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En español l Can’t find your keys? Misplaced your wallet? Blanked on your new neighbor's name? When we fail to pay close attention, the memories we create are weak and we sometimes have difficulty retrieving them later. So how can you eliminate or greatly reduce such occurrences? Try these seven strategies.
Look, snap and connect, suggests psychiatrist Gary Small, M.D., director of the University of California, Los Angeles Longevity Center. When you meet someone, really look at her and listen to her name — too often, we don’t pay attention. Now make a mental picture (snap!) of her name and face, and mentally connect them: That’s Sandy, lying on a sandy beach. Just met a Mr. Paulson? Picture him shaking hands with Paul McCartney and his son. Our brains are hardwired to remember visual images, Small says. Another tip: Use your new acquaintance’s name when you say good-bye.
Make up a story using the items you need — the more absurd and dramatic, the better, says neurologist Majid Fotuhi, M.D., medical director of the Neurology Institute for Brain Health and Fitness in Baltimore. “A chicken was eating cornflakes when a car burst through the wall. A monkey was driving, throwing oranges out the window; he honked wildly as he drove off a cliff into a lake filled with milk …” The narrative will take you from item to item until you reach the end of your list.
Computer experts have a variety of tricks for this. One good one: Create a template that you personalize for each site. For instance, you might start with a word-number combo that’s meaningful to you — say, Binky11, the name of your first dog and your age when you got him. Tack on the initials or first two letters of the website that needs a password: FN for First National Bank, for instance. You’ll remember but a hacker will never guess.
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Sometimes a good memory has more to do with organizational skills than brainpower. If you regularly find yourself searching for your keys, put a basket in the entryway by the door or mount a hook on the kitchen wall. Toss your keys or hang them up as soon as you get home. Routine is a friend to memory — every time you get the keys from the basket, you reinforce the critical neural connections in your brain.
Chances are you’ve experienced the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon, in which you know the name of the movie or the word you want but can’t quite recall it. Take advantage of the fact that your brain files memories into “neighborhoods,” says psychiatrist Small. Can you call up the star of the movie? Use that for a mental picture that will bring up the movie’s name next time you want it. Small thinks of Jeremy Irons playing dead with a bunch of rings on his fingers — and no longer forgets Dead Ringers.
Use psychiatrist Gary Small’s look-snap-connect technique to keep from wandering around the mall’s parking lot searching for your car. Step 1 happens as soon as you park: Look to see what section you’re in. Step 2: Create a mental snapshot. If you’re in section 3D, imagine three dogs chasing each other around your car. Even simpler: Repeat the section number aloud a few times. Using multiple senses (speaking, hearing) helps cement the memory. “The biggest reason we don’t remember is that we don’t pay attention,” Small says.
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Sure, you can use mental strategies to help track friends’ birthdays, but sometimes it makes sense to use technology as part of your memory bank. Facebook will send you an email every weekend reminding you of coming birthdays: Go to the Accounts Notification page to opt in. Under the “Facebook” section, click “Show More,” then turn on “Has a birthday coming.” Similarly, use your phone’s calendar to set up an alert for appointments — you can set it for the morning of the appointment or a short time before it.
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Dr. Armon B. Neel Jr. | Ask the Pharmacist
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