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How To Remember Something You Forgot

by Jimmy Leonard | Updated 04 Feb 2024

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An animated raccoon concentrating on something it forgot
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You walk into the room and … what were you about to do?

While these sudden lapses in memory can certainly feel like the onset of senility, the good news is that you remembered something. Just not the thing, whatever it was. Whether it’s a task you needed to complete or a person you needed to text, you’ve likely had the experience of a quick brain fart when that important next step slips out of your mind. When that happens, here’s how to remember what you forgot.

Remembering From Working Memory

Short-Term Memory Limitations

Researchers estimate that the average person can hold something in their short-term memory for about 30 seconds. That doesn’t seem right, you’re thinking. What are we, a bunch of mindless goldfish?

But try this. Listen to a podcast or a radio show — something you’ve never heard before, and something not intended to be catchy (like a song). Let your brain zone out a bit. Just sit back and take in the words. Now of course you understand what they’re talking about, right? But what if someone walked in, paused the recording, and asked you to repeat verbatim everything that was said for the last 30 seconds? Most people could not do that with 100% accuracy.

It’s kind of wild. We understand things as we perceive them, but even a few seconds later we can’t entirely recall what we just perceived. This is by design — the brain intentionally forgets things that won’t be useful later on. In fact, most of your short-term memory is not copied over to the long-term memory. But that doesn’t mean it’s gone.

Suddenly Forgetting Something

One of the most frustrating experiences for dreamers is waking up after a particularly vivid dream, then suddenly forgetting it a few minutes late. Or, when you walk into a room and forget what you needed there — how can your brain forget so instantly?

Lyndsay Mentgren, an advanced practice nurse at OSF Healthcare advises that occassional forgetfulness is nothing to worry about. It could be related to a lack of sleep, stress, or even distraction — your brain accidentally deletes something from short-term memory that it shouldn’t have. Actually, “delete” is a misleading word. It’s more accurate to say your brain rewrites or replaces memories that aren’t strengthened.

What’s usually happening here is that a sensory or mental experience from your short-term memory is not making it to your working memory. Often seen as something in between short-term and long-term, the working memory is part of the brain’s executive function that keeps track of what you’re doing. Consider cooking a meal. Your brain has to pay attention to measurements, amounts, aromas, tools, schedules, noises, hunger pangs, and other environmental factors all without losing focus on the task at hand. So when you suddenly forget something, it’s usually because you’ve lost focus.

Making Connections

When your brain enters new memories into its long-term storage, it essentially takes information from the working memory and adds new neural connections. One way of thinking about it is that your brain remembers things in context. Let’s say your friend invites you over for dinner. That invitation, which your brain will decide is important, is connected to other memories about that friend, about your plans for the day, about the semantic associations with “dinner,” and so on.

So when you’re trying to remember something you just forgot, it helps to explore the context. Maybe your brain has stored other information that can serve as a jumping-off point into the murkiness of your working memory to find the missing piece.

For example, let’s say you misplaced your glasses. Mentally retracing your steps really does help, but not necessarily in a literal way. “I was just in the kitchen, then I walked into the living room…” — those are not impactful memories. Instead, try something like, “I was making a shopping list for tomorrow night’s party when I heard my phone go off in the next room, so I…” It may help to close your eyes and picture yourself in each step.

These important, action-oriented details will connect to other actions you took, and you may well remember where those glasses went.

Think About Something Else

This working memory technique is most helpful when you’re trying to remember something recent — within the past 30-60 minutes. If it’s been longer, you’ll need a different approach.

Memories form through neural connections. Barring some kind of impairment, you forget things because those connections don’t form — the information never makes it across from working memory to long-term memory. Think of it like accidentally deleting a picture you took at a party. You’ve got 30 days to save it from the recently deleted file, but after that, it really is gone. (Unless it’s in a cloud backup, but, hey, don’t get lost in the metaphor.)

But what if you had other pictures of the same party that you didn’t delete? You can use these other images to reconstruct the one you’ve lost. Maybe you’ve lost a picture of your friend, but that same person is in the background of a group shot. By searching in a different image, you can find the person you’re looking for.

This is why it doesn’t help to concentrate super hard on a thing you’ve forgotten — but it does help to come at it from the side. Imagine you’ve forgotten someone’s name. Just thinking really hard, “What is his name?” will be useless. Your brain has already looked there and couldn’t find the information. But if instead you think about how you know the person and when you’ve talked to them before, a different memory might trigger, a memory in which you saved their name.

Avoid This in the Future

The more connections you can make around something important, the more likely it’ll stick in your long-term memory. That’s why mnemonic devices work so well. You’re adding context, casting a wider neural net to retrieve that information later on.

It also helps to give your brain a rest. Multitasking or stressing out about something you’ve forgotten absorbs quite a bit of your mental resources. If you calm down or sleep on something you’ve forgotten, you may recharge enough brain power that you can find those long-lost neural pathways and remember what was missing. The more connections you can make, the better off your memory will be.

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Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy is a marketing content strategist and copywriter who moonlights as the editor of Sueño Labs. He's passionate about helping people strengthen their brains and mastering mind tricks.

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