Three Ways to Make Memories Last


Please login to view this content , or sign up for an account

Memories have the power to shape our identify. Unfortunately, memories are often unreliable sources of information because they change as we recall them. This process creates biases that can influence our decision making and may even affect our sense of self. Therefore, memories are more like interpretations rather than exact replicas of past experiences, and we use them to help us navigate the present and future. This means that our identities are not fixed, but rather built on constantly shifting recollections of the past.

Not all Memories are the Same

Why is it that some memories are easier to remember than others? Some stay clear and stable over decades, while others fade within minutes. The first thing to note here is that there are two categories of memories: episodic and semantic. Episodic memory refers to memories of life experiences, such as a first kiss, a friend’s birthday, or graduation. On the other hand, semantic memories are based on facts and knowledge, such as the name of a city, phone number, or street address.

Episodic memories are typically easier to recall because they are concerned with how an event related to us, whereas semantic memories are concerned with knowledge about the world. Regardless of memory type, there are several ways in which we can create lasting memories: being mindful, recalling the experience with others, and prioritizing sleep are three steps that can be taken to enhance memory formation.

Be Mindful and Engage All Senses

To create lasting memories, it’s important to be mindful and focus on the aspects of the experience you want to remember. Paying attention to your surroundings, including sights, sounds, and smells, can help enrich memories with greater details as time passes. One study revealed that a seven-day mindfulness meditation practice correlated with improvements in working memory and attention control in participants with general anxiety disorder. Unfortunately, we often hinder our ability to create and recall memories by distractions from our phones, emails, and other notifications that constantly steal our attention.

To counteract this, it might be helpful to set aside specific times to be fully present with loved ones, without any interruptions. While technology can be helpful in preserving memories, taking mindless pictures can actually take away from the experience. Instead, it may be more beneficial to capture the essence of the moment through candid shots that evoke the feelings, sights, and sounds of the experience. Focusing on these details can help create deeper, richer memories to cherish for years to come.

Recall the Experience with Others

Keeping memories to ourselves can often distort them over time. It’s important to recall a memory with others to keep them updated and maybe even experience similar feelings associated with the memory through honest story telling. Positive memories might be easier to express than negative memories. However, the harder memories may be worth talking through especially if they are harder to let go of than others. This may be especially beneficial if a memory is hindering personal growth.

Fortunately, there are ways to move past this. For example, sharing a memory with a friend with the intention of getting over it can change your perspective on the memory. Having someone reflect the memory back to you is extremely helpful in allowing you to reorganize it and reduce the stress associated with it as it becomes shared and no longer yours. This can change your relationship with the past, and help you grow in areas where you once felt stuck.

Prioritize Sleep

Memory formation is constantly occurring during wakefulness and sleep. It involves sorting through new experiences and selecting which will be stored and integrated into an existing database of memories. This process needs to be done while preserving and modifying the existing memories. During wakefulness, this occurs simultaneously with a consistent input of new sensory experiences. However, during sleep, the brain can sort through memories without being bombarded with external sensory experiences.

This process is known as “consolidation” and leads to the creation of long-lasting “memory traces” or “engrams”. These memory traces can then be activated during wakefulness to recall information. Recent research has emphasized the importance of slow wave sleep (SWS) for memory consolidation, which typically occurs during the first hours of sleep and lasts between 70-90 minutes. One way to prioritize sleep for improving memory formation is to remove all distractions from the bedroom before going to sleep to optimize SWS.

Memory formation is complex. Memories act as educated guesses by the brain about what’s important, and sometimes these memories can evolve over time. Memories last when we add meaning and imagination to them, which explains why episodic memories might be easier to remember than semantic memories.

However, we can make memories last by capturing the feelings, sights and sounds associated with the experience and being as mindful and present as possible. Recalling the experience with others can help change our perspective about the memory, especially if it isn’t serving us. Memories shift our sense of who we are, so if we can change our perspective on memories that are holding us back, we can experience a new opportunity for growth. Lastly, prioritizing sleep, especially SWS is important for memory consolidation. Not only is it helpful for our brains to remove distractions from a memorable experience during wakefulness, but also during sleep.

Monica Echeverri holds a Master of Science in Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine from the University of Western States and currently works as a food photographer, writer, and recipe developer.

This article was reviewed and approved by Emeran Mayer, MD