Diary and Music: How to Recover Your Memories

Secret numbers, dates of birthdays, experiences: our brain stores countless pieces of information every day. But where do they actually end up? And how can we memorize difficult things more easily?

Retaining knowledge: Information and experiences are better remembered if you write them down or talk about them

© istock / lechatnoir

"What was that again?" There is one thing with memory: some experiences, names or dates seem to have disappeared forever, others we can no longer get together properly and others cannot get out of our heads at all.

But what actually depends on what we remember and what we forget? And how do you manage to reliably keep a new PIN in your head? Experts explain what memory is all about - and give us tips against forgetting.

The two types of memory

Laypeople usually differentiate between short and long-term memory. And that's basically how it is done in science, except that short-term memory is called working memory there. Information is stored in this for up to 30 seconds, explains Karl-Heinz Bäuml, Professor of Developmental and Cognitive Psychology at the University of Regensburg. Anything beyond these 30 seconds falls into long-term memory.

"It is helpful to think of long-term memory as a store with millions of entries," explains Bäuml. What is retrieved from it at a certain point in time depends on so-called external factors - for example where you are at the moment - and on internal factors - such as your emotional state.

"These factors mean that certain parts of the memory are activated and things are remembered," says Bäuml. Whether we can remember something well or badly depends, for example, on whether things seem relevant to us and whether they affect us emotionally. "And it is easier for us to remember things that meet our own world knowledge," explains the professor.

Means: Anyone who is interested in physics and is already familiar with it will be able to memorize new information from this area more easily than someone who has no idea about physics.

But what happens to such information? Or also with the memory of New Year's Eve ten years ago - does that disappear from your head at some point? As a layperson, one could assume that. Meanwhile, Bäuml says: "That may happen, but it should be rare."

How to bring back what has been forgotten

"Most of the entries are not deleted, just switched to passive mode," explains the researcher. "You can possibly be found again with certain key stimuli." Music, for example, often awakens memories. Or what is supposed to be forgotten is brought out again through smells.

You can feel your way around the memory of the New Year's Eve party ten years ago, as Bäuml explains: For example, you should remember what your own life was like ten years ago and what people you had to do with - so you can follow up and approach after the New Year celebration. This is of course laborious and not always feasible in everyday life. It is therefore better if you can keep important memories reasonably "active".

"The best tip is to try to refresh the memory contents from time to time," advises Bäuml, "by trying to memorize them yourself." Writing a diary, exchanging ideas with friends about your experiences, looking at photo albums - that keeps the memories active. The same could apply to media reviews, for example on September 11, 2001.

Memorize numbers and names with the help of stories

Conversations with others are of course not suitable for remembering sensitive data such as a bank card PIN. There are other tricks for doing this, as Margit Ahrens from the Federal Association for Memory Training explains. With such important information, the memory entry needs to be well anchored so that it can always be actively accessed - for example in the long queue in front of the supermarket checkout.

"The brain thinks in pictures," explains memory trainer Ahrens. She advises remembering symbols for the numbers zero to nine and remembering the PIN with a story.

The expert explains this using the example of PIN 1234: The one is stored as a lighthouse, the two as a swan, the three as a tricycle, the four as a shamrock. She now connects these saved symbols to a story: A swan on a tricycle is circling around the lighthouse and it has its whole beak full of clover.

"The brain delights in this and it is almost impossible to forget the PIN," she is convinced. When it comes to names, she advises breaking them down into syllables and thinking about images that match the syllables, which can then be linked to a story.

Read vocabulary - and speak

"Everything that I want to keep, I have to associate a picture," says Ahrens. However, this is not always possible, for example when learning vocabulary. In such cases, the memory trainer advises taking another meaning on board: Instead of just reading the words quietly, speaking them too. "It works even better if you pick up the notebook and walk around the room."

Training for the brain is not only useful for young people who have to study for school or university. "The memory can be trained well into old age," emphasizes Ahrens. She advises everyone to stimulate and challenge their brains. Those who do this feel the effects: "One is more alert in perception and it is easier to remember."