TIME

This Is the Easiest Productivity Hack in the History of Work

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You can literally do this in one second

To learn better, hit control-s and “outsource” your remembering.

In a new study, scientists found that people tackling a mental challenge on a computer did a better job if they saved the previous work they had been doing beforehand.

“Saving one file before studying a new file significantly improved memory for the contents of the new file,” the authors write. “Saving has the potential to significantly influence how people learn and remember.”

In a series of experiments, participants were instructed to study two PDF files and remember words it contained. Subjects did a better job remembering material from the second file if they successfully saved the first file before proceeding onto the second one.

“Saving allows us to maintain access to more data and experiences than would be possible otherwise,” says says Benjamin Storm, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and lead author of the study. “Memory now works in concert with technology, and by saving information we are able to keep that information from interfering with the learning of something new.”

The act of saving something digitally gives us a sense of reassurance that the information is there when we need it, which psychologically frees up our mind and allows us to focus on the next batch of information we need to learn. Essentially, we’re reallocating our mental resources.

“To maximize memory and productivity we need to be able to set stuff aside and move on to other matters,” Storm says.

In earlier research, he found that thinking of new things makes it harder to remember old thoughts. If you’re worrying if or when you’ll need to refer to earlier information in the future, hitting the “save” button or shortcut is a quick, easy and low-risk way way to virtually hang onto that information without forcing it to occupy the forefront of your mind.

“Saving may protect us from this type of thinking-induced forgetting by allowing us to think of new ideas while keeping our old ideas safely saved and out of the way,” Storm says.

Storm points out that his experiments just looked at what happens when someone saves a file before closing it and starting a new task, but he says it’s not a bad idea to save your work on a regular basis anyway.

When new information crowds out older thoughts, people can even forget their own ideas, Storm says. “Save or write down good ideas as soon as you get them,” he advises. “Even if you think you’re going to remember them, chances are that you won’t, especially if you continue to try to think of new ideas.”

TIME

Why Rape and Trauma Survivors Have Fragmented and Incomplete Memories

University Of Virginia Fraternity At Center Of Disputed Rolling Stone Magazine Story On Alleged Gang Rape Incident
The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house is seen on the University of Virginia campus on December 6, 2014 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Jay Paul—Getty Images

James Hopper, Ph.D., trains investigators, prosecutors, judges and military commanders on the neurobiology of sexual assault. David Lisak, Ph.D., is a forensic consultant, researcher, national trainer and the board president of 1in6.

In the midst of assault, the brain's fear circuitry takes over while other key parts are impaired or even effectively shut down. This is the brain reacting to a life-threatening situation just the way it is supposed to

A door opens and a police officer is suddenly staring at the wrong end of a gun. In a split second, his brain is hyper-focused on that gun. It is very likely that he will not recall any of the details that were irrelevant to his immediate survival: Did the shooter have a moustache? What color was the shooter’s hair? What was the shooter wearing?

The officer’s reaction is not a result of poor training. It’s his brain reacting to a life-threatening situation just the way it is supposed to—just the way the brain of a rape victim reacts to an assault. In the aftermath, the officer may be unable to recall many important details. He may be uncertain about many. He may be confused about many. He may recall some details inaccurately. Simultaneously, he will recall certain details – the things his brain focused on – with extraordinary accuracy. He may well never forget them. All of this, too, is the human brain working the way it was designed to work.

Last week, Rolling Stone issued a note about their story of a gang rape at the University of Virginia after reports surfaced of discrepancies in the victim’s accounting. We cannot comment on that particular and clearly complex case without knowing the facts. But in our training of police investigators, prosecutors, judges, university administrators and military commanders, we’ve found that it’s helpful to share what’s known about how traumatic experiences affect the functioning of three key brain regions.

