Retrieving Memories (Part 4 of 4)

Retrieving Memories (Part 4 of 4)

Retrieving Memories (Part 4 of 4)


I’ve already written an overview of how memories are organized, ways to improve the encoding of memories, and tips for improving the storage of memories. This final blog post is about improving how we retrieve memories.

In 1983 E. Tulving proposed that forgetting was not just a matter of availability but of an inability to go and retrieve memories still inside the long-term memory. For example, when you have an actor’s name right on the tip of your tongue. We’ve all done this, “You know who I’m talking about. It’s that one guy, with the head, two arms, and the face. You know… oh… it’s right there on the tip of my tongue. He was on that show, with that other dude and they go do that thing to save the kid!” In this case, we can help prevent losing access to these memories by associating them with existing memories.

Another example of struggling to retrieve a memory is walking into your bedroom and then forgetting why you went in there. You can give your brain a cue to retrieve memories by retracing your steps and back-tracking.

Here are some tips for improving your memory retrieval. Remember, I’m not a doctor or a counselor so if you have concerns and you have serious challenges, then you should consult a mental health professional rather than a brand strategy consultant.

1. Use the Same Method – Different cues can help us retrieve our memories. We can improve our memory retrieval by matching encoding and retrieval cues.

And we should note that the same two people might use different cues for remembering the same task. For example, I live in metropolitan Las Vegas and we have gated communities there. And for our gate, we have the open-the-gate button and the close-the-gate buttons programmed to the visor in the car.

For me, I remember which button to use because the 1st button is “open-the-gate” and the last button is “close-the-gate.”

And my life partner, Jay, figured out a way to remember the buttons differently. When he is facing the gate, if the outdoor is on the left, he pushes the left button to gain access to our subdivision. If the outdoor is on the right, he pushes the right button to exit the subdivision.

The same scenario, two different people. Two different ways of retrieving the same data. We use the same method every time.

2. Manage Your Mindset – Your mood and other biases at the moment will influence what information you recall. So if you want to improve your memory retrieval, consider the mindset you are in at that moment. Are you relaxed and open to receiving new information?

Are you angry and aren’t taking any input?

Emotions influence our memory at a biological level. We will not be open to taking in new information when we are angry. And the neurotransmitter vasopressin will not be signaling properly.

When we are feeling insecure, then self-doubt creeps in and if you’re anything like me, you might start taking stock of all the bad stuff, making a list, and spiraling downward as it feeds… For example, if I don’t close a contract, I start to feel rejected by a client, which then has me counting other rejections (even if they are unrelated or very outdated), then I will start thinking I’m a horrible contractor, which compounds my self-doubt and I tell myself I will never sign another client, which means I cannot support my family, so then I can’t pay my bills, then we will get kicked out of our home, and then we will be homeless and living on the streets, and so on and so forth until the planet explodes. While that may be an over-dramatization, you get the picture. It generates more negative emotions. Clustering unrelated experiences for the sake of gathering evidence to hold onto negative emotions will train your brain to continue the cycle of negativity. As someone who suffered from chronic pain for many years, I can tell you firsthand that it is not a healthy way to process feelings. As Laura Hess reminds us, “Suffering is only one option.” There are many ways to respond to a scenario.

Emotions are not bad or good, our judgment of them makes them so. Let’s say you feel bad whenever your sister is around and this has been a lifelong pattern that leaves you feeling disempowered and rejected. That’s maybe a signal for you to create better boundaries with people who are unable, for whatever reason, to love you well.

3. Intentional Recall – We can recall information with intention and try to teach it to someone else. This identifies gaps as we are trying to teach it to another person.

Consider how the information could be applied to your work. This will also help us imprint the information into our long-term memory. Things like flashcards, practice quizzes, or writing prompts for authors are helpful because they improve the brain’s ability to retrieve information, and therefore our learning. This is a slower process and helps long-term learning.

4. Stay Healthy – Sleep, discomfort, stress, influence our memory retrieval.

Sleep is directly related to memory. Stress and discomfort are directly related to how we take in and store and retrieve information.

5. Observe Mindlessness – Memories can be malleable, so it’s important to bring your observation skills to the table. Maybe there are places in your life where you’ve become complacent or you have stopped questioning why you do a thing. Maybe it’s time to sharpen up the edges of your foggy mind and get really clear on the memories, the stories, the legacy that you would like to leave behind.

To recap:

  1. Methodology
  2. Manage Your Mindset
  3. Intentional Recall
  4. Stay Healthy
  5. Observe Mindlessness

So those are ways we can improve memory retrieval. Memory can be a tricky thing, and if nothing else, I’d like you all to remember this:


We all google things. We all forget. And, as we’ve learned through this blog series memories are constantly being formed, re-formed, and erased. Sometimes falsely. I still have to use Google to look up how to do a thing in Photoshop or InDesign all the time, and I’ve been using the programs for 15 years.

You don’t have to memorize all the things. Having the ability to creatively think through a solution is where our strength lies. Each of us puts our own, unique creative way of approaching the solution to a client’s problem… it doesn’t matter if you have to use the googles to look up how to do the functions.

So having these coding tests that test only one memory system during technical interviews is not effective. When delivering these tests to new hires we must ask ourselves if we are testing their (sometimes faulty) memories? Or are we testing their creative problem-solving skills in how they can apply the tools? I don’t think we should be hiring people based on their ability to memorize code. We need to test their overall performance. How they are able to collaborate with others in a way that fosters excellence, efficiency, and pride in their work. How they are able to build products and services that empathize with their audience.

And, the same goes for our children. I believe that instead of teaching our children to improve the capacity of their memories… memorizing rules, following orders without questioning… we must encourage them to play and work in a way that fosters creative problem-solving with excellence, efficiency, and pride in their work. When we force children to just follow the rules, it stifles their creativity. They lose the ability to make informed choices and take that with them into adulthood.

As you engage in virtual conferences, hiring, or in-person networking events, think about these questions:

  1. What are you remembering from the content you are seeing? Is there a pattern of things that you notice? Are you attracted to certain topics? Certain people? Why?

2. Compare your notes with someone else and notice the emphasis or de-emphasis they focused on during various moments. This will highlight what you found valuable vs. the value your friend received from the event.

3. What type of Surface Processing did you do that is related to the event? These are the superficial, physical details you remember

4. What type of Deep Processing did you do related to the event? These are the meaningful, purposeful moments.

5. In today’s distracting environment –I know I’ve struggled to focus and create and produce– you would be wise to cut out as many interferences as possible to help you remember content from the event.

While we all need healthy boundaries, blindly doing things over and over again based on what could have originated in false memories, and without ever questioning the methods or the end goals stifles creativity. I wish you the best possible outcomes as we begin a New Year, with new perspectives and tools for success.

Improving our brain performance improves our effectiveness and our capacity for learning. If you like this topic, then hire me to speak at your next event or teach a workshop at your company.