Poor memory - or poor thinking habits

“My memory isn’t what it used to be!”

Poor memory is often simply a matter using your brain efficiently – rather that a matter of the quality or effectiveness of the memory itself.

Once we leave our relatively straight-forward and care-free teens and early twenties life becomes more complicated.

The pressures of keeping track of the many conflicting demands on our attention, on our vitality and on an increasingly complicated adult life require more efficient ways of thinking and, especially, of remembering things.

Add to this a range of accumulated bad thinking habits… and ‘poor memory’ becomes the scapegoat for ineffectively using our brains.

Are you using your memory effectively?

We have all been there.

  • You meet someone and they tell you their name and moments later you’re struggling to remember it!
  • Or you’re at home and go into another room to get something only to discover, on arrival, that you cannot remember what you went there for! So you have to retrace your steps and, once back in the original room, you remember what you wanted!
  • Or you spend frantic minutes looking for your keys before dashing out to work – only to discover they’re in your pocket or handbag.
  • Or you carefully write a shopping list of what you need to purchase at the supermarket – and, when you get there, you discover you’ve left the list on the kitchen table!

‘It’s not so funny, anymore!’

Many of us, a lot of the time, can see the funny side of these occurrences…

That is, until we begin to hear about people losing their memory as they get older – and how, apparently, we permanently loose brain cells from our early twenties onwards!

This is when the funniness begins to fade, just a little. And is replaced by an uneasy feeling that maybe we, too, are beginning to show signs of mental ageing.

  • After all it’s happened three times this month, already.
  • Or maybe you’ve started noticing you’re beginning to forget a lot of things lately.
  • Or someone remarks ‘What? You’ve forgotten already? Still.. never mind… after all, at your age lots of people have these sorts of lapses…”

Selective evidence gathering?

Our minds have a wonderful ability to home in on a particular topic to the exclusion of contrary evidence. For example, if we decide something is true we then set out to find supporting evidence. And, we automatically ignore any contrary evidence, so our initial stance is maintained intact.

It’s one of the ways in which we manage to maintain our prejudices, be they racial, religious, sexual, or whatever.

If I decide that all people with a certain characteristic are evil, or untrustworthy, or stupid then, amazingly, I’ll find supporting evidence everywhere! Because I’m looking for it – and am carefully ‘not noticing’ any contradictory evidence.

The same way of filtering can be applied to our mental and physical well-being. So, if I think I’m not as good at remembering things as I used to be I will find lots of proof of this.  Because I am paying attention to what I forget rather than to what I remember.

Setting yourself up for failure

Let’s face it there is a lot to remember in your personal life quite apart from your working  life:

  • Appointments,
  • Birthdays.
  • Anniversaries.
  • What was said on the news.
  • The name of that singer or song that just came up in conversation.
  • What we are talking about right now – whilst you wredre thinking of something ele
  • The name and interests and views of family and friends and neighbours.
  • The current political crises. And so on. And on.

Then there are all the things to remember in your working life and for some people it now gets so complicated that they rely on memory aids such as diaries or personal organisers to remember things.

You can’t remember everything

Relax. You are setting yourself up for failure – and lots of worrying – if you believe that you should be able to remember everything.

Compare the amount of information you are bombarded with on a daily basis with what it would have been like if you’d lived say, 100 years ago. Then life was a lot simpler – there was less travel for the average person, less media information, a smaller circle of acquaintances, a closer family circle.

Chances are you wouldn’t have had to worry about your memory then – there simply weren’t as many things to remember! Yet, even then, people undoubtedly forgot things.

Nowadays life is considerably more complex, we do have a lot more to remember and we have risen to this challenge – aided by diaries and organisers.

Nevertheless we cannot remember everything so we do need to be selective.

I’d suggest that you become more deliberate in how you use your memory and make two choices

  1. Give yourself permission to forget lots of things – and smile when you find yourself unable to remember them
  2. Get better at remembering the things which are important to remember.

