My nose scrunched as I took a quiz to determine if I have a photographic memory. The test presents a series of images for 7 seconds and asks you to recall to recall specific details, like “How many lemon slices are in the picture.” I performed at a D+ level with 66 percent accurate recall—and half of that is by virtue of good guessing.
I’m not alone, though. A survey earlier this summer showed that of 2,000 participants who took U.K.-based Lenstore’s quiz only 1.2 percent got all 10 questions correct. Perhaps that’s because photographic memory is believed to be… not a thing. It’s true. According to experts, the closest thing to photographic memory is eidetic imagery, a supposed ability to “see” an image in one’s mind with vivid detail after viewing it once, but that’s terribly uncommon.
So how do you take clearer mental snapshots? Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Aging Joyfully, shares how to focus with a few tips.
1. Avoid multitasking. That sounds Herculean to be honest because, I know, I know, living in a burnout-based culture means endless demands. How else are you going to get things done unless you tackle your schedule with octopus arms? As you’d imagine, though, doing 40 things at once will slice your focus. If you’re on a Duolingo kick or something, carve out some time to sit and actually learn some damn Italian versus studying while working out or cooking.
“Memory works best when we stay sharply attuned to whatever task is at hand—be it a conversation, a school class, or a meeting,” says Dr. Manly.
2. Work at your level of “optimal frustration.” According to Dr. Manly, research shows that allowing yourself a bit (emphasis on “a bit”) of frustration actually improves focus on memory. If the task at hand feels impossible or easy peasy, memory tends not to stick as well. So engage with it at a level that’s stimulating and a bit challenging, allowing enough friction to make you feel like you’re actually learning.
3. Strive to be present without anxiety. There’s no cure-all for anxiety. Trust me. I’ve steeped my life in lavender lotion and it only gets you so far. Still stress and anxiety can definitely cloud things over, so it’s worth trying to manage if it’s, well, manageable. If you have to practice for a big presentation and it’s giving you those traditional public speaking jitters, or there’s too much background stimulation, PAUSE. Take a hot sec to bring yourself back to earth, focus on your breathing, and relax.
4. Engage in new tasks. “The brain thrives on new stimulation, and this increases memory performance,” says Dr. Manly. Research backs it up: incorporating newness in your routine whether it’s a new language or game strengthens cognitive skills. So extra encouragement to pick up a new class if you’re working on longterm memory.
5. Reduce Distractions. If you didn’t get clued in by the whole “don’t multitask” thing, here it is one more time. Paring down your distractions is crucial to retaining information.
“If you want to keep your memory sharp for certain situations such as remembering facts or images, strive to reduce distractions,” says Dr. Manly. “Memory is simply not as strong if factors intervene during memory consolidation.”
God forbid someone asks your opinion on the new Veronica Mars season and you’re drawing a blank because you texted throughout your binge watch. For shame. Put it on airplane mode.
6. Repetition. Practically a baby’s challenge in terms of complexity, and probably the best thing you can do to drill something in your head.
“If you want to remember something, repeat it,” says Dr. Manly. “Whether it’s a word or an image you want to recall, continue to repeat the word or recall the image until it feels cemented in your brain!”
If you want to remember someone’s name, just repeat it during the handshake. And if that doesn’t work, well, Matt or Mike is always a solid guess.