Where, Oh, Where, Has My Memory Gone?

I realized the reason I could not memorize the way I used to is because I am not a child any longer. My brain as a child was looking to soak up information, but as an adult, my sponge has been wrung out.

Recently, I joined my local chapter of Toastmasters International and gave my first speech. One would think that speaking for a living, as a trainer, it would be easy. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There are some things that parallel one another, such as preparation and timing. What I was surprised to learn was that my memorization skills are gone, along with my childhood.

I realized my brain is no longer a sponge. Of course, as a Learning and Development professional, along with my school study around Adult Education, I know the differences between pedagogy and andragogy. Pedagogy is the method and practice of teaching children, while andragogy is the method and practice of teaching adults. With pedagogy, children’s brains are looking to soak up information, while adults need to dump old information in order to make room for new. So I’m not surprised that the part of my brain that holds memory has taken a back seat.

I had written out my speech on index cards with the hope that I would only use the cards as a guide to get me through my speech. What happened instead was that I found myself relying on my index cards quite heavily. With your first prepared speech, there is a time limit of four to six minutes to qualify. My speech was well thought out; I practiced it and timed myself, but the fear of running out of time or finishing too early got the best of me. If you end too soon or too late, your speech won’t qualify. When all was said and done, I met the time requirement, and even though I referred to my notes often, I was able to make good eye contact. My movement about the room wasn’t as much as I wanted it to be with fear of leaving my notes at the podium and time slipping away.

Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse

I’ve watched other seasoned members give speeches that appeared so seamless, not an index card or notes anywhere to be seen. I asked one of the members who seemed to have a knack for giving speeches how he was able to do so with such ease. He told me he rehearses his speech at least 40 times until he memorizes it. Forty times! This is when adult and child learning theory collided, and I realized the reason I could not memorize the way I used to is because I am not a child any longer. My sponge has been wrung out. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure I could still utilize the memorization skills of my younger years, but as an adult, I realize it’s not as easy as it used to be. Of course, when I was younger, it didn’t seem easy either.

As a child learner, your main concern is remembering the information long enough to get through a quiz or test, whereas as an adult, learning is organized around life/work situations and relevant to real-life tasks. Motivation is different, as well. Children primarily are motivated around grades or consequences of failure, while adults are motivated by recognition, self-esteem, and self-confidence. So why is memorization so difficult for adults? According to the American Psychological Association, the brain’s volume peaks in the early 20s and gradually declines for the rest of life. In the 40s, the cortex starts to shrink. Neurons (nerve cells) begin to shrink or deteriorate. (Association, 2006)

So for me, it seems all downhill from here, unless I can retrain my brain. I do remember some things for the most part, such as to empty the dishwasher, pick up my son from school, return library books, and pay bills. So the question is: If I can do this, why can’t I memorize a speech? Personally, the answer for me is because it takes a lot of effort. Remembering some things is the result of habit, which is why I remember to do them (most of the time). Memorizing words on a page is a nightmarish flashback to my school days.

Remember This

In an effort to start improving memory everywhere, specifically my own, here are some things that might help:

  1. Read. I’ve been trying to do more of this lately. I have heard that if you read out loud, you are even more likely to remember (see, I remembered that)! However, I don’t recommend this if you are in a public place, for obvious reasons. If you can listen to books on CD or stream them through your phone, that could help, as well.
  2.  Visualize what you need to remember. For example, if you need to remember to buy dog food, picture your dog sitting beside his empty bowl.
  3.  Learn something before bed. You are more likely to remember something when your brain is less bogged down.
  4. Drink red wine. I could really get behind this one. Researchers from Oxford University say half a glass of red wine improves cognitive ability and memory.
  5. Eat chocolate. Oxford University tested 2,000 volunteers who proved the theory that memory can be improved by eating chocolate. Thank you, Oxford University scientists!

As a member of the Learning and Development community, memorization is not a requirement, but keeping your mind sharp can only improve your capacity to accomplish so much more. So I encourage you to eat some chocolate and drink a glass of wine—cheers to a new and improved memory!

Alaine Carrello is a senior trainer in Learning and Development at Verizon. She has been with Verizon Wireless for more than 20 years and has held many positions. Carrello has been in the Learning and Development organization since 2010. She is a Summa Cum Laude graduate of Bellevue University with a Bachelor’s degree in Adult Education. Creative writing is her passion, and she is on the path to completing her first book.


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