Do you know anyone who brags about their memory? I don’t either. There are a few people who are satisfied with their memory abilities, but honestly I can’t remember who they are.
Sometimes I write about basic lifestyle habits that improve memory and other aspects of cognitive health and performance. Those habits include proper nutrition and sufficient hydration, sleep, exercise, and time in nature. I like to plug those habits every chance I get, but this post isn’t about the cognitive ability of memory; it’s about the art of memory and how we can develop it.
Remember what Samuel Johnson wrote in 1759? “The true art of memory is the art of attention.” Here’s the thing: We cannot recall what does not register in the first place. Too often, I find that this is the reason why I can’t remember something. It was never in my brain to begin with.
When I thought I was listening to what’s-her-name introduce herself, I was thinking that she looked a lot like Vanna White. When I was reading the email from my coworker, I was preoccupied with the improper syntax in the subject line. When I thought I was listening to my audio book, I was looking for my keys.
We fool ourselves when we think we can multitask with no limits. We can multitask if only one of those tasks requires our mind’s full attention. We can multitask with certain kinds of tasks, but we cannot multi-focus.
We can walk and talk. We can eat popcorn and watch a movie. We can get dressed and watch Good Morning America. (Although, we can’t blame George Stephanopoulos if we end up wearing one red sock and one green sock.)
What we can’t do is follow a recipe and hold a serious conversation. We can’t navigate a new route through the city and focus on our audio book. We can’t do our taxes and comprehend a haiku (trust me on this one).
When it comes to tasks that require focus, we can only go back and forth. We can’t focus on more than one at the same time. Whatever does not get our attention does not register. Whatever does not register cannot be recalled. It is not in our memory. If we can’t remember something, it might be that it never registered in our brains to begin with.
How can we develop the art of memory? We practice the art of attention. We stop fooling ourselves by thinking that we can focus on more than one thing at a time. We stop blaming our memory when our attention is the real culprit.