Being remembered in a forgetting world

Jul 11, 2021
Lisa Genova's new book on memory is called Remember

It’s on the tip of my tongue…  it’ll come to me… the name escapes me…

If you’ve never used one of those phrases to buy time while you search the dustier corners of memory for a number or a name or a fact - congratulations. The rest of us stand in awe of you.

Most of us, especially as we age, have memory lapses. We may even worry that these lapses are early signs of Alzheimer’s or dementia.

That’s why I’m getting a lot of pleasure - and comfort - from one of the books currently on my bedside table. The book is Remember, by Lisa Genova (above). She’s a neuroscientist and author of the best-seller Still Alice, which was turned into a movie with Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart.

The subtitle of Genova’s new book is The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting.

As I find that my forgetting become a little more frequent, I take comfort from advice like this: “Our brains are not designed to remember every name we hear, plan we make or day we experience. Just because your memory sometimes fails doesn’t mean it’s broken or succumbing to disease. Forgetting is actually part of being human.”

Phew. That’s a relief.

In Remember, Lisa Genova digs deep into how memories are made and how we retrieve them. 

Lisa Genova talked about memory and forgetting with the CBC’s Piya Chattopadhyay. First, why do we worry so much about our memory, and get so anxious when we forget things?

“We tend to villainize forgetting," says Genova. "I think we think of forgetting as like there's this war going on in your brain between the good guy, which is memory, and the bad guy, which is forgetting, and that's not how it works. 

“We do need to forget the things that are habitual, inconsequential, routine. We want the things that matter to exist in the foreground and the stuff that doesn't matter to go into the background.

“So, it's helpful for your brain to get rid of information when you know you don't need it anymore. So we get rid of stuff all the time.”

So we are constantly chucking out snippets of memory that we classify as not worth saving. We keep purging our mental cache in order to make room for stuff that might be more important.

So how does any of this knowledge about how memory works help speakers, presenters and writers?

Well, Lisa Genova explains that your memory (and by extension the memories of your audience) isn't recording a constant stream of every sight and sound you are exposed to.

Here's what she says: "Think about the vast amount of information that your senses are exposed to in any given day. If you are awake for 16 hours today, your senses are open for business without a break for 57,600 seconds. That's a lot of data. You simply can't and won't remember most of what was available to your eyes, ears, nose and brain today."

And then you - as a speaker - arrive with your 30 minute presentation or 60 minute keynote and hope to get your ideas, concepts, facts and figures lodged among the mass of data already being processed by your audience.

If you want to increase the chances of your facts getting stored for any length of time in your audience’s brain, you’d better find a way of making them sticky. You’d better make sure that the garbage disposal team bustling round your audience's brain cells realises your stuff is worth storing. 

Here are some concrete steps to increase your chances of success:

1 - Make sure your audience is paying attention

According to Genova, you can't create a memory unless your attention is focused on it. That's why we forget so easily where we left our keys, or parked our car - because we're not really paying attention. How do you ensure your audience is really listening? Make your delivery as interesting as your content. Speak with passion. Use emphasis and pauses to draw attention to key thoughts. Signpost your big ideas. You can even say 'And this is a really important point.'  Just turning up and delivering your content in a monotone doesn't work.

2 - Make it visual

Help your audience see your ideas as images. Paint a picture for them. Bring the facts and concepts to life. If you're using slides, make them big and bold. Slides packed with dense text are not the creators of memories.

3 - Make it meaningful

Bring your facts to life by wrapping them in stories. We remember stories because we get immersed in stories. Stories really hit home when the audience can see themselves in the narrative.

4 - Use drama and emotion

Emotionally-charged experiences are more likely to be consolidated into memory and are more resistant to forgetting than are emotionally neutral events, says Genova. As a presenter, you also have to be a performer if you want to make a lasting impact on your audiences. If you are passionate about an idea, don't be afraid to show it.

Facts on their own are very forgettable. But if you can wrap them in a story, or attach an image to them, or deliver them especially memorably, you dramatically increase the chances of your information being remembered.