First, let’s consider the prefrontal cortex. This part of our brain is responsible for “executive functions,” including focusing attention where we choose, rational thought processes and inhibiting impulses. You are using your prefrontal cortex right now to read this article and absorb what we’ve written, rather than getting distracted by other thoughts in your head or things going on around you. But in states of high stress, fear or terror like combat and sexual assault, the prefrontal cortex is impaired – sometimes even effectively shut down – by a surge of stress chemicals. Most of us have probably had the experience of being suddenly confronted by an emergency, one that demands some kind of clear thinking, and finding that precisely when we need our brain to work at its best, it seems to become bogged down and unresponsive. When the executive center of the our brain goes offline, we are less able to willfully control what we pay attention to, less able to make sense of what we are experiencing, and therefore less able to recall our experience in an orderly way.

Inevitably, at some point during a traumatic experience, fear kicks in. When it does, it is no longer the prefrontal cortex running the show, but the brain’s fear circuitry – especially the amygdala. Once the fear circuitry takes over, it – not the prefrontal cortex – controls where attention goes. It could be the sound of incoming mortars or the cold facial expression of a predatory rapist or the grip of his hand on one’s neck. Or, the fear circuitry can direct attention away from the horrible sensations of sexual assault by focusing attention on otherwise meaningless details. Either way, what gets attention tends to be fragmentary sensations, not the many different elements of the unfolding assault. And what gets attention is what is most likely to get encoded into memory.

The brain’s fear circuitry also alters the functioning of a third key brain area, the hippocampus. The hippocampus encodes experiences into short-term memory and can store them as long-term memories. Fear impairs the ability of the hippocampus to encode and store “contextual information,” like the layout of the room where the rape happened. Fear also impairs its ability to encode time sequencing information, like whether the perpetrator ripped off a shirt before or after saying “you want this.”

Our understanding of the altered functioning of the brain in traumatic situations is founded on decades of research, and as that research continues, it is giving us a more nuanced view of the human brain “on trauma.” Recent studies suggest that the hippocampus goes into a super-encoding state briefly after the fear kicks in. Victims may remember in exquisite detail what was happening just before and after they realized they were being attacked, including context and the sequence of events. However, they are likely to have very fragmented and incomplete memories for much of what happens after that.

These advances in our understanding of the impact of trauma on the brain have enormous implications for the criminal justice system. It is not reasonable to expect a trauma survivor – whether a rape victim, a police officer or a soldier – to recall traumatic events the way they would recall their wedding day. They will remember some aspects of the experience in exquisitely painful detail. Indeed, they may spend decades trying to forget them. They will remember other aspects not at all, or only in jumbled and confused fragments. Such is the nature of terrifying experiences, and it is a nature that we cannot ignore.

James Hopper, Ph.D., is an independent consultant and Instructor in Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He trains investigators, prosecutors, judges and military commanders on the neurobiology of sexual assault. David Lisak, Ph.D., is a forensic consultant, researcher, national trainer and the board president of 1in6, a non-profit that provides information and services to men who were sexually abused as children.

Read next: It’s Women Who Suffer When We Don’t Ask Questions

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME psychology

How Memory Links the Presidency, Ferguson and the Cosby Mess

Do you know me? Relax, you're not alone.
Do you know me? Relax, you're not alone.

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

The human brain forgets much more than it remembers, and that has an impact on history, criminal justice and more

Here’s a difficult one, history buffs: Who was Harry Truman? I know, I know, I told you it would be tough, but think hard: Some famous general? Maybe a physicist?

If you guessed U.S. president, good for you! And if you also knew that Truman was the one who came right after Roosevelt (Franklin, that is) and right before Eisenhower, go to the head of the class.

OK, so maybe remembering Truman isn’t such a big deal. But here’s the thing: By 2040, according to a new study just published in Science, only 26% of college students will remember to include his name if they are asked to make a list of all U.S. Presidents, regardless of order.

That finding, which is less a function of historical illiteracy than of the mysterious ways the human brain works, reveals a lot about the perishability of memory. And that, in turn, has implications for contemporary dramas like the Ferguson tragedy, the Bill Cosby mess and the very underpinnings of the criminal justice system.

The Science study, conducted by a pair of psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis, was actually four studies that took place over 40 years—in 1974, 1991, 2009 and 2014. In the first three, the investigators asked groups of then-college students to list all of the presidents in the order in which they served, and also to list as many of them as they could by name regardless of where they fell in history.

