?"
The short answer, says Gazzaley , is that "you weren't really paying attention. Maybe you were focused on how exciting it would be to have a new client or were trying to make a good impression, but your brain wasn't concentrating on the task at hand -- in this case, remembering her name. The next time you meet someone new, really pay attention -- and then repeat the name to consolidate the information in your brain."
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