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How Mindfulness May Help Navigate The Gap Between Memory & Recall

Portrait Of A Beautiful Mature Woman
Image by Irina Polonina / Stocksy
October 28, 2020

You know that moment when something is on the tip of your tongue but you can't quite grab it or when you suddenly recall something hours later you meant to remember to say at a meeting that morning? Those moments are a testament to the gap between memory and recall—something researchers at Stanford seek to hack our memory to make recall work better—because the two are different.

"As we navigate our lives, we have these periods in which we're frustrated because we're not able to bring knowledge to mind, expressing what we know," says Anthony Wagner, the Lucie Stern professor in the social sciences at Stanford's School of Humanities and Sciences. "Fortunately, science now has tools that allow us to explain why an individual, from moment to moment, might fail to remember something stored in their memory."

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The gap between memory and recall, and its link to multitasking.

The team wanted to establish what affects why some people have stronger recall and, in particular, if one nasty habit could affect it: multitasking. Answering these basic questions about the way our memory recall process works could, too, have implications for everything from better understanding conditions like Alzheimer's to helping people improve their attention and retention in day-to-day settings. 

"We have an opportunity now," Wagner explains, "to explore and understand how interactions between the brain's networks that support attention, the use of goals and memory relate to individual differences in memory in older adults both independent of, and in relation to, Alzheimer's disease."

A group of 80 participants, aged 18 to 26, had brain waves (specifically called posterior alpha power) monitored by an electroencephalogram while working on tasks involving recall or following changes. "Increases in alpha power in the back of your skull have been related to attention lapses, mind wandering, distractibility, and so forth," says study lead author Kevin Madore, a Stanford postdoctoral fellow in the Stanford Memory Lab.

The researchers also considered how engaged participants could stay when using multiple media sources at the same time, such as texting while watching television. After these initial assessments, the researchers compared the memory performance of the participants.

They found that those who had a lower ability to sustain attention and who were more frequent "media multitaskers" showed worse performance on memory tasks—though they point out that this simply proves a correlation, not necessarily that one causes the other: "We can't say that heavier media multitasking causes difficulties with sustained attention and memory failures," explains Madore, "though we are increasingly learning more about the directions of the interactions."  

What can you do to "hack" your memory?

"While it's logical that attention is important for learning and for remembering, an important point here is that the things that happen even before you begin remembering are going to affect whether or not you can actually reactivate a memory that is relevant to your current goal," said Wagner.

What are those factors? According to Wagner and Madore, it includes things that are both within our control and things outside our control. Using the abilities that we do have, we can hack our habits to improve our recall. Focusing on a conscious awareness of attentiveness, readiness to remember, and limiting potential distractions seem to be the most powerful tools for "hacking" the memory and recall link.

While the researchers may not call it thus, these strategies sound an awful lot like something we talk about often: mindfulness. The four key principles of this powerful well-being tool are awareness, acceptance, accountability, and action—quite similar to the "awareness of attentiveness" and "readiness to remember" suggested by the researchers.

For your memory's sake—and to improve your ability to recall the things your mind remembers—working to increase mindfulness might just be the ticket. If you think a traditional mindfulness practice (like meditation) isn't for you, consider trying these strategies instead. Or, you can use a simple practice that grounds you in the day: like stretching, breathing deeply, and spending time outside.

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