Some are enjoyable. Others, we’d rather forget. And still more we do forget. But more than anything else, memory makes up who are. Without our recollections, we wouldn’t be able to form relationships, advance in our careers, or even remember which foods we love (and which we hate). Memory, some might say, is the key to life.
Given how monumental our memories are to our everyday lives, most of us know little about how and why they’re formed. But unlike everything we learned in 11th grade biology class, what goes on in the memory storage centers of our brain is anything but boring. For instance, it’s pretty insane to think that our brains can theoretically hold more information than over 4,000 iPhones. And apparently there’s a world record for the most random objects memorized—who knew! Herein, we’ve gathered some of the most interesting and crazy facts about memory that science (and the internet) has to offer. So store these facts away in your long-term memory—and for more brain-sharpening tips, try these 20 Simple Ways to Improve Your Memory.
Our brains can store a countless amount of information.
According to Northwestern University psychology professor Paul Reber, our brains have the capacity to store up to 2.5 petabytes of data. That’s the equivalent of three million hours of TV shows—or about the same storage as nearly 4,000 256GB iPhones (the largest size available). And if you want to start filling your brain with some fun tidbits, start with the 30 Craziest Facts About Planet Earth You Never Knew.
We start to forget childhood memories while we’re in childhood.
Do you remember what it was like when you walked for the first time, or how you felt on your first day of kindergarten? The answer for most of us is probably not. But at what age do these memories begin to fade? Well, psychologists at Emory University had the same question, and so they set out to determine when exactly we begin to experience “childhood amnesia.” Their study found that while children between the ages of five and seven remembered 60 percent or more of their early life events, eight- and nine-year-olds recalled less than 40 percent of the same memories.
A good night’s rest helps us better store memories.
Unsurprisingly, our brains function better when we’re well-rested. One study found that people who were taught specific finger movements (like you would learn on the piano) were better able to recall them after 12 hours of rest. “When you’re asleep, it seems as though you are shifting memory to more efficient storage regions within the brain,” study author Matthew Walker, Ph.D., of the BIDMC’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory told Science Daily. And for more reasons to hit the hay, Here’s Why Getting More Sleep Will Make You a Better Parent.
Walking through a doorway triggers the brain to forget.
“Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an ‘event boundary’ in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away,” psychologist Gabriel Radvansky told Live Science. When he and his team studied the difference between subjects moving objects between rooms versus subjects moving objects in the same room, he found that “people were two to three times as likely to forget what they were supposed to do after walking through a doorway.”
And so does “mentally” walking through a door.
If you want to remember something, try not to think about a door. A follow-up study to Radvansky’s research found that when subjects were asked to remember something after imagining themselves passing through a doorway, they were less likely to recall the information presented.
We don’t remember sounds that well.
It pays to invest in digital learning aids. An estimated 65 percent of the population is categorized as visual learners, who “need to see what they are learning.” And as we retain only about one-fifth of what we hear, visual assistance can improve learning by up to 400 percent.
Yes, there’s a world record for memory.
At just 10 years old, Nischal Narayanam claimed his first Guinness World Record—for most random objects memorized. (In case you want to beat it, he memorized 225 random objects in a little over 12 minutes.) A few years later, he also won the title of most digits memorized in one minute—he memorized 132—and National Geographic has him listed as one of the “seven brilliant brains of the world.”
There’s a peak age for facial recognition.
“Oh hey… you!” You better get used to saying this now, because your ability to pair faces with names is only going to get worse after your 30s, according to a study from Dartmouth College and Harvard University. Apparently, our ability to identity faces peaks between the ages of 30 to 34—and after that, it slowly declines, until we can only recognize an estimated 75 percent of people in our 70s. To get a head-start on your inevitably fading mind, try these 10 Ways to Develop a Photographic Memory.
And a peak age for name recognition.
The regions in our brain that control our ability to recognize faces might mature well into our 30s, but the ones that allow us to remember names and store other new information start declining as early as our 20s. Luckily, scientists say that most people don’t start noticing these deteriorations until they reach their 60s or 70s.
Memory hack: Close your eyes.
You might look a little strange with your eyes sealed shut, but your memory will thank you for it. One study in Legal and Criminal Psychology found that, when people closed their eyes, they were able to answer 23 percent more questions correctly about a movie they had just watched. By closing your eyes, you remove outside distractions and allow your brain to focus on the recollections at hand.
Depression impacts our ability to remember things.
As if people suffering from depression don’t have enough to worry about already, new findings published in Neurology have found that the condition is associated with deteriorating brain health. In the study of 1,111 people, it was found that those with depression-related symptoms had worse episodic memory as well as a smaller brain volume and a higher prevalence of vascular lesions. If you’re suffering from a shortage of serotonin, try these 10 Drug-Free Ways to Beat Depression.
