— A few years back Sarah Kelly, 34, of Fairhope, Ala., loaded her two kids into the car at a store parking lot and forgot her double stroller in the space beside her, driving away and abandoning it. Worse, she did it again a few months later.
Two potentially pricey memory lapses, but Kelly chalked it up to mommy brain. Depending on your stage of life, you might call it a brain fart or a senior moment. “We have these memory slips at any age; we just don’t pay attention to them when we’re younger,” says Cynthia Green, assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. She's also the author of “Brainpower Game Plan: Foods, Moves, and Games to Clear Brain Fog, Boost Memory and Age-Proof Your Mind in 4 Weeks.”
Before you diagnose yourself with Alzheimer’s disease, take heart: Most memory lapses are normal. Here are just a few common brain glitches, why they happen and how to handle them.
Don’t I know you from somewhere?
When you see someone out of context, like the librarian at the grocery store, it can be hard to remember who that person is. You still recognize the librarian, but you can’t make the link because the context surrounding her is different. You don’t receive the memory cues you would normally get when you spot her at the book borrowing window.
When you meet someone you want to remember anywhere, try to note some physical feature about them. “We can remember better if we have physical or perceptual cues about something,” says Amy Overman, assistant professor of psychology at Elon University. To make the connection explicit, say something to yourself like, "the librarian has short blond hair and dark glasses that make her look smart."
Tip of the tongue syndrome
It’s frustrating when you can’t come up with the word you want or the name of a book or a movie. You may have what researchers call proactive interference, where old information gets in the way of the new. Say you’re taking a French class, but you previously learned Spanish in college. You try to come up with the French word for spaghetti, but all you can think of is the Spanish word.
It works the other way around, too. If you memorize a new cell phone number, you may not be able to recall the old one. The new number is blocking the old. The information is there, we just can’t retrieve it as readily, and that’s due to the associated nature of memory. The hippocampus makes a mental map of a memory, and if you have a similar one, they can overlap, link together or block each other out.
In order to retrieve the information, give it time. “Close your eyes and stop doing anything else,” says Dr. Larry McCleary, author of “Feed your Brain, Lose your Belly.” Eventually the linked memories will disengage and you’ll be able to recall what’s on the tip of your tongue.
I know my car is here somewhere …
This one happens when we don’t encode or form a memory for our surroundings. We’re focused on small things: Do I have my purse? Who’s got the concert tickets? But if we don’t make a point to look around and take in information, then it never gets embedded into our memory. “If you are going to remember something like an appointment or a name, you have to acquire it first,” says Green. That’s called encoding the memory.
When you park at Disney World, lots are designated with a character and a number for your convenience. People get out of the car and see Goofy 35 or Snow White 64. Disney’s ensured their system is memorable. The best way to prevent wandering aimlessly in large lots is to create an internal system like Disney’s. Intentionally link features of your environment to some fact. For example, "I’m parked outside M&M" (Macy’s men’s department).
What did I come in here for?
Ever walk into a room and forget why you went there? These lapses involve working memory — that’s when you’re juggling several mental balls. Say you’re at your desk and you need to get a piece of paper from another room. You get up, and go to the other room with a goal-oriented task. Then you mentally leave that task and start thinking about heading to the store to grab something for dinner, picking up your son from school, and oh yeah, you should call Sally. By the time you’ve walked into the room, you’ve forgotten why.
“It’s usually because your brain was focused on the first task and you shifted focus to other tasks, or you multitasked or you broadened your focus,” says McCleary. You decreased the amount of focus you placed on your initial task. Once you start multi-focusing, these lapses are commonplace.
To prevent them, invest more mental energy on one task by slowing down, focusing solely on what you’re doing and paying attention; no multi-tasking allowed.
Totally blanked on your name
The connection between a particular face and name is arbitrary. There’s no reason the young woman at the party with brown hair should be a Mary, or the blond-haired guy a Joe. When you blank, the hippocampus hasn’t found a way to consolidate the name and lock it down yet. “If you’re learning a name, you need a way to capture that name and make it easier to remember,” says Green. Make name associations more concrete by forming mental pictures.
Look at a person whose name you want to remember and make up something about them. You just met Ellen. Maybe she has big ears. Picture an elephant. Ellen/Elephant. That makes the connection less arbitrary and easier to recall. Of course, you won’t want to share the mental image with Ellen!
You can vary the strategy according to what works for you. Make up a story about Ellen. Ellen sells eggs at the egg stand. Create a visual about what Ellen’s wearing. Ellen’s ears glow with diamond earrings. Creating some sort of mental story around the name helps you lock it down and recall it.