beliefnet - Have you ever forgotten where you left your car keys, misplaced your eyeglasses, or forgotten a dental appointment? Of course you have, it's only human.
Are such lapses signs of an inferior memory? Definitely not. In fact, many people mistakenly believe that their memory is "bad" or on its way to becoming lost. It's usually not. And if you think about the millions of things each day that you do remember, you'll realize that your memory is really quite astounding.
For example, consider the routine act of meeting a friend for dinner. At minimum, you have to remember:
Your friend's name and face
The history of your relationship
The concept of time
The actual time of your dinner date
Which restaurant you'll be eating at
Directions for getting there
How to drive your car (or walk or flag a taxi)
How to read the menu
What the different food items taste like and whether you like them
To bring along money or a credit card, and a bevy of other details
It's All in Your Head
All of this information, along with the capacity to store, recall, and analyze it, is a mere fraction of what's stored in the roughly three pounds of tissue that make up your brain.
The basic building block of the brain is the nerve cell, or neuron. Your brain contains approximately 10 billion neurons. They connect with each other via electronic impulses sent and received through contact points called synapses. Each sound, image, feeling, or event we perceive activates a unique subset of these synapses. Each time the memory is recalled, that same pattern is reactivated, making the connections stronger and more indelible. Thus, the memories you recall most often become the most ingrained. To make something easier to recall, you can practice remembering ita study technique used by many students.
Temporary or Permanent?
Scientists talk about two different kinds of memory: working (short-term) memory and long-term memory. Information in short-term memory lasts twenty seconds or less and then is gone, unless that information is moved to long-term memory. A good example of working memory is looking up a phone number and remembering it just long enough to dial it, and then it's gone.
The decision to move something into long-term memory is handled by a structure deep in the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus acts like a filter, letting certain bits of information through and discarding others. Information that has emotional significance to you, such as your child's birth date, is likely to be passed on to long-term memory. Details that are related to information already stored in your memory such as a sign announcing an early bird special at your favorite restaurant usually make the cut as well. That's because the brain seems to store and retrieve things by their associations.
What would happen if your hippocampus stopped functioning for some reason? You'd still be able to carry on a perfectly intelligent conversation with a new acquaintance. But if the person you were chatting with left the room and came back five minutes later, you wouldn't remember ever having met her, let alone having spoken with her just minutes before.
You may wonder if your memory will inevitably weaken as you age. Although some eighty-year-olds have sharper memories than their children, experts agree that the ability to form and recall memories does change somewhat with age. The good news is that barring Alzheimer's disease or some other condition that affects brain function, the change in your memory abilities is likely to be small. As we age, we continue to form new memories, but the memories tend to include less detail. For example, you might remember that you saw a friend one morning, but perhaps not recall what he was wearing.
You can improve your ability to recall information by doing one, simple thing: pay attention. Often we're thinking about other things when other people are speaking. Or we're so distracted by everyday life that we're not able to focus on the details. By forcing yourself to pay attention to something, you'll be much more likely to remember it.
What about supplements? You've probably seen them advertised in magazines or heard about them from friends: pills that claim to improve memory. The most widely available of these are ginkgo biloba (an herb), vitamin E (an antioxidant), and DHEA(a hormone). Although all of the evidence isn't in yet, there is currently no good evidence that these supplements boost memory function in healthy adults. Since each of these substances may be associated with some risk of harm, it is important that anyone considering a supplement discuss that decision with their personal physician or other highly knowledgeable health advisor.
As much as scientists have learned about memory, there's much more to be discovered. "Space is not the last frontier," it's been said. "It's the space between our ears that's the last frontier." Meanwhile, rest assured that when you misplace your keys, it's not a sign that your memory is failing. You were probably just distracted and didn't pay attention when you put them down.