Some lies are easier to remember than others.
Fact: Everybody lies. But how we lie has a surprising impact on whether we can recall our former fables. According to research from Louisiana State University, false descriptions—elaborate inventions of the imagination—are easier to remember than false denials (when you deny something that is actually true). “If I’m going to lie to you about something that didn’t happen, I’m going to have to keep a lot of different constraints in mind,” study author Sean Lane explained to Eurek Alert.
“Love at first sight” is a fabrication.
Think that you and your partner experienced love at first sight? That might just be your mind playing tricks on you, according to a study from Northwestern University. Apparently, when we think back to the time when we first met our significant other, we have a tendency to project our current feelings onto our past memories. “Your memory reframes and edits events to create a story to fit your current world,” lead author Donna Jo Bridge explained. Sorry, hopeless romantics.
Most short-term memories are, well, short-term.
It is believed that you can hold between five and nine items in your short-term memory, and they will stay there for just 20 to 30 seconds. Those memories that don’t get stored in the long-term memory are ultimately just forgotten.
Meditation can improve your memory.
Mindfulness makes for a more masterful memory. Just ask the scientists over at University of California at Santa Barbara: They found that college students who participated in 45-minute meditation sessions four times a week scored 60 points higher on the GRE’s verbal exam after just two weeks. Still don’t believe us? Well, the proof is in the pudding—and if you have trouble clearing your mind when you sit cross-legged, try these 10 Ways to Focus Better During Meditation.
False memories are real (and serious).
Have you ever been so sure about a recollection that you later learned had never actually happened? Not only is this phenomenon not uncommon, but it affects nearly everyone—including those with autobiographical memories. When psychologists at the University of California, Irvine, tested subjects with normal and superior memories, they found that both types of people could be tricked into false memories. For instance, when the psychologists used “lure” words like pillow, duvet, and nap, a majority of the subjects would believe beyond a reasonable doubt that they had heard the word sleep.
Some people have memory compendiums.
Scientists don’t know much about highly superior autobiographical memory, or HSAM. What they do know is that the few people who have it can remember nearly everything that’s ever happened to them, like what they had for breakfast on March 12, 1998. Though you might think that having a perfect memory is a blessing, it’s not all rainbows and butterflies: Jill Price, the first person ever diagnosed with HSAM, described the condition as “non-stop, uncontrollable, and totally exhausting. And for more facts that are stranger than fiction, don’t miss these 30 Crazy Facts About Life That May Freak You Out a Little.
Left-handed people have better memories.
Left-handed people make up just 10 percent of the population, but this small portion of people—and those who are related to them—have a better chance of remembering the information they take in compared to their right-handed counterparts. Evidently, lefties and their relatives have larger corpus callosums, which link the brain’s hemispheres and make memories clearer in the mind.
Eyewitnesses relying on memory are notoriously inaccurate.
Seventy-three percent of the 239 convictions overturned through DNA testing since the 1990s were originally convicted due to eyewitness testimony, according to the Innocence Project. This statistic goes hand-in-hand with the fact that our brains have a tendency to recall false truths that we can’t distinguish against.
Mozart had a legendary memory.
In the mid-1600s, there was a piece of music composed by Italian composer Gregorio Allegri that could only be performed in the Sistine Chapel and was not to be written down for circulation. Up until 1770, only three copies of the work existed—but after hearing the piece just once, fourteen-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was able to transcribe it entirely from memory. A few months later, the genius composer was called back to Rome by Pope Clement XIV, who praised his talents and awarded him the Chivalric Order of the Golden Spur. And for more historical trivia, check out these 30 Things in History Textbooks That Weren’t There Just 10 Years Ago.
Good memories stick more than bad ones.
In the 1930s, psychologists asked various people to recall memories about various life events, denoting them as either pleasant or unpleasant. Weeks later, the psychologists asked the subjects once again—with no forewarning—to recall those same memories, and they found that 60 percent of the bad moments were forgotten compared to just 42 percent of the good ones.
“They” are right: TV rots your brain.
Netflix and chill? More like Netflix and kill—your brain cells, that is. One study published in Brain and Cognition discovered that, for each hour a person between the ages of 40 and 59 spends watching TV, their risk of developing Alzheimer’s increases by 1.3 percent. And for ways to live a healthier life, follow these 40 Ways to Make Your 40s Your Healthiest Decade.
Surgical removal of half of the brain is possible with only minor consequences.
In rare and extenuating circumstances (specifically related to various seizure disorders), doctors must perform a hemispherectomy, in which they must surgically remove half of the brain. However, this procedure leaves the patient’s brain relatively intact, save for some minor changes. “Usually memory, humor, and personality will recover, but cognition might change a little,” staff clinician Brandon Brock, MSN, BSN, told Reader’s Digest.
