Storing Memories (Part 3 of 4)

Storing Memories (Part 3 of 4)

Storing Memories (Part 3 of 4)


Everyone has a song that brings them back to that moment. One of those songs for me is “Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones.

This song brings me right back to high school whenever I hear it because it was a time that I listened to it the most. I had listened to it over and over again so many times that it is burned into my memory. Our senses help us remember things, so listening to a song on repeat when serotonin and dopamine are flowing will lock that memory in even stronger when it is stored. We recruit multiple senses to make memories more concrete. So adding multiple forms of stimuli will encourage a stronger connection to the memory, for easier retrieval later on. This creates a stronger imprint on by activating other parts of your brain. It’s important to note, however, that if our prefrontal cortex gets more than 5 sensory inputs at one time, our ability to predict the model of what comes next shuts down. In marketing we refer to that as “a confused mind says no.” What are the factors that influence memory storage? Here is an incomplete list:

  • Sense of sight
  • Sense of sounds
  • Sense of Smell
  • Sense of touch
  • Sense of taste
  • Sense of time
  • Sense of hunger
  • Sense of blushing when we get flushed
  • Sense of agency

In doing the research for this topic I found that the brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than text. Our retina is linked to 40% of all nerve fibers connected to our brain. Our visual neurological pathways comprise 90% of the data that enters our brain. So what does that mean? Viewers retain 95% of a message when they watch it on video, compared to 10% when reading it in a text. The increase in click-through rate with video is as high as 96%, and videos are shared 1200% more times than links and text combined.

But remember, brains lie.

Our brain has to consider how to process the data coming in.

If a shadow is added, you can trick the brain into seeing motion differently. It’s so easy to trick our brains by manipulating our senses. That’s why it’s best to incorporate multiple sensory inputs when storing information.


People are more successful at remembering things when the words are woven into a story. We remember stories better than we remember individual pieces of data. Humans love telling stories. I’m from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and I grew up with my uncles and aunts telling the grandest stories about the big fish they caught or giant buck they shot. Legendary tales of fishing and hunting and somehow the fish got a li-i-i-ittle bit bigger each time the story was told. We remember our memory is strengthened by story. Narrative helps us remember details and retain the lesson.

Gordon H. Bower and Michal C. Clark of Stanford University created a study that involved 12 serial lists of 10 nouns. They did this study by dividing a group in half. Half of the participants studied the words, the other half wove the words into a story and they remembered 93% of the words. When they just tried to remember them without building a narrative around the words, they were only able to remember 13% of the words. You only have to remember the first word instead of remembering all of the words at once, so creating a story enables you to remember the words better. Attach an image to a word, then you can relate it to the next image of the next word.

So storytelling is a good way to store memories. You can ask yourself “Is this thought helpful to my joy and new story?” If you think something and feel bad about the thought, then take it to the next level and process on the “Why.” Why are you thinking that thought? What benefit does it give you? I’m sure at one point it was helpful, but it has served its purpose and now it can move on. Choose to think a different thought, change the story you are telling yourself, instead of ruminating on past scenarios that have already been worked out and no longer serve you.

It is our hippocampus that retains and stores data. Remember that we have 18 seconds to allow the hippocampus to begin storing memories in our short-term memory and if we want a memory to be processed permanently, we’re going to have to activate other memory systems.

In one experiment, scientists (Buzsáki et. al.) compared the memories of a group of people who had just finished a tour at the University of California, San Diego – a tour that included several staged events. All of the participants remembered most of the things they had done, including locking up a bike and getting a drink from a water fountain. But people with damage to the hippocampus were unable to put these events in the right order. “These sequences are completely and absolutely gone in people with hippocampal lesions,” Buzsáki says.

It’s Not Either Or. It’s Both.

We used to think our brains worked as left-brained and right-brained thinking. That’s not true. Our brains store data in chunks, activating multiple parts of both hemispheres of our brain. So this is why we chunk phone numbers into groups. And if we add a rhythmic cadence and tone to it when we say the phone number, it helps make it that much more memorable. We are transmitting data bilaterally across the left and right hemispheres of our brain. Have you ever had someone give you their phone number with the wrong cadence or tone like some kind of psychopath? Do you know what I”m talking about? Right? Where you get ready to take down their information and you start entering their phone number and they’re all, “You ready?”

“Yeah. Ready.”

“It’s 170.25551.212”

“Wait, what?”

“One, Seventy, Two, Three 5’s, 1, 212”

“Just give it to me like a human! Everyone knows the telephone number cadence! It’s Your country code, then the area code, then the 7-digit number! 1. 702. 555. 1212”

It’s the cadence.

