Ever just draw a blank when you’re trying to remember something?
It’s a common problem, but… Wait, what were we talking about?
Chances are you’ve done it more times than you’d care to admit. What exactly is happening when you can’t remember a simple piece of information you know you should know?
“On a daily basis, we so much spend a lot of time functioning on auto-pilot, carrying out routine activities without much conscious effort or awareness,” clinical psychologist Jodi J. De Luca, PhD told Reader’s Digest. “It’s amazing we’re able to remember anything at all.
There are two primary cognitive factors that tend to bring about this “mental-block” phenomenon.
The first is known as “blocking.” Basically, when you’re trying to call up a stored memory, similar or associated memories can come to the surface instead.
One or more of the associated memories can “block” the memory that you’re actually trying to retrieve. For instance, you might try to remember a certain song from a movie you’ve seen, but only be able to come up with a different song from the same movie.
The other factor is known as “interference.” Initially proposed by German psychologist John Bergstrom in 1892, the theory of interference posits that newly acquired information can disrupt or interfere with your brain’s ability to retrieve old information. One example of this phenomenon is the embarrassing (but common) gaff of calling a romantic partner by an ex’s name.
Sometimes, though, forgetfulness is more than a simple mental misfire.
According to Courtney Rodriguez, LMHC, NCC, “When we are under any kind of stress, whether physical, psychological, or emotional, the parts of the brain that are important to survival are heightened, while those less critical to survival are overpowered.”
Of course, most of the time the actual stressors aren’t a matter of life or death, but because of the way our brains have evolved, we respond to them as such. While some of these stressors can be momentary and dependent on your immediate situation, others can be recurring or chronic—for instance, not getting enough sleep or certain vitamin deficiencies.
So how can you prevent (or at least reduce the occurrence of) the occasional memory lapse?
According to scientists, there are a few surprisingly straightforward ways to improve your memory and information retention, although they’re easier said than done.
According to a study conducted by the University of Texas at Dallas Center for BrainHealth, regular aerobic exercise is not only good for your physical fitness, but it can improve your memory and overall brain function.
New York Neurology & Sleep Medicine medical director Allen Towfigh, MD, also told Health that getting a healthy amount of sleep (seven to nine hours for most adults) can go a long way toward ensuring your memory retention and that you recall work as well as you should.
Finally, the American Academy of Neurology has found that having a moderately challenging job or hobby can do wonders for your memory. If the job is too stressful, though, it can actually have the opposite effect.
In any case, don’t worry; occasional lapses in memory are completely normal. Just be sure to get plenty of sleep, and…wait, we had a great conclusion for this.
It’ll probably come to us—maybe after a quick nap or a jog around the block.