In all three groups over all three eras, the results were remarkably similar. As a rule, 100% of respondents knew the president currently serving, and virtually all knew the prior one or two. Performance then fell off with each previous presidency. Roughly 75% of students in 1974 placed FDR in the right spot, for example. Fewer than 20% of Millennials—born much later—could do that. In all groups, the historical trail would go effectively cold one or two presidents before the subjects’ birth—falling into single digits.

There were exceptions. The Founding Father presidents, particularly the first three—George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—scored high in all groups. As did Abraham Lincoln and his two immediate successors, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant. As for the Tylers and Taylors and Fillmores? Forget about them—which most people did. The pattern held again in a single larger survey conducted in 2014, with a mixed-age sample group that included Boomers, Gen X’ers and Millennials, all performing true to their own eras.

Almost none of this had to do with any one President’s historical relevance—apart from the Founding Fathers and Lincoln. James Polk’s enormously consequential, one-term presidency is far less recalled than, say, Jimmy Carter’s much less successful four-year stint. Instead, our memory is personal, a thing of the moment, and deeply fallible—and that means trouble.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Ferguson drama is the mix of wildly different stories eyewitnesses presented to the grand jury, with Michael Brown portrayed as anything from anger-crazed aggressor to supine victim. Some witnesses may have been led by prosecutors, some may have simply been making things up, but at least some were surely doing their best, trying to remember the details of a lethal scene as it unfolded in a few vivid seconds.

If forensic psychology has shown anything, it’s that every single expectation or bias a witness brings to an experience—to say nothing of all of the noise and press and controversy that may follow—can contaminate recall until it’s little more reliable than that of someone who wan’t there at all.

Something less deadly—if no less ugly—applies in the Bill Cosby case. In an otherwise reasonable piece in the Nov. 25 Washington Post, columnist Kathleen Parker cautions against a collective rush to judgment and reminds readers that under the American legal system, Cosby is not a rapist, but an alleged rapist; and his victims, similarly, are as yet only alleged victims. Fair enough; that’s what the criminal justice rules say. But then, there’s this:

“…we have formed our opinions… only on the memories of the women, most of whom say they were drugged at the time. Some of them have conceded that their recollections are foggy—which, of course they would be, after decades and under pharmaceutically induced circumstances, allegedly.”

In other words, if Cosby did drug them, then perhaps we must throw their testimony out of court because, um, Cosby drugged them. Talk about the (alleged) criminal making hay on his crime. And yet, when it comes to the science of memory, that’s an argument that could work before a judge.

Finally, too, there is the unseemly business of Ray Rice. Virtually nobody who knows what he did has forgotten it—which is what happens when you’re a massively strong athlete and you cold-cock a woman. But it was the complete elevator video actually showing the blow, as opposed to the earlier one in which Rice was seen merely dragging the unconscious body of his soon-to-be-wife out into a hotel hallway, that spelled his end—at least until his lifetime NFL ban was overturned on Nov. 28. Knowing what happened is very different from seeing what happened—and once you saw the savagery of Rice’s blow, you could never unsee it.

When it comes to presidents, the fallibility of memory can help. In the years immediately following Richard Nixon’s resignation, it was a lot harder to appreciate his manifest triumphs—the Clean Air Act, the opening to China—than it is now. George W. Bush is enjoying his own small historical rebound, with his AIDS in Africa initiative and his compassionate attempt at immigration reform looking better and better in the rear-view mirror—despite the still-recent debacles of his Presidency.

We do ourselves a disservice if we hold historical grudges against even our most flawed presidents; but we do just as much harm if we allow ourselves to forget why ill-planned land wars in countries like Iraq or cheap break-ins at places like the Watergate are so morally criminal. Forget the sequence of the Presidents if you must, but do remember their deeds.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Aging

Why Complex Jobs Protect Aging Brains Better

The more engaging your job, the sharper your thinking skills

Studies show that there are a lot of things you can do to preserve your intellect—stay social and interact with as many friends and family as you can, learn new things (especially languages), go to new places and stay physically active. If there’s any time left over, consider getting a more engaging career. There’s now evidence that what you do to make a living can also help to preserve your brain power.