It’s the tone.

It’s the country code, area code, then the 7 digits.

We like chunks. We like to chunk up the data. It helps us remember things better. Even better if you use a cadence or tone or story to help people remember.

Use\ing CamelCase to chunk data will help us remember things that we read better when posting on social media.

False Memories

False memories are a thing. So it’s important to put as many safeguards in place to avoid bias from false memories. So here are some ways to improve memory storage at work and in your personal life.

Remember, I’m not a doctor or a counselor so if you have concerns and you have serious challenges, then you should consult a professional, not a speaker at a conference:

I’ve met with a lot of startups. I have served as a judge in startup competitions, given money away, served for the Lt Governor’s Office for Entrepreneurship Advisory Committee, and built a career in helping small businesses and consultants execute an authentic brand strategy using all types of media. And what I have witnessed over and over again is that when small businesses or startups grow, their goals change. Their business practices change. Their operations change. They gain new employees and new processes. And it’s important for employees not to cling to the past, as that prevents forward movement of the company. But sometimes we see this scenario where the transition crew maybe didn’t do a very great job at communicating changes with the team and now we see a situation where employees start waxing nostalgic at better days gone by. Do you know what I’m talking about? Suddenly all these false memories come through like, “Well, it wasn’t that bad before.” Or maybe the manager who they used to complain about all the time suddenly becomes their buddy in this false nostalgic memory.

Here are some tips for improving memory storage:

1. Meditate – The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that is related to decision-making.

Even just eight weeks of meditation changed the performance of people’s brains for the better. There was thickening in several regions of the brain which involve learning, memory, empathy, and regulating emotions. The prefrontal cortex (the region where information is integrated into your somatosensory processing), including the left hippocampus (involved in learning, memory, and emotional regulation); the TPJ (involved in empathy and the ability to take multiple perspectives); and a part of the brainstem called the pons (where regulatory neurotransmitters are generated) were all enhanced after meditating consistently for eight weeks, even in people who had never meditated before.

Sara Lazar found that people who practiced meditation had more gray matter in that part of their brain. She found in her research that while most people see their cortexes shrink as they age, 50-year-old meditators in the study had the same amount of gray matter as those half their age. A second study was done with people who had never meditated before. I do this 3-minute mindful breathing exercise and it works well for calming me down a little.

2. Get in Touch with Your Feelings – Emotions help us remember. An emotional response, however negative or positive will be enough to trigger the neurotransmitters that activate parts of our brain to tell our brain to store the information. If you have had a visceral reaction to something like a can of worms or something gross, well, you might retain that memory over the same scene even without seeing the can of worms.

Taken to the extreme, if you are too emotional, you might find yourself empathizing too much with another person. You might feel weighed down by their heaviness because your psychological boundaries are not stable.

If you have already tried to heal a relationship but the other person is unwilling to make amends then you don’t need to hang around and allow them to pass your boundaries. You’ve tried to make amends. Move on. Learn to be ok with people not liking you. Can you allow yourself to feel the emotion without judging it?”

In order to take control of our emotions and to get in touch with them, one thing we have to understand is that emotions are transient.

Sometimes we get hung up on an emotion and we start to strongly identify with those emotions. We might have certain areas of our life where we become stuck in a victim mindset or a superiority complex or the opposite… an inferiority complex.

So let’s make a list of things we can strongly identify with and might get stuck on:

  • Our bodies
  • Our partners
  • Our children
  • Our Religious beliefs/non-beliefs
  • Our education/degree/certification/college/trade school
  • Our country/citizenship
  • Our place of birth
  • Our hometown
  • Our ethnicity
  • Our favorite music
  • Our gender
  • Our age
  • Our socioeconomic status
  • Our material objects owned (house, car, clothes, tech, etc.)
  • Our job/company/clientele
  • Our history/healing journey/transformation
  • Our desires
  • Our illness/disease/handicap/disability/pain
  • Our finances

It’s important to remember that emotions are transient. So whenever we might be feeling bad about our body we can remember that it’s just a feeling and that can pass. Then take it a step further and ask “What needs to happen for me to let go of this feeling?” Sometimes it’s just that time needs to pass. Sometimes it might mean we have to make a change in our life. Maybe that’s uncomfortable. Maybe we cannot change the thing and we need to accept that we cannot change the circumstances. This gives us an opportunity to release the emotion and not stay stuck.

