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  • Writer's pictureJanice Buziak

Cultivating Your Memory Castle: Why our memory fails us, and how we can learn from it

"My memory is bad." "I can't remember anything." "I don't remember what I had for breakfast let alone what I did last week." Has anyone ever said to you, "Don't you remember?" causing you to feel a total and complete loss that you don't remember? Rest assured! This is normal.

Science has been captivated by studying how our memory works and fails. Initial findings centered around the idea that the recall of information, even things we want and try to remember, naturally drop off. This is sometimes called the "forgetting curve" and refers to the exponential decline in what you actually remember as time passes. The more time that passes, and it is to recall the information. But don't our experiences and related emotions impact our memory too? The "I only remember the things I need to" idea?

Well, yes. Think of your memory in broader terms, and not a one-way path. Consider all the different types of memory we have: muscle memory, verbal memory, emotional memory. We are constantly accessing our long-term memory to use in our working memory in order to communicate about the retrieved information. Try this: Imagine you are walking down the stairs. Now think about walking or some other routine action or activity you may do every day without much thought. What happens when you have to describe that act or explain exactly how to do it? Or, did you ever have a time when you were unable to do that particular action due to an injury and had to re-learn it? This can be fairly difficult to do.

In the 1930s, Frederic Bartlett completed an experiment that revealed a very interesting aspect of memory through story retelling. He found that when people recounted a novel story, there were details that were forgotten because they were either culturally foreign, or the actual story details were actually changed to align with personal prior experiences. By doing this, the incorrect information (the information changed or modified) was better remembered, although the details of the original story were forgotten.

Our brains reconstruct memories of past events or experiences, but we don't always have all the information. In order for our brains to make sense of these memories, we fill in the gaps by thinking about the other experiences we've had, but may have no true recollection of. Think about a photo from your early childhood. That photo may elicit a recounting of a story related to the situation, or from that time in your life. You begin to envision the recounting based on the stories told to you and your personal past experiences, and you may find you suddenly have a vivid recollection of that time and space. Perhaps you do, perhaps it is our brains making sense of the information. This phenomenon, although it can cause you to believe you remember something that may or may not have actually happened, services as a cue and can promote encoding of information, even if it is not 100% true.

Researchers have found over and over that our memories, do in fact, fail us. Consider older adults. Many older adults tend to verbally complain more about memory deficits and simple memory mistakes compared to younger adults, even if the errors are commonplace, like forgetting where the car keys are, or what you wanted to buy at the store. These natural failures, in conjunction with mild age-related attention processing and memory changes, plus the negative stereotypes associated with getting older, can lead to feelings of threat and real insecurity. During testing situations, like at your doctor's office, or in a therapy clinic, individuals over age 65 tend to respond to challenging tasks with negative comments about their memory. These anxiety-inducing situations often actually cause the individual to falter and perform more poorly than they typically would under non-stressful situations. Because our memory is deep-rooted in a learning curve, one stressful or negative experience compounds the next and can negatively impact overall function and ability. By neutralizing the situation and being kind to yourself (your memory may not be as bad as you think!), you can reduce stress and improve recall and performance.

So let's build that memory castle. Because we know that memory is deep-rooted in our experiences, feelings, and emotions, we can harness this power to help us learn and encode new information. A memory castle is a familiar place or location that is meaningful to you. By using the image of this location, you can encode new or novel information into it. Try this exercise: Imagine a place that is very meaningful to you. It may be a home you grew up in, a vacation destination you fondly remember, or a favorite place you like to walk. Imagine yourself walking through the space with stops along the way. Now, let's suppose you want to remember new information (like a grocery list, or people's names). In your mind, mentally place this information in your vision. For instance, if you are using a house, perhaps you mentally place a loaf of bread on the table at the entrance. Once you have placed your information in these locations, your remembering just got easier. Just think about yourself walking along your path in your castle, and now you can "see" the novel or new items there as well. The memory castle strategy is a technique that taps into our ability to remember unfamiliar things (new information) by associating or pairing them with things that are familiar. This strategy has roots going back to the Greek and Roman orators who often learned long speeches, and is used by professional memory champions in competitions.

Like learning any technique, building a memory castle takes practice and patience. Start simple - perhaps try to remember 4 objects. Then increase the difficulty, remembering names or numbers. Pair your target words with a logical location, one that maybe fits the information, or one that this so absurd that you can't help but remember. Most importantly, have confidence, and don't start out by saying "I'll never be able to do this." Remove the threat, and you may surprise yourself.

So, we know that our prior experiences and reconstructions can distort our memory, but we also know that our prior experiences can scaffold our memory to promote encoding and recall. Eliminating threat and bias about or memory and age also can improve how we encode and how easily we retrieve the information. By understanding how our memory fails us we can better learn how to harness our memory strengths. So go on - build that memory castle.


NPR Hidden Brain. (2019, December 17). Did that really happen? how our memories betray us. NPR. Retrieved November 5, 2021, from

Check out the full transcript at or subscribe and listen to the podcast Hidden Brain from NPR.

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