Pay Attention – for better recall

There are hundreds of strategies for improving one’s memory and they have in common two processes

  1. Registering, or filing, the information in our memory
  2. Recalling it.

And while most of us pay attention to the quality of our recall the key is to pay attention to how we register the information. If the information doesn’t make a good impression on our neurology it is going to be difficult to recall it.

Make a better impression

Start your ‘memory improvement drive’ by actually paying more attention to things! It’s as simple as that. For example, lots of people complain that they are ‘no good at remembering names’ when, in reality, they are ineffective at ‘registering’ names.

When we use NLP to model their strategy we find that the most common difficulty is that they are trying to do a number of things simultaneously.

For example:

  • You are at a party or a meeting and are introduced to someone.
  • In that moment of being told the person’s name you are probably also thinking of a whole series of other things such as am I dressed right fore this occasion, what does this person think of me, am I handling this situation well
  • What should I talk about with them,
  • Is this a good handshake,
  • Was their’s a god handshake
  • Who’s that person over there on the far side of the room, etc etc etc.

Or you are trying to remember to make a phone call after the meeting, or wondering if one of your children is really coming down with the flu, or should you pick up a take-away on the way home, etc etc.

Multi-tasking conversations!

In this encounter you are are trying to hold two conversations simultaneously – the ‘out-loud’ conversation with the person to whom you’ve just been introduced and the other ‘sub-vocal’ cnversation with yourself.

With all this going on it’s not surprising that the sound of the person’s name hasn’t made a huge impression on your brain. Or that, seconds later, you cannot remember it!

And the same process applies in a lot of daily situations in which we encounter information which we expect to later be able to recall.

We are trying to do things which, while not being fully mutually exclusive, are almost so. We are trying to mentally register or file images or sounds or physical information while, at the same time, silently talking with ourselves.

There is nothing wrong with self talk, in itself, it’s just that a lot of the time a lot of us use it as our main way of thinking – and often there are better ways. Such as registering information in the form of images or sounds or sensations or, better yet, as a mixture of all three senses.

In the name-registration example above the self talk is interfering with more effective ways of linking the sound of the person’s name with their appearance and personality.

The key here is that self talk is decidedly unuseful in inter-personal communication! It’s much better to only hold one conversation at a time!

You cannot efficiently talk to yourself inside your head and hear what is going on outside your head at the same time. You cannot effectively listen to both conversations. Some of us get quite good at flipping between the two take – but even then we miss large parts of both!

But what about those dying brain cells?

Yes, there is a widespread belief that the reason we get worse at remembering things as we get older is because of the loss of brain cells with advancing years.

Over twenty years ago, at the University of Sheffield, a male student went to the campus doctor for a minor ailment. The doctor noticed his head was slightly larger than normal and suggested he see neurologist Professor John Lorber who was based at the university.

Using a CAT scan Lorber discovered that instead of a normal cerebral cortex of around 45 mms thick the young man had only a tiny amount of brain covering the top of his spinal column. The rest of his cranium was filled with ‘water’. His cerebral cortex was just 1 mm thick!

The student had a condition called hydrocephalus or ‘water on the brain’. Yet he was living a normal life, had an IQ of 126… and a first class honours degree in mathematics!

Use it or lose it (yet again!)

It is not the number of brain cells that determines our ability to remember or even our IQ. It is the number of connections between those brain cells. Barring physical illness, we have more than enough brain cells to last us far longer that our body is designed to last.

And if you want to improve your memory – use it, whatever your age! Actively using your brain in an efficient manner is what causes the number of connections – and your memory – to increase.

When you make terrific demands on your brain it rises to the occasion.

It’s not what you have…

…it’s what you do with what you have. To remember better you must ‘register’ better. To register better pay attention – fully – for a moment. Give your full attention to what you want to remember.

Just doing this will make a huge difference to ability to recall. And then you can forget(!) about counting brain cells…


There is an interesting article about memory on the BBC website

(Originally published November 2005. This updated edition 24 January 2019)



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