Are you stuck in a vicious cycle with yourself surrounding forgetfulness and then anxiety about forgetting? If you’re like me, you may meet someone for the first time and forget their name within the first 10 minutes of meeting them. It feels embarrassing and leaves you wondering why you can’t remember something as simple as a name.

Even worse, if someone asked you what they looked like or what they were wearing after the interaction, you may be at a loss for words. You might be thinking, “I just spoke to them a minute ago. How could I not remember what they looked like?” These thoughts may leave you feeling anxious about meeting other people. You may also be the type of person who forgets information quickly. The short explanation for forgetting a person’s name is that you did not concentrate or effortfully try to remember that information, possibly from [performance] anxiety. Thus, you have ignited the vicious cycle of anxiety where the action of forgetting turns back to anxiety. 

The world is full of stimuli affecting your ability to concentrate or remember information. In addition, there are certain psychological factors/health conditions that can affect your ability to remember information. While speaking with someone, you might also be over-stimulated (e.g., distracted by music that is playing, the chatter of people around you, or anything else that turns on your senses). Becoming distracted by your environment is completely normal and happens to everyone from time to time. However, there are ways to overcome these distractions! 

In addition to being overstimulated, maybe you’re a student cramming for an important exam or finalizing an important presentation for work late at night. How do you remember all of the information without feeling like your head is going to explode? Exams are stressful because they determine your final grade, which affects your GPA and chances with the next steps of your career, academic or occupational. Presentations can mean getting the big contract or flopping and not bringing in money. Attention plays a key role in these experiences because it helps you to take in the material or information.

Attention is how we start to remember things in the first place. Similarly, you may experience a lot of anxiety, which can hinder your ability to study. A small amount of stress and anxiety drives you to studying enough and effectively, but too much can make it feel impossible to study or do work. Indeed, your brain gets foggy, you struggle to finish your thoughts, you freeze or spin out. 

So, how can you remember someone’s name from one interaction or remember every bit of information for an exam or project? I will explain ways to overcome the error of attention and memory! I will also provide tips to overcome your anxiety about remembering information/names/faces. 

Attention 

Attention is important for forming memories, and even when you feel as if you are attending to another person, you may not be fully paying attention. Attention allows information to be placed in sensory memory, which can then be stored in your short-term memory. Being distracted interrupts your short-term memory. For instance, if you are focusing on what you’re going to say next, whether the person across the room is your friend, or what you’re doing after the conversation, you may be distracting yourself from hearing the very thing you need to remember (e.g., a person’s name, information for the exam, and important task your boss is assigning you). It is important to stay in the present. 

Being present is hard if you struggle with a lot of anxiety that leads you to focus on future thinking. By fully attending to the person across from you rather than attending to other thoughts or things around you, you will remember more about them. However, that is only part of the process of remembering. Just because you are looking at something or someone, it does not mean you are attending to the person or information. An example of this would be math that you don’t understand.

Although you are looking at the math problem and focusing on it, you may have no idea what it means or what it is used for. Your likelihood for remembering it will either A) go up because it triggered an intense emotion from you, such as embarrassment or stupidity, as emotional experiences get stored better than unemotional, fact-oriented information. Or, B) you may not remember it because it was registered as more of a factual, unemotional experience.

Selective attention

Selective attention occurs when you attend to one stimulus but ignore all others. This can be helpful when you are in class and only want to attend to your professor/teacher. However, if you are distracted by your friend in class, you might be missing everything else that is going on around you. People with ADHD tend to hyper-focus on something. Hyper focusing can be beneficial when they need to complete certain tasks, however it may also mean that they walk by the empty cup on the table and not take it to the kitchen. See more information below.

There is a famous experiment in psychology called The Monkey Business Illusion (before reading further, check it out here and see what you find). In the study, people are told to count how many times the players wearing white pass the ball. While people are attending to this task, they often fail to notice a person wearing a monkey suit walking around.

Selective attention can make you forget to pay attention to information that is literally right in front of you. Especially if you have social anxiety, you may tend to focus on extraneous, unimportant things that are happening around you. Or you might be focused on how to pronounce the other person’s name so much that you might forget to pay attention to what they say next. 

Rehearsal 

Rehearsal is key to maintaining memories in your short-term memory, aka your working memory. From there, information will either be lost or transferred to long-term memory. One way for data to get into your working memory (short-term memory) is to repeat it. You can do this by repeating someone’s name back to them within your brief interaction with them. You can say simple things like “Sarah, you’re so funny,” “You really said that John?,” or “I enjoyed meeting you, Kim!” These are just examples of ways to incorporate their name casually, but there are so many other ways to do so. You may not want to say their name in every phrase or sentence you say to them. Expressing the other person’s name a few times now and then can be casual but helpful! 

Rehearsal in this instance may not work, however. Let’s say you become so anxious about getting your own name right you didn’t even hear the other person say their name. It would therefore be impossible for you to repeat their name casually throughout the conversation. Being vulnerable often reduces anxiety. In this example, could you be open to disclosing that you didn’t catch their name? If so, you can give yourself another opportunity to really pay attention to what they say, to be present with them. The anxiety about correctly saying your own name has dissipated, so you have more headspace to focus on what they’re saying. Also, if you are vulnerable in disclosing you didn’t catch their name and get a positive response back from them, this interaction can help reduce the anxiety for an encounter next time. Thus, you are reducing the anxiety cycle that feeds your forgetfulness. 

