LEARNING A NEW LANGUAGE AND GETTING EIGHT HOURS OF SLEEP MAY BOOST YOUR BRAINPOWER, BUT YOU PROBABLY DON’T HAVE THE TIME. HERE’S HOW TO DO IT INSTEAD, ACCORDING TO A NEUROSCIENTIST.
It’s Official: Memory Complaints Are Universal
You’re introducing your coworker to a new hire, giving a presentation or answering a question about a critical metric when suddenly, you can’t recall the name/key point/piece of data you need. Maybe you feel embarrassed by your gaffe, or frustrated with your lack of recall, or perhaps you worry there’s something wrong with you. You’re not alone. “Memory complaints are universal: We all have them, and we all dislike the experience of not being able to remember something at a critical time,” says Dr. Heather Collins, a cognitive neuroscientist and speaker. But what can you do about it?
Your Memory Isn’t the Problem
The first thing to know is that your memory isn’t the problem. “The most common pitfall with a ‘bad memory’ isn’t actually memory itself, it’s attention,” says Dr. Collins. “For your brain to make a memory, you first must pay attention to the thing you intend to remember.”
Since they’re so busy, entrepreneurs can easily overlook the importance of paying attention, but paying attention is critical to memory making. “If you’re having a conversation with somebody, take a moment to think about what they’re saying instead of how you’ll respond. If you’re watching a presentation, separate the information you want to remember from the irrelevant information that can be tossed aside,” Dr. Collins says. Doing this allows you to focus on creating a strong memory you can recall rather than a weak one you can’t.
How Memories Form
Your hippocampus is a small, curved structure near the center of your brain. It’s associated with learning and emotions, and is involved in the formation of new memories, but it doesn’t work alone. “The hippocampus works in collaboration with other brain regions to form a network that represents each memory,” explains Dr. Collins.
How can you use this information to your advantage? “Don’t just repeat the word, phrase or point [you’re trying to remember] over and over, because you’re likely to forget much of the information if that is your only strategy,” says Dr. Collins. “Instead, associate the to-be-remembered information with everything else you know. For example, if I ask you to remember ‘apple,’ start by creating a mental image of an apple, which will form a link between your hippocampus and the vision areas in your occipital lobe. Next, think about a specific apple, like a Granny Smith apple, and what it tastes like, feels like and smells like. Maybe think of a story about an apple, such as the time you knocked over a stack of Granny Smith apples at the grocery store.”
Dr. Collins says this imagery and sensory information creates a broad representation network including your somatosensory cortices and your frontal lobes, and will ensure that you create a powerful memory. “Be specific and include as many contextual details and stories as possible.”
While this technique takes work, it’s worth the effort. “Have you ever tried a new weightlifting program or exercise class? It was probably difficult and awkward at first, but then it became part of your routine as you gained experience. Creating a powerful memory is just like that,” says Dr. Collins. “By engaging in this cognitive effort now, you are training your brain to create powerful memories with each important encounter. After a while, your brain will do this automatically and it will feel effortless. Not only will you generate lasting memories, but you will also free up your cognitive resources for other critical tasks.”
Running on Autopilot Kills Memory Making AND Creativity
If sharpening your focus can boost recall, can it help in other areas, such as creativity? You bet. Operating on autopilot can be restful, but it can also lead to missed opportunities and missed connections.
So what is autopilot, and why is it bad? “Autopilot is a form of automatic thinking that requires few resources, minimal effort and even less mental awareness,” says Dr. Collins. “During autopilot, your default mode network is active and humming, but complex networks involved in thinking, reasoning and decision-making are passive.” (If you’ve ever found yourself thinking “What did I just do?” or “Where did the time go?,” chances are, your brain was on autopilot.) Dr. Collins likens the phenomenon to a car idling at a stop sign. “It’s on, but it isn’t going anywhere. To shift your brain to active pilot, you need to give it some gas.”
Why fight autopilot? Because it can have serious consequences. “When your brain is on autopilot, you fail to think creatively, fail to identify solutions and fail to engage in high-level problem solving,” says Dr. Collins. “Being on autopilot also limits your effectiveness in performing important tasks, taking on challenges and achieving goals. Your options are fewer, opportunities are missed, and there is a narrowing of potential connections made between you and your world.” Not a good state to be in if your company’s success depends on your ability to continually innovate!
Killing the Autopilot Switch
Turns out, switching your brain fully on is easy—as is not letting it switch off in the first place. You simply have to rely on external cues. “When your brain slips into autopilot, you’re unlikely to be aware of small internal signals that indicate you’re not performing at your best,” says Dr. Collins. “External cues help you snap out of autopilot and can prevent your brain from slipping in the first place.”
You can create an external cue by setting a timer on your phone or computer. “Think about how difficult your task is and set a reasonable time limit for the project. The key is to make it long enough to accomplish meaningful progress but short enough to prevent your brain from slipping.” Aim for 20 minutes or less; research suggests that your brain’s default mode network needs to refresh that often.
To keep your brain from going on autopilot in in-person settings, like meetings or presentations, Dr. Collins suggests asking someone who is attending with you to prompt you every so often with a meeting-related question. Alternatively, you can take notes—with pen and paper—every 2–5 minutes. (Don’t take notes on a digital device, since they’re distracting; if you use a device at all, make sure it’s as a timer only.) Another effective method is asking questions. “When you ask questions, you engage your brain’s frontal cortex,” says Dr. Collins, who explains that this is the region of the brain where critical cognitive processes, such as reasoning, thinking and decision-making, occur. “Keeping your frontal cortex active ensures that you’ll be ready to engage in complex reasoning and decision-making and won’t be caught off guard.”
Finally, reframing business activities may help you see them in a new light. “Many times, we walk out of meetings or presentations believing they were worthless, but if we don’t do our part to get the most out of every professional situation, we have done ourselves a disservice,” says Dr. Collins. Even a dull presentation may contain a few gems. Make sure to fully engage, and you might just find a few you would have otherwise missed!
For more tips on using neuroscience to your advantage, watch Dr. Collins’s TEDx talk.