Why Does Memory Fail Us When We Need It Most?

Remember that embarrassing moment when a room full of people was staring directly at you, expecting you to continue with your presentation, but you just stared blankly back at them, hoping for divine intervention? Or what about that exam that you completely bombed because you couldn’t remember a word of what you had read the night before?

The most annoying thing about these experiences is that you can recollect your speech/presentation or answer perfectly well a few minutes or hours later. There are numerous instances of our memories faltering in situations when the pressure to deliver is unusually high. Memory failures in situations when the stakes are not as high are also quite common. Examples include forgetting your pin number while paying for something at a department store, forgetting where you placed your car keys moments after putting them down, or failing to remember a person’s name whom you know very well when you meet them unexpectedly in the street.

Rommel Canlas/shutterstock.com

Rommel Canlas/shutterstock.com

Is there a single explanation for these failures?

Scientifically… no, because they are not all the same kinds of forgetting! Each of these instances of forgetting happens for a different reason. Keep reading to find out more!

source: wtfprofessor.com

In situations where one feels great amounts of pressure or stress to excel, the anxiety level of that individual also shoots up. High levels of anxiety are not good for your overall health, nor for performing tasks. To understand why, let’s look at what happens to our body when we feel anxious. Whenever we feel that the task at hand is daunting or could have dire consequences (e.g., losing a prospective promotion or failing an exam), our brain registers the significance/urgency and reacts with what is known as the fight or flight response.

This response has been hardwired within us since our primitive existence as apes. This response has always helped in our survival by allowing us to avoid/flee a predator. Although we have come a long way since then on the evolutionary journey, our brain has still preserved the same physiological response to any kind of threat (physical/emotional), since it continues to aid in adaptation and survival.
Being anxious, stressed or depressed is identified as an emotional threat by the brain, so it prepares the body to either fight or flee from it. During this “preparation”, the body shuts down all the activities that it deems as irrelevant to behaviors involved in fleeing or fighting. Retrieval of memory, especially the main point of that huge presentation, becomes highly irrelevant to your primitive brain when it receives information from other regions concerning your stress or fear of failure. Recollecting subject matter is put on the back burner, which makes your mind go blank, thus increasing your anxiety even more. Essentially, you get stuck in an endless loop.

Brain Speak

When the brain is more aroused (sensitive to environmental inputs) due to anxiety or stress, it releases large amounts of a hormone (a chemical substance that facilitates communication between organs and tissues) called Cortisol. Cortisol aids in preparing our bodies for the fight or flight behaviors. Research shows that cortisol levels and memory/knowledge recollection share an inverse relationship.

Once we become less anxious, our memory function is unblocked, since the decapitating influence of cortisol is removed, which is why we can so easily remember the material at a later time.

source: quickmeme.com

source: quickmeme.com

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The Mystery of the Misplaced Keys

Trying to remember where you placed certain things is certainly not a high-pressure situation that should warrant failure like the example above, which means that there are different mechanisms at play. Mostly, we fail to remember where we put things, such as keys, socks, purses etc. because we were distracted when we initially performed the action. When we pay attention to information coming through our senses, it stays in what psychologists call our short-term memory for 20 seconds to a minute. Information rehearsed within this time is transferred to our long-term memory (LTM).

Therefore, because you were distracted when you first placed an object in a certain place, you never let it get into your LTM in the first place for it to be recalled later. An everyday example would be remembering a phone number without rehearsing it aloud. By the time someone reaches the end of reciting a phone number, the first few digits are already gone!

In order to remember the name of an old acquaintance whom you bumped into unexpectedly on the street requires you to reduce the mental effort/energy being devoted to other tasks (maybe you are juggling a wailing baby or trying to remember your shopping list simultaneously) and divert some of that energy to remembering the name. It takes time to activate the network that will lead you to their name; other things on your mind may interfere with this search, which causes you to experience a temporary memory lapse.

source: cartoonresource/shutterstock.com

source: cartoonresource/shutterstock.com

How to stop anxiety from kidnapping your memories?

The most obvious suggestion is… ‘Stop digging your own grave’! Try not to attach too much significance on the grades you score on exams, and stop telling yourself that your promotion (life) depends on one successful presentation. Understanding the importance, but not making it a major life threat, will keep anxiety in check and protect your powers of memory.

If you feel too anxious, try muscle relaxation exercises. Relaxing the muscles fools your brain into thinking that the threat has passed, since you have undone its effect (muscle tension) of preparing to flee. Breathing deeply helps for the same reason, since rapid breathing is also a characteristic of a fight or flight response.

Get acquainted with the room before the presentation. It’s natural to feel anxious in a new space or when seeing the space from a new point of view (dais, podium). We have been programmed to take in more information in a new situation to boost learning and exploring. However, a room full of people with a brain full of anxiety is a lethal learning experience that is bound to make you feel threatened. Practicing will reduce the novelty of the situation and prevent your senses from being overwhelmed.

You can also use mnemonic strategies, where you use locations in the room to help you remember parts of your speech or presentation!

Stop reading and go try it for yourself!

References

  1. Effects Of Stress On Memory – Wikipedia
  2. Scientific American
  3. Psychology Today
The short URL of the present article is: http://sciabc.us/cbyWS
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About the Author:

Rujuta has a MA in Counseling Psychology and MSc in Cognitive Science. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Cognitive Science from IIT Kanpur in India. Her primary area of interest being human memory and learning, she is also interested in the neuroscience of cognitive processes. She also identifies herself as a bibliophile and a harry potter fanatic.

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