Rehearsal can also be helpful for remembering exam information. You need to repeat information a few times before quizzing yourself. If you start by quizzing yourself, you may get defeated because the information is not yet stored in your long-term memory. Continue to rehearse the information to see if that is helpful. You may also find the tricks below helpful in your journey toward remembering better: 

How to remember small amounts of information

Chunking 

    • If you only have to remember a small amount of information, break it down into smaller chunks of information. A great example of chunking is phone numbers! The number is easier to remember if it is in 3 separate sections rather than one long number. For example, a 10 digit number 555-856-5309 is over the typical 7 digits our brain is wired to remember. However, if you remember it like five hundred fifty-five, eight hundred fifty-six, fifty-three, and zero nine your brain will have an easier time remembering.

For remembering names… 

    • Casually say their name 3 times during the conversation 
    • Not only will this show that you care about the person, but it will also help you to remember their name. This is known as rehearsal, which is a way to store information into your long-term memory?

Mnemonics 

    • Mnemonics such as the one used to remember the order of the plants (MVEMJSUN- or My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Noodles = Mars Venus Earth Mercury Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune) can be helpful. 

Repetition 

    • Make sure to repeat the information aloud or in your head multiple times. 

How to remember a lot of information 

Study over a longer period of time and before bed 

    • Rather than cramming all of the information in one night, spend 20-30 minutes each night days in advance. This allows your brain time to store the information in a categorical way, which will help with recall. Cramming does not give your brain time to store things properly so when you go to recall the information, it’s all jumbled. 
    • Study before going to bed, and then give your brain some time to relax (we recommend at least 30 minutes prior to falling asleep).

Try your best to attend and pay attention in class/meetings 

    • As hard as it might be, by paying attention to the professor/teacher/meeting host in the first place, you will have to spend less time studying. Why? Because you have already heard the information even if you did not understand it already. 

Study with a group or a partner 

    • You may want to spend at least one day before the exam going over all that you know and have studied. Having someone to study with that has the same knowledge can be helpful. They can point out information you missed or may disagree with how you explained a concept. This collaboration can benefit both of you and encourage you to double-check the information. Additionally, collaborating with others helps your brain store the information in an experiential layer, which is different than a rehearsal layer of memory. Now, you have two sets of recall of the same information. 

Make connections 

    • It is easier to retrieve information from your memory if it is also associated with concepts you already know. You might be able to make connections from prior material in the same class or connections to other classes. Making a concept map can help you connect lots of information! 

Elaborate!

    • Elaborating on topics allows you to remember information better. Another version of this is at least putting the information in your own words so that you can understand it better. 

Test yourself using the same format as you will be tested with 

    • If your professor only uses multiple-choice questions, test yourself using all MC questions. If your boss expects you to give a presentation, then give a presentation of the information you’re to recall.

State, mood, and context matter 

    • Your physical/emotional states (i.e., internal condition) should remain about the same when studying as when you’re taking the exam. Your state includes whether you have drank coffee, emotional circumstances (e.g., tense, relaxed), environmental stimuli your body is taking in, and how alert/awake you are.
    • Your mood also matters! It is easier to remember information when your mood is the same as it was when you studied the information. Studying while sad could make it harder to take your exam, especially if you do not feel sad while taking the exam. 
    • Context reinstatement is when you create the same context of the learning even if you are in a different place (your room, the library, a cafe, etc). You may want to sit at a desk with only the materials you need when taking the exam (paper, pencil, etc). You might also want to mentally feel like you are taking the test when doing practice tests. 

 

Retrieval practice 

After you have repeated information to yourself, it helps to strengthen your memory by quizzing yourself. Whether your friend quizzes you, you create a quiz in Quizlet, or you explain processes or definitions to yourself/another person, you are using retrieval practice. If you are explaining cellular respiration you may want to write down keywords such as glycolysis and the Krebs cycle that you need to remember in order to trigger your memory of the whole process. Or you may want to write out everything you remember about cellular respiration and compare it to your notes from class or the textbook explanation. Both of these can help you to pinpoint what exactly you missed, got wrong, and wrote/said correctly. 