A quick nap can help you retain new information.
Taking a power nap after a long bout of studying isn’t procrastinating—in fact, it’s quite the opposite. When German scientists asked two groups of subjects to memorize sets of cards, they found that the group who took a 40-minute nap remembered 85 percent of the cards, while the group who stayed awake remembered just 60 percent of them. And if you’re struggling to drift off, try these 11 Doctor-Approved Secrets for Falling Asleep Faster.
Exercising improves your ability to remember new information.
When we exercise, we are not only shaping our glutes and abs, but also the muscles in our mind. Participating in physical activity has the ability to improve the functioning of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is the center of memory storage. And if you’re new to the gym, start with these 40 Great Exercises for Adding Muscle Over 40.
Sit up straight to recall memories more easily.
Stop slouching so much! It’s bad for your back, yes, but it’s also impacting your ability to mine your memories. Researchers at San Francisco State University found that standing or sitting up straight makes it less difficult to recollect, as these positions boost the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain by up to 40 percent.
Smell is the scent most tuned to memory.
You catch a whiff of pumpkin pie, and immediately you’re taken back to festive fall afternoons at gam gam’s house. But what is it about smells that immediately transports us to such specific moments in time? According to Dr. Joseph Mercola, the scents we sniff get processed through the olfactory bulb, which is closely connected to the memory-holding hippocampus region of the brain. “The close connection may explain why a scent might get tied to vivid memories in your brain, and then come flooding back when you’re exposed to that particular odor trigger,” wrote Dr. Mercola.
Memory loss could be a symptom of thyroid issues.
“Although the thyroid doesn’t have a specific role in the brain, memory loss is the one thing a person notices when it stops functioning normally,” Majid Fotuhi, MD, PhD, told ABC News. “People with high or low thyroid levels—which are very common in women—may have difficulty with memory and concentration.” And for more on this little-understood gland, learn the 20 Reasons Your Thyroid Is More Important Than You Ever Imagined.
Your memory performs better outside.
It’s probably not the news you want to hear (because who enjoys brutal blizzards and trekking through the snow?), but being outside—even in the cold weather—actually improves our memory and attention span. Psychologists at the University of Michigan found that when people spent an hour outside, their attention span and memory performance improved by 20 percent. The study authors speculate that interacting with nature has the same effect as meditating, another brain-boosting activity. Thankfully, for those of us who would rather stay inside during snowstorms, the study authors noted that looking at pictures of nature works just as well. And if you really want to make the most of Mother Nature, take a trip to one (or all) of these 15 Waterfalls So Magical You Won’t Believe They’re in the U.S.
For easy studying, use a funky font.
Almost everything we read is in the same few rotated fonts, so naturally when we read something in a font like Monotype Corsiva, it’s going to stand out in our memory. And that’s exactly what psychologists at Princeton University discovered when they had students prepare for a test using study guides written in either a traditional typeface or an usual font: Those whose study guide was written in the unfamiliar font performed significantly better on tests.
Stephen King barely remembers writing at least one novel.
During the 1980s, author Stephen King notoriously struggled with drug and alcohol addictions. Looking back on this time, King has noted that there are many things he doesn’t remember—including writing an entire novel. “There’s one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all,” King said. “I don’t say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss. I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page.”
Taking a photo of something makes your memories of it worse.
In the irony of all ironies, taking a photo to remember a significant moment in time actually makes our memories of that moment worse. One study published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition found that subjects who didn’t take a photo of a painting had better recollections of it than those who took a photo and only spent 15 seconds actually analyzing the artwork.
And it’s not necessarily because you know that you can always go back and look at the photo again that you aren’t paying attention. The study authors believe that taking a photo forces our brain to focus on the process of photographing instead of what’s being photographed. And for ways to live healthy and happy, try these 20 Expert-Backed Ways to Improve Your Mental Health Every Day.
You are more likely to remember something if you say it out loud.
The next time you want to memorize an important speech or brush up on facts about a new client, try reading the important information out loud. British researchers discovered that the “production effect,” or saying things out loud while reading them, helps store those words in our long-term memories.
The NFL is ground zero for memory loss.
The NFL has been criticized by opponents for years as a dangerous game with risks that outweigh the benefits, and this study only adds fuel to the fire. When scientists analyzed 202 former football players, they found that 87 percent of them had diagnostic signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease that causes memory loss and eventually dementia. And when only including the former NFL players in the study, that number jumped 99 percent.
One in 10 elderly people have Alzheimer’s.
Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s is incurable and relatively common. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, the progressive brain disorder affects 5.7 million Americans, and 10 percent of people age 65 and over. And for more on this widespread condition, read our exclusive report on Alzheimer’s in America.
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