If you want to bring back details of significant experiences from decades ago, there are ways to coax them out of your memory.
Certain memories, like saying “I do” or holding your baby for the first time, remain vivid throughout your life. However, recalling other significant memories from long ago can be more challenging. Nevertheless, these memories may still be within your reach—it just takes effort to retrieve them.
Which memories endure?
Out of the numerous memories you accumulate each day, only the ones marked as meaningful are stored in your brain’s long-term files. Our brains have a system that tags memories as important, ensuring we remember them in the future.
Two factors determine what makes a memory special:
- Emotion: Highly emotional events, such as getting married, trigger the activation of various brain chemicals during the memory encoding process.
- Personal significance: Memories that hold personal importance are more likely to be retained. While you may remember mundane details like today’s breakfast or yesterday’s outfit, these memories are easily forgotten because they lack personal significance.
The impact of aging on memory retrieval
Even special or important memories can become more challenging to remember as you age. Several age-related factors contribute to this difficulty:
- Decline in memory function after age 30: Evidence suggests that our ability to retrieve information peaks between the ages of 20 and 30. By the time we reach our 50s, the frontal lobes responsible for memory search don’t function as efficiently.
- Time-induced fading of memories: Memories that haven’t been revisited for years tend to lose their vividness and strength. By neglecting to recall a memory, you send a signal to your brain that it’s unimportant, which can lead to other memories overlaying it.
- Need for external cues: As we grow older, we rely more on external cues—such as sounds or images—to trigger memory retrieval, whereas younger individuals can often retrieve memories by internal cues alone.
Activating memory with cues
To reactivate an old memory, it helps to focus on the sensory experiences that were present when the memory was formed. During a significant or special event, your brain stored perceptions such as images, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, thoughts, or feelings in the cortex. The hippocampus then bound these elements together, creating a memory that could be retrieved later by the frontal lobes.
A cue from your environment (e.g., hearing a song) or one generated by yourself (e.g., thinking about your high school graduation) can assist in memory retrieval. The more specific the cues are to the particular episodes of your life you wish to remember, the more likely you are to find a match and retrieve an old memory.
Suggestions for cues Since cues related to long-forgotten memories may not spontaneously come to mind, you need to generate some cues yourself. Here are some strategies recommended by Dr. Andrew Budson of VA Boston Healthcare System:
- Look at old photographs of your home, family, or friends.
- Read a poem you wrote or enjoyed during your younger years.
- Hold onto an old article of clothing you’ve kept.
- Read an old letter, personal journal, or newspaper article.
- Listen to an old song that you or someone in your family loved.
- Cook a meal that your mom or dad used to make for you.
- Engage your sense of smell with items like books, pillows, perfumes, or food that may trigger memories.
- Visit a place from your younger days.
- Watch an old movie or TV show
Here are some additional suggestions to help you retrieve old memories:
- Practice stillness: Find a quiet and peaceful environment to focus on summoning old memories. Close your eyes periodically and immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, smells, thoughts, and feelings associated with each memory.
- Preserve memories in writing: As soon as you recall a memory, make sure to write it down before it fades away. By documenting your memories, you create a tangible record that can be revisited later. Additionally, regularly revisit these written memories to reinforce and strengthen them in your mind. You can truly transport yourself back in time to relive those experiences, and one memory often leads to the recollection of another.
By employing these strategies, you can enhance your ability to retrieve old memories and embark on a journey to rediscover the significant moments from your past.