 

Attention and memory failures 

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

    • The attention-deficit aspect of ADHD causes distractibility and individuals with ADHD might focus on irrelevant stimuli. This would lead an individual with ADHD to fail to encode information in the first place such as a name or certain definitions/concepts. 
    • What you can do… 
      • Ask a friend/colleague in your class/meeting for their notes so you can add any information you may have missed 
      • Be honest with the person and let them know you didn’t catch their name. It’s ok, people forget names all the time! 
      • Sit in front of the class/meeting room to limit distractions
      • Speak with your teacher/boss about your needs 
      • While studying or working you may want to turn off your phone 
      • Find a space that has limited distractions (quiet room, a cubby that you can use headphones to drown out sound)
      • Take walks or exercise a few times a week
        • Including physical activities in your weekly schedule can improve your attention span 
      • Mix up how you study- study one way and then switch it up after a while
      • Take timed breaks for movement when studying for long periods of time
      • Have a stopwatch going while you work or study. When you notice yourself getting distracted, stop the timer. Do this 4-5x. Average the times together; this is the average length of time that you can hold your focus for. Now, use this time to set up your schedule for being productive. Give yourself breaks at the end of this timeframe. 
      • Start to pay attention to the things in your life that you tend to hyperfocus on, are there themes to these? If so, set your day up where you are mixing up tasks that are easy to focus on and tasks that take up more energy from you
      • Similarly, are there tasks that tend to give you more energy and focus abilities than others? If so, mix up these tasks with ones that drain you and you find yourself struggling to pay attention to

Depression 

    • Depression has been linked to short term memory loss/working memory issues
      • Forgetfulness or periods of confusion are common 
      • Brain fog may make it difficult to store your memories or recall them. You may only remember limited information and leave some things out
    • You may also experience a difference in how you view the world, which can impact your memory and recall. If you are looking through a depressed lens, you may see the world as negative and the experiences that you had as negative

Amnesia 

    • Retrograde amnesia is when an individual cannot remember information from their past, typically before the accident that caused the damage to their brain. 
    • Anterograde amnesia is when an individual can no longer make new memories. 

Hyperthyroidism 

    • Similar to ADHD, hyperthyroidism can make it hard to focus, which affects your ability to pay attention. See the tips given for individuals with ADHD. 

Dementia 

    • Dementia is a group of conditions that cause memory loss and cognitive decline. Alzhemiers and other conditions of dementia are more common in individuals aged 60 and older. However, early onset Alzheimer’s may occur between 30 years of age and your mid 60s. At first dementia can be viewed as forgetfulness and slight impairment in day to day tasks. 

Alcohol and other drugs 

    • Alcohol can cause memory loss, ecstasy can cause damage to your brain that may affect memory, and dissociative anesthetics such as ketamine and PCP can cause memory and cognitive impairment. 

Stress and anxiety 

    • Stress and anxious thoughts can interfere with your ability to encode information as your brain is overstimulated. As such, your working memory may not be able to get the information into your long-term memory (e.g., didn’t remember a person’s name) or it may not be able to recall information from your long-term (e.g., frozen during a presentation where you know you know the information but can’t think of it; ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon

Neglect syndrome 

    • This is a syndrome of selective attention which involves only paying attention to one visual field or one side of your brain’s memory system. This typically occurs due to a brain lesion. 

Retrieval failure 

    • You may have heard of the tip of the tongue phenomenon or you may have even said “it’s on the tip of my tongue” when trying to remember a word. This is a retrieval failure of your memory. You may have created the memory, but did not rehearse it enough or practice retrieving it enough from your memory. Our memory is constantly changing and being added to each day. If you do not practice remembering information from months ago, you may begin to have a hard time remembering that information. 

Encoding failure 

    • An encoding failure occurs when you do not pay attention to a stimulus or do not rehearse it enough to allow it to enter your working memory, your short term memory system. You might have a partial or faulty recall of the information. 

Interference 

    • Retroactive interference is when new information interferes with old information. Conversely, proactive interference is when old information interferes with new information. 

 

How to deal with anxiety about forgetting 

Even with all of this advice, you may still feel overwhelmed about forgetting names or large amounts of information for important tasks such as exams and presentations. You might have constant worries about remembering information and worries about recalling information. Be patient! Increasing your ability to remember things is not a quick or easy process. 

Practice mindfulness 

    • Mindfulness is focusing on the present moment rather than the future. Excessive future thinking is anxiety, so staying in the present allows you to decrease your anxiety. 
      • How I like to practice mindfulness; start by sitting in an upright position that feels comfortable to you. Take a few deep breaths (counting in your head: in one, out one breath). Feel where your body hits the floor and where it is meeting the chair. Any thoughts and feelings that are coming to mind can be acknowledged, but brushed aside. Let them pass by without judgement. Listen to the sounds that may be happening around you. Do not judge them either, just let them exist. 

CBT (Cognitive behavioral therapy)

    • Our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions are all affected by each other. Sometimes you may have some inconsistency amongst the 3 such as acting on your feelings rather than your rational thoughts. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can also help you to act more consistently and link your thoughts to your feelings. 
      • You may have catastrophic thoughts such as “I can’t ever do well on tests” or “I can’t remember anything”. These might be affecting how you feel about taking exams or remembering information. Consequently you might give up on trying to remember things. This can be changed by challenging those definitive statements. You may want to instead think “I might forget things once in a while, but that doesn’t mean my memory is terrible.” A way to help you think in this way is by reflecting on past moments when you did remember names or information. Another way is to look for moments in your day to day life where you remembered something. 

If you try these techniques, you will be able to remember peoples’ names and large amounts of information with greater ease! Understanding how your brain’s memory system works helps you to understand why you need to use certain techniques over others. However, each person is different and what works best for one person may not work for you.

If you need guidance on how to use any of these techniques to improve your memory, give us a call! Our therapists can help you identify which tools are best suited for you.