Reporting in the journal Neurology, scientists at the University of Edinburgh found that the more complex a person’s job is, the more likely they are to score higher on memory tests and general cognitive skills when they reach age 70.

MORE: Cocoa May Help With Memory Loss, a New Study Finds

The team recruited about 1,000 69-year-olds who were part of the Lothian Birth Cohort, a database that included people born in the Scottish town in 1936. At age 11, the participants had taken IQ tests so the researchers could compare those scores to cognitive tests given to them at age 70.

In the study, researchers assessed their occupations by their complexity, based on how much interaction with people, data or things the job required. Complex “people” jobs, for example, include lawyer, social worker, surgeon or probation officer, compared to less socially complex jobs like factory worker, or painter. Complex “data” occupations include architect, graphic designer and musician, while less complex data jobs include construction worker, cafeteria worker or telephone operator. Finally, people working in more intricate ways with “things” would include machine workers and those who make instruments, while bank managers and surveyors might rank as having simpler interactions with things.

When the scientists compared occupations with cognitive tests at age 70, they found that people with more complex people and data jobs scored higher on memory, speed and general thinking skills than those with less involved jobs in these areas. People with more complex data-related jobs also scored much better on processing and speed skills.

MORE: 5 Secrets to Improve Learning and Memory

But when the researchers factored in the effect of the participants’ IQ at age 11—in other words, their starting intellect—they found that the influence of the jobs remained, though it shrunk a bit. “People who have higher cognitive ability to begin with are those more likely to have more complex jobs,” says Alan Gow, assistant professor of psychology at University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University and one of the study’s co-authors. “Once we account for that, the association between more complex jobs and better cognitive outcomes is reduced, but there remains a small additional benefit for our cognitive abilities from being in more complex jobs.”

In fact, he says, the strongest predictor of cognitive abilities at age 70 is intellect earlier in life. So the IQ of the participants at age 11 accounted for about 50% of the variance in test scores when they reached 70. Jobs can add to that effect. The stronger the cognitive starting point, the more brain reserve people might have as the normal processes of aging start erode some nerve connections involved in higher order thinking. Having a complex job that requires constant activation of these neural networks, and formation of new connections, can also contribute to building this reserve capacity.

Gow admits, however, that the study did not take into account how long people stuck with the jobs, so there may yet be a stronger effect of occupation on later life intellect the longer people stay with a complex job. Given the results, he and his team are eagerly following the 70-year olds to see if occupation and other factors can influence their cognitive functions. Now, they’re studying brain images of the volunteers to find changes in volume in certain thinking areas of the brain, as well as connections in the nerve network that’s responsible for higher order skills like processing, memory and reasoning.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

How Trans Fat Eats Away at Your Memory

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Eating lots of trans fats has been linked to memory impairment

What’s the opposite of brain food?

Trans fat, finds a new study presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2014. Eating a lot of the compound that magically rejuvenates junk food that should have expired long ago is linked to higher rates of memory impairment.

After analysis of food questionnaires and memory tests from about 1,000 adult men, trans fat intake was linked to worse memory in people under age 45, even after controlling for mind-influencing factors like age, depression and education. Every gram of trans fat eaten per day was linked to 0.76 fewer words recalled. Put another way? Those who ate the most trans fat remembered 11 fewer words.

MORE: 7 Foods That Wouldn’t Be The Same If Trans Fats Are Banned

That relationship eased when researchers adjusted for BMI and blood pressure, and a study like this can’t prove cause and effect. But the study author believes trans fat may be contributing to oxidative stress, a cell-damaging process. Trans fat appears to be a pro-oxidant: the opposite of an antioxidant. And indeed, prior research from the study’s lead author, Beatrice A. Golomb, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at the University of California-San Diego, found that antioxidant-rich chocolate is linked to better word recall.

We’re not eating as much trans fat as we used to: a recent study found that between 1980-2009, we cut down on trans fats about 35% thanks to regulations and reformulations. Still, trans fat is the bane of every health nut’s label-reading experience—it travels under sneaky ingredient adjectives like “partially hydrogenated” and can even creep into foods labeled “0 grams of trans fat.”

But as hard as it is to figure out whether or not your snack contains trans fat, what the compound does to your brain is even more cognitively complex. “From a health standpoint, trans fat consumption has been linked to higher body weight, more aggression and heart disease,” Golomb said in a press release. “As I tell patients, while trans fats increase the shelf life of foods, they reduce the shelf life of people,” Golomb said.

Read next: The Surefire Way To Eat Healthier

TIME Careers & Workplace

1 Trick to Remember Even the Most Boring Information

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Katie Black Photography—Getty Images/Flickr RF

If you're not curious, you should be

Facing the unpleasant task of having to commit some dull facts or figures to memory? Now you don’t have to be that person fumbling for their notes or clicking frantically through slides during an important presentation. To kick your ability to recall information into overdrive, try piquing your curiosity, a new study suggests.

People are better at learning and remembering information they’re genuinely interested in, but researchers have discovered that a state of curiosity has a kind of halo effect on other, incidental or unrelated information we’re exposed to at the same time.

An NPR article points out this principle is useful for teachers who want to engage students by framing a lesson as a story or riddle, but as it turns out, the idea also might benefit grown-ups in the workforce.

“I think there are some useful ideas that can come out of our study with regard to adult learning,” says Charan Ranganath, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis and one of the study’s authors, although he does caution that this is speculative.

Ranganath and his co-authors presented experiment subjects with both interesting and incidental information, and watched how these people processed it using MRIs. They found that a state of curiosity stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers.

What’s so special about curiosity that it has such a powerful effect? Ranganath suggests it’s an evolutionary response. “We are starting to think that the feeling of curiosity reflects a natural drive to reduce uncertainty in your understanding of the world,” he says. “So when you know something about a topic, but then find there is a gaping hole in your knowledge, you will feel the itch to get to the bottom of it,” he says.

Ranganath and his colleagues theorize this might be why we’re more receptive to remembering ancillary details unrelated to the object of our curiosity. “Our work suggests that the motivational state of high curiosity can help you more effectively retain what you learn,” he says.

If you’re faced with a memory task that doesn’t grab your attention, Ranganath suggests tricking your brain into engaging with the information by pinpointing a gap in your knowledge about a topic that interests you, then investigating it, before tackling the chore at hand. “If you have to learn something, it is important to stimulate your curiosity,” he says.

TIME Gadgets

SanDisk 512GB Memory Card: Big Storage, Big Price

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SanDisk

SanDisk has announced a memory card with roughly half a terabyte of storage. If you’re reading this on a laptop, that might be as large or larger than your entire hard drive. If you’re reading this on a phone, it’s definitely larger than your phone’s entire storage — probably at least 10x as much. SanDisk touts the card as “the world’s highest-capacity SD card on the market.”

The “SanDisk Extreme PRO SDXC UHS-I Memory Card 512GB” — just rolls right off the tongue, no? — carries a retail price of $800 and is targeted at professional photographers and videographers. If you’ve got $800 to burn and need a significant storage bump for your computer, though, this could do the trick. (It won’t work in smartphones: this is a full-size card, not a microSD card.)

Adorama has it for $729 with an estimated late-September ship date. B&H also has it for $729 but the ship date isn’t until mid-October.

[SanDisk]

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

Less Than 5 Hours of Sleep Leads to False Memories

Skimping on sleep wears down your body in so many ways: it worsens cognitive function, slows reaction time, and makes learning more difficult. (The list goes on and on: after reading our new feature about the power of sleep, you might just scare yourself sleepy.)

That’s quite enough consequences without piling on the results of a recent study in Psychological Science, which found that sleep deprivation is linked to false memories. Among the 193 people tested, those who got 5 or fewer hours of sleep for just one night were significantly more likely to say they’d seen a news video when they actually hadn’t.

There’s more than just fantastical daydreaming at stake. False memories in the form of eyewitness misidentifications are thought to be the number-one cause of wrongful convictions in the U.S., the study authors write, so sleep deprivation could have consequences beyond the scope of your own health.

The study also discovered that students were more prone to researchers’ false suggestions when they hadn’t slept more than five hours. They wove those suggestions into their responses 38% of the time, while the group that got plenty of sleep did so 28% of the time. That’s probably because sleep deprivation leads to problems encoding new information, the authors write.

“Our results also suggest that total sleep deprivation may not be necessary to increase false memory,” they write in the study. Losing just a few hours could be enough to lead you to dream up facts during waking life.

TIME psychology

Hooray for the Mundane! Ordinary Memories Are the Best

Life's peak experiences sometimes pale in comparison with the routine business of living, a new study shows. That "what is ordinary now becomes more extraordinary in the future" can have some positive implications for our state of mind

Never mind those dreamy recollections of your fab trip to Rome or that perfect night out last Valentine’s Day. Want a memory with some real sizzle? How about that time last week you went out for a tuna sandwich with the guy in the next cubicle? Or that trip to the supermarket on Sunday? Hot stuff, eh?

Actually, yes. Ordinary memories, it turns out, may be a lot less ordinary than they seem — or at least a lot more memorable — according to a nifty new study published in the journal Psychological Science. And that can have some positive implications for our state of mind.

It’s not entirely surprising that the experiences we often think should have the greatest impact on us sometimes don’t. For one thing, we tend to expect too much of them. The first time you stand in the Colosseum or stare up at the Eiffel Tower is a gobsmacker all right, but while those moments nicely enhance your life, they typically don’t change them. What’s more, in the weeks and years that follow, we tend to rerun the memory loop of the experience over and over and over again. Like a song you hear too much, it finally becomes too familiar. To test how much we underestimate — yet genuinely appreciate — the appeal of our more mundane experiences, a group of researchers at Harvard University’s school of business devised a multipart study.

In the first part, 106 undergraduate volunteers were asked to compile an online, nine-item time capsule that included such unremarkable items as an inside joke they share with somebody, a list of three songs they were currently listening to, a recent status update on Facebook, an excerpt from a final class paper and a few recollections of a recent social event. They sealed the virtual capsule at the beginning of summer and were asked to predict how interested they’d be, on a scale of 1 to 7, in rereading each item when they reopened it a few months later, and how surprised they thought they’d be by the details of the contents.

After the students did get that opportunity at the beginning of the fall semester, they used the same 1-to-7 scale to rate how meaningful and interesting they found the items. On item after item, the interest, curiosity and surprise they felt was significantly higher than what they had anticipated three months earlier.

In the second part of the study, a different pool of participants did something similar, but this time wrote about a recent conversation they had, rated it on whether it was an ordinary or extraordinary one (what they had for dinner the night before, say, compared with the news of a new romantic interest), and predicted again how interested they thought they’d be about reading the description a few months down the line. Here too they wound up lowballing those predictions — finding themselves much more interested than they predicted they’d be. And significantly, the more mundane the conversation they described was, the wider the gap between their anticipated interest in it and their actual interest when they reread the description.

The third part of the study replicated the second, but this time used only volunteers who did have a romantic partner, and asked them to describe and anticipate their later interest in an ordinary evening the two of them had spent on or before Feb. 8, 2013, and the one they’d spent one week later, on Feb. 14. Here too the Valentine date did less well than the subjects expected compared with the surprise and pleasure they felt in reading about the routine date.

“What is ordinary now becomes more extraordinary in the future,” said lead researcher Ting Zhang, in a statement that accompanied the study’s release. “People find a lot of joy in rediscovering a music playlist from three months ago or an old joke with a neighbor, even if those things did not seem particularly meaningful in the moment.”

One way to correct this imbalance — to take more pleasure in the day-to-day, nothing-special business of living — is merely to try to be more cognizant of those moments as they go by. Another, say Zhang and her colleagues, is to document them more, either by writing them down or, in the social-media era, by sharing them. But there are limits.

“[T]he 5,000 pictures from one’s ‘extraordinary’ wedding may be excessive,” the researchers write. The same is true, they warn, about photo-documenting every plate of food that’s set in front of you rather than just getting down to the pleasurable business of eating it — a practice that