6 Weird Things Affecting Your Memory

by Eliza Castile

Most people associate memory problems with age, but the factors affecting your memory are far more extensive than just how long you've been kickin' it on Earth. Of course, if you have a habit of misplacing your wallet/glasses/anything that isn't directly attached to your body, you've probably already figured out that you don't have to be older to have a poor memory. If you're anything like me, you've spent far too much time begging your elderly mother to help find your car keys, only for her to discover they were in your pocket the whole time. (Full disclosure: This happened to me last night. Oy vey.)

It's easy to get freaked out by perceived memory loss; after all, disorders like dementia and Alzheimer's disease are pretty terrifying prospects. However, based on modern understanding of how memory functions, a certain amount of forgetfulness is actually normal. Memory is divided into two parts: Short-term, which temporarily holds a finite amount of information, and long-term, which stores (theoretically) infinite amounts of information for the duration of your life. Not everything held in short-term memory is necessary information, so your brain picks and chooses what to encode in long-term storage — which means that most other details are discarded. In fact, there's evidence that much of what we "remember" is actually more of a reconstruction based on what probably happened, as opposed to concrete details. One study even found that if you tell people they went to a theme park as children, they'll actually form memories supporting the false information.

Obviously, memory is far more complex than what I've described above, but you get the idea. Such a complicated process is affected by all kinds of factors — let's take a look at six examples below.

1. Your "Memory Style"

Have you ever been at the same event as someone, but you find out later on that you remember it totally differently? Some of this can be chalked up to differences in personality; research suggests that rather than one universal method of remembering information, there are actually different styles of memory. According to a study published last year, people tend to recall information in one of two ways: Facts, or visual details. A visual person, for instance, may remember far more details later on than someone with a more reasoning-based way of thinking.

2. Your Emotions

In the psychological community, the link between emotions and memory is well-established. People are far more likely to remember details about an event when it's emotionally charged, although how we remember it varies. According to a study published this month, people recall bad memories quite well, but the context of the negativity is often forgotten. (Fortunately, a different study found that the same is true of positive memories, so at least we're not stuck reliving our most embarrassing moments all the time.)

3. Sleep (Or Lack Thereof)

If you've ever pulled an all-nighter and gone to school the next day, you're undoubtedly aware of the importance of sleep when it comes to memory. Decades of research indicates that sleep helps us consolidate memories, and when our sleep suffers, so does our ability to recall information.

4. Your Level of Stress

This just in: Stress is terrible for you! Of course, you probably already knew that — it seems like every month, there's a new study showing linking stress with things like heart disease, depression, and other equally fun stuff. Therefore, it should come as no surprise to hear that chronic stress is associated with poor memory functioning, especially in regards to spatial awareness.

5. Gender

It's one of the oldest jokes out there: Women remember far too many details, while men forget things like anniversaries and where they put their youngest child. Fortunately, tired sitcom tropes aren't reflections of real life, but studies have shown that there's a small amount of truth to the gender disparity: According to research, men tend to be a little more forgetful than women at pretty much every age.

6. Exercise

I know, I know — yet another article pushing the importance of exercise. I'm the first to agree that cardio is The Worst, capital letters included, but there's no denying that it's really, really good for you. Regular exercise has been associated with improved memory over time, and even something as simple as getting up to take a walk has been shown to help you remember things more clearly. Unfortunately, what you'll be remembering is exercise, but I suppose there are worse trade-offs.

Images: Andrew Zaeh for Bustle; Giphy (6)