It’s ok to be uncomfortable. That’s where the growth happens. When the outside world doesn’t match our inside world, we might get defensive or exhibit any of the behaviors that keep us strongly identified with the qualities mentioned above. I understand that it’s hard to have our beliefs challenged but take it a step further before you find yourself lashing out at people. Instead, try to train your mind to pause and ask, “Why am I responding this way right now?”

Sometimes I feel an emotion and forget that emotions are transient. I can sometimes get stuck in the same emotion, replaying the same story and ruminating on it regardless of the accuracy. I have the awareness that I am in a rut but continue to hold myself hostage to my negative emotions. I judge myself: “What’s wrong with me? I teach this stuff and I can’t get out of my funk?” Well, it’s often because I have fallen back to old patterns of victimhood. Sometimes it’s because I haven’t prioritized the things that set me up for success like getting enough sleep or eating well, or exercising regularly. Guess what? Even people like me, who have spent thousands of dollars and hours on training my mind and learning coping skills… even I feel loss, sadness, grief, and depression. In fact, the trauma-informed brain is wired toward that. When we stress, we will all regress into old coping habits. Emotions come and go, and how we judge them or process them will depend on how fast they come and go. It’s not a matter of learning a new skill set and then you’re never depressed again. No, it’s a matter of moving through the discomfort as swiftly as possible when caught in a depressive state.

3. The Loci Technique – People have been using memory techniques for thousands of years.

The Greeks, as an example, did this practice for memorizing long speeches. They would stand in front of an audience and orate these incredible speeches for hours and how they remembered the speech was to break up the speech into sections. And they would start at the entrance to their house for the first section. And then for the second section, they would walk through the house to the foyer and that would be the second section, and they would take a mental tour of their house, breaking up their speech at different locations along their journey.

We practice this technique in one of my workshops, using a more advanced version of the Loci Technique called the Mind Palace technique. Like Sherlock Holmes.

4. Association – Taking the Loci Technique a step further, people realized you didn’t have to just walk around touring your home, you could use different points of association in your mind.

If you have more points of stimulus, you have a greater chance of remembering. So another tip is to attach the memory to something you already know. You can attach the memory to something you are already retaining like doing your math homework and taking exams in your favorite hoodie because it’s comfortable. This emotional association of comfort will help strengthen the connection and the memory will be stored better.

Wearing your favorite hoodie is just a simple example of association, and here’s an example of this at a more complex level. Using a location, associating it with an image, and then an action, one of my favorite TV characters, Ted Lasso, helps one of the soccer players on his team feel better. Sam is an underachieving member of the soccer team. He is in a funk because he misses his family. Coach Ted wants to cheer Sam up, so they do something special for his birthday. They buy Sam gifts from his home country and a birthday cake because he is depressed. As a result, Sam begins to feel better, and therefore perform better. Using the benefit of priming memory, the association of tasty snacks from his home country, and by celebrating his birthday with the whole soccer team, they cheer him up. Sam begins to perform better on the team.

5. Create Chaos – Be Unpredictable! Break Habits that aren’t serving you anymore! Sometimes, we can imprint into our memory so much information, that it might seem we are on autopilot. This is because of how we have stored the memory, how we have organized the information in our brain, and how we recover the information. It might just become a habit. By tracking the movements of cell phone users, researchers found that human mobility follows a regular pattern. Our movements are not intentional, but more out of the repetition of the same movements until they become a habit. There is a common misconception that human actions are random and unpredictable.

Humans are very clearly creatures of habit when it comes to their patterns of movement. This study found that “While most individuals travel only short distances and a few regularly move over hundreds of miles, they all followed a simple pattern regardless of time and distance, and they have a strong tendency to return to locations they visited before,” explained Barabási. In this study, they found that:

1. “Spontaneous individuals are largely absent from the population. Despite the significant differences in travel patterns, we found that most people are equally predictable,” said Barabási, who is also director of Northeastern’s world-leading Center for Complex Network Research. “The predictability represents the probability we can foresee an individual’s future whereabouts in the next hour based on his or her previous trajectory.”

2. Barabási and his team also discovered that regardless of the different distances people travel, the 93 percent predictability remains true both for those who travel far distances on a regular basis and for those who typically stay close to home.

3. The researchers were also surprised to find that the regularity and predictability of individual movement did not differ significantly across demographic categories, including age, gender, language groups, population density, and urban versus rural locations.

“We now know that when it comes to processes driven by human mobility—such as epidemic modeling, urban planning, and traffic engineering—it is scientifically possible to predict people’s movement and positively impact how societies address public health and urban development,” added Song.

So Instead of following the same route on your way to work, bring awareness to when you are mindlessly following a habit and break any unhealthy habits that are no longer serving you. Start cultivating more awareness about what movements are simply muscle-memory and what movements are intentional. You can start by choosing a new route to work, for example.

I encourage you to be more unpredictable. Take a new route home and experience the joy of holiday decorations, or a different view of your community. Bring more awareness to your movements and why you are choosing the route you are choosing.

6. Repetition – Use repetition if you want to adopt a memory and strengthen neuropathways. In marketing and advertising, it’s been estimated that a person needs to see something 21 times before it sinks in. Imagine how beneficial or harmful this could be when people are exposed to the same messaging over and over again that they will begin to believe it’s true.

Imagine how many times messages are repeated again over and over until a person starts believing it and accepting it as truth. This is how we reprogram our brains. We train our brains to default to giving someone the benefit of the doubt instead of assuming the worst right away. Both responses are a choice. There are many other ways to respond instead of assuming the worst possible thing will happen every time. And all that unnecessary anxiety and worry is physically exhausting and mentally draining. In my favorite TV show, Ted Lasso, Ted learns that unlike American Football, where they call it “practice,” in the UK they call it football training. We can repeat a familiar phrase like “practice makes perfect” — and turn it into “training makes perfect” – we can use a repetitive phrase to try to remember.


7. Better Documentation – We could use better documentation in tech to help understand why choices and decisions were made, not just the what, but also the why and the why we didn’t make certain decisions. Adding purpose into documentation brings value to the context of the project when someone is deciphering it 2 years from now to migrate the project into .NET Core.

Memory storage is an issue, as you can see, because of so many influencing factors during the storage process. We have a lot of tools to help people remember. We have reminders, and alerts, and apps like Evernote and Notes. We have documentation of our work. But still, somehow, when we go back to edit the code, we’re left scratching our heads at how the previous developer (and sometimes that person might even be you!) arrived at the technical choices they did because no one remembers what happened.

8. What Do You Value? – What you value is what you remember. What you focus on is what you remember. Committing to a consistent documentation process while facilitating meetings helps train your brain to focus on the “who” as well as the “what” and supports better communication for those people who are asynchronously looking at your last meeting notes.

So, how does this play out in the workplace? If you’re a manager and your employee has a great idea in a meeting which inspired you, then you may not remember who to credit for that idea. It may be that you were more focused on the idea itself rather than the value of the person who brought the idea to you.

8. Facilitate Meetings – Another way to avoid this memory lapse is to facilitate ideas and meetings with a structured, transparent process to help avoid claiming someone else’s ideas as your own. And if it is brought to your attention, immediately “catch and correct” as my life coach Lisa Ulshafer always says, so you can immediately show accountability, then swiftly move forward with corrected behavior.

False memories are a thing. It has been shown that police will avoid witnesses who tend to have a more narrow focus because they don’t see the big picture when stressed. So police will use specific interrogation strategies to avoid errors of eyewitness accounts. They try to interview witnesses who see the big picture, they interview people who are not absolutely sure of themselves or overconfident in themselves.

9. Von Restorff Effect – Here’s another way to improve your memory while you are encoding the information into your brain. The Von Restorff Effect tells us that “things that uniquely stand out will be remembered best.”

I once worked in a hotel lobby for a summer at a small hotel chain. I remember we had a policeman staying in the hotel for the whole summer while he was training with his new K-9 partner. He and a fellow officer were having a conversation about cars that they see more. One police officer said that red cars were the easiest for him to spot speeding and the other said the White vehicles were easier for him to spot. When something is that different, then it will be remembered with more clarity. Especially when your eye is conditioned toward seeking out an anomaly. So here is an example of the focus being on the red cars or the white cars.

Another example of this is when my life partner backs the car out of our garage, he never remembers if he closed the garage door or not. However, if he said a quirky phrase out loud every time he closed the garage door, it would help him remember. So he might say something like, “The purple bunny hopped across the yard” out loud when he pushes the button to close the garage door. By taking advantage of the Von Resorff Effect combined with the Association Technique and his Auditory Senses when hearing the silly phrase out loud… this would be enough to imprint the memory of closing the garage door into his brain.

To recap:

  1. Meditate
  2. Feel It
  3. The Loci Technique
  4. Association
  5. Intentional Awareness
  6. Repetition
  7. Documentation
  8. Facilitated Meetings
  9. Be Unique

So those are ways we can improve memory storage. Check out the previous blog post where I presented tips of improving the way we encode memories. In the next part of this blog series, I will write about ways we can improve how we retrieve our memories.


The Mind Explained “Memory” documentary

Limits of Predictability in Human Mobility, Science, DOI:10.1126/science.1177170