Why We’re All Forgetting Things Right Now


By Elizabeth Bernstein

Short, temporary moments of forgetfulness are happening to more of us more often these days, memory experts say

Grant Shields was teaching a college seminar to 24 students last week when his mind went blank. He’d forgotten the name of his teaching assistant.

“I was embarrassed,” says Dr. Shields, who thought he heard students laugh when he said the wrong name, then struggled to recover. “I wish my memory was as good as it used to be.”

Dr. Shields is 32 years old. He’s a memory researcher. And he was teaching a class on how stress affects cognition.

Short, temporary instances of forgetfulness—those ‘senior moments’—are happening to more of us more often these days, memory experts say. We’re finding it difficult to recall simple things: names of friends and co-workers we haven’t seen in a while, words that should come easily, even how to perform routine acts that once seemed like second nature.

We’re living in yet another moment of big change as we return to offices, create new routines and find our footing in yet another new normal. (And don’t forget a scary war in Europe on top of that.) All this change consumes cognitive energy, often much more than we think, neuroscientists say. It’s no wonder we can’t remember what we had for breakfast. Our minds are struggling with transition moments.

“Our brains are like computers with so many tabs open right now,” says Sara C. Mednick, a neuroscientist and professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. “This slows down our processing power, and memory is one of the areas that falters.”

The chronic and cumulative stress of the past two years has taken its toll, too. Research led by Dr. Shields shows that people who have experienced recent life stressors have impaired memory. Stress negatively affects our attention span and sleep, which also impact memory. And chronic stress can damage the brain, causing further memory problems, says Dr. Shields, an assistant professor in the department of psychological science at the University of Arkansas.

The deluge of information coming at us on multiple channels is cluttering our brains, too. We’re terrible at paying attention, constantly scrolling our phones while we’re doing other things, which neuroscientists say makes it hard to encode memories in the first place. And it can be hard to remember something out of context, such as the name of the co-worker suddenly talking to us in person, rather than on Zoom.

Then there’s the sameness of our lives during the pandemic. How are we supposed to remember a specific event when each day was exactly the same as every other?

“Memory benefits from novelty,” says Zachariah Reagh, a cognitive neuroscientist and assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “When all of our experiences blend together, it’s hard to remember any of them as distinct.”

Michelle Triant, 39, blames two Covid-tinged years for why she recently forgot the name of her own body part. When her 4-year-old daughter asked her: “Mommy, did I grow in your tummy?” Ms. Triant sensed an opportunity for an anatomy lesson and started to explain. “No, sweetheart, actually, you grew in my… ” but drew a blank. She stuttered for a moment, hoping to retrieve the right word.

Her 7-year-old daughter piped up: “She means uterus,” she told her younger sister. “Babies grow in the mom’s uterus but her belly gets bigger which is why that’s confusing.”

“Oh, to have the memory of a first-grader,” says Ms. Triant, who lives in Spokane Valley, Wash.

Memory declines with age, but medical science isn’t clear exactly when. People age cognitively at different rates.

Some studies show that memory ability peaks in people’s 20s and gradually declines from there; others suggest the sharpest decline starts around age 60, Dr. Reagh says. If you’re worried about your memory, you should see your doctor, especially if other people notice your memory loss.

Here’s what experts recommend for boosting your memory.

Don’t force it. Forcing yourself to try to remember something is counterproductive. You’ll become frustrated, and that frustration allows the emotional part of your brain to override the parts of your brain that retrieve memories, says Jennifer Kilkus, a clinical health psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine. Let it go for a bit; take some deep breaths to calm your brain and try again later.

Stop multitasking. It’s tough to recall something, or to commit something to memory in the first place, when you’re doing two things at once, Dr. Kilkus says. So put your phone away. (This will help cut back on information overload, too.) Try doing one thing at a time. Pay attention to small tasks you typically do on autopilot, such as brushing your teeth.

“When you practice paying attention in those moments when it doesn’t matter, it will become easier in those moments when it does,” Dr. Kilkus says.

Help your brain calm. This will strengthen your frontal lobe, which is involved in both memory encoding and retrieval, as well as stress regulation, says Dr. Mednick, author of the coming “The Power of the Downstate.” Dr. Mednick recommends daily meditation, yoga, or simply slow deep breathing for at least 10 minutes a day. Take a walk, preferably in nature. Connect with a loved one—have a long chat, give a hug, have sex. Intimacy reduces stress by making you feel safe and cared for, Dr. Mednick says. And get some sleep. This clears out toxins in your brain that can clog your mental processing, she says.

Be socially present. Give your full attention to people when you talk with them. Doing so will help you better recall what you want to say in the conversation—because your brain won’t be distracted or overtaxed—and remember what was said, says Jeanine Turner, professor of communication at Georgetown University.

So, again: Put down your phone. Turn off the TV. And truly pay attention to what your loved one is saying; don’t just wait for your turn to respond.

“We need to approach each conversation intentionally,” Dr. Turner says. “If we don’t have a deep connection, how can we ever expect to remember what happened?”


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    • Editor-in Chief:
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