Attention And Retention: Maximizing Your Memory
It happens far more than we care to admit. You’re attending a networking event and socializing with a group of new faces, shaking hands left and right. The room is buzzing with conversation as music flows in the background and the smell of fresh eats penetrate your olfactory senses. The room is an enclosed environment of physical stimulation, capable of exciting all 5 of your senses at once.
Suddenly a new face approaches from the crowd and makes eye contact, shaking your hand and introducing themselves. “Hi, I’m Sarah”, she says with a smile. You respond in friendly fashion and reveal a bit more about yourself and why you’re here tonight. But suddenly you’ve forgotten her name as the conversation draws to a close. You wrack your brain for an answer as your mind screams at itself knowing you heard it only a minute ago. Sharon? Sierra? Sophia?
It’s no use. Her name evades you.
It seems as if most of the world suffers from this short-term name-based memory loss. All too often I’ll meet someone in my co-working space and forget their name when I see them 5 minutes later. I’ve been told an easy means of remembering a name is to repeat it just as it’s been introduced (for example if someone introduces themselves as Sarah, I can reply “It’s great to meet you Sarah, I’m Cam”), but more often than not I find myself so caught up in the interaction that techniques and tactics evade me instantaneously.
While forgetting names is a commonality that many of us share, I think the issue stems from something far larger. We possess a general yearning to remember as much information as possible, and society touts those that have an ability to do so. Often referred to as an eidetic memory, we go so far as to claim anyone with a good memory must have a photographic one. But in reality this is rarely the case, and I think I’ve come to understand what lies at the heart of this issue.
It’s because the people that have the best memories are often paying total attention. While we tell ourselves that we’re paying attention in any given scenario, I think it likely that we’re not — or at least, not completely. Not as much as we claim we are, anyway.
Take for instance the scenario from above.
You’re in a crowded room with endless variables that have the ability to pull at your attention. The background music plays in your subconscious, the smell of food stimulates your nasal passages, faces from countless other people dip in and out of view…it’s no wonder you couldn’t remember Sarah’s name when so many other things were beckoning for your attention.
But this is the struggle we all face. And it’s what separates those with a ‘good’ memory from those without. Those that remember information and names and phone numbers have developed an ability to remove exterior stimuli while remaining focused on the prominent information at hand. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it is a reality we all face and have an opportunity to conquer.
Let’s run through a few more likely scenarios to really hit this point home. When someone tells you their phone number and you put it into your phone, there’s little chance you’ll remember it simply because you know the phone will do that for you. When you need to send a package to a friend across the country, you look up their address online or shoot them a text because storing such information seems like a waste of mental space. And while we could make the argument that this is true for both scenarios, the general notion is that we’re not retaining information because we’re not fully paying attention when it enters our conscious brain in the first place.
To retain more information means to pay more attention, but this takes practice. While some of the top minds in the world such as Bill Clinton have mastered this art, most of us still seem to struggle.
Think back to the days when phones and internet were far more simplistic than they are now (I’m talking mid-90’s simplistic). You could recall your home phone number, the phone numbers of your parents, your best friend’s number…and now (myself included) we often struggle to remember the phone number of our significant other. We needed to know it then and did so through the use of emotional importance — one of the greatest memorization tools we have.
It’s no surprise that memories containing emotion are often more…memorable. For example, most of us can recall where we were on 9/11 or what was happening when we received the news that a loved one had passed simply because there was emotion attached to the experience. While we use countless resources to maximize our memory recall, emotion is often one of the easiest to employ.
I could go on to write a separate story detailing the means by which we can increase our memory through the use of brain exercises or habitual changes, but I think we can start far simpler than that.
Before we even need to consider learning to play a musical instrument or producing complex mind maps, let’s just start by paying more attention. Take a moment to add emotion to the situation by noticing something about Sarah’s features that sticks out to you. And by noticing such a feature, you’ll naturally find yourself paying more attention as the conversation evolves. Start simple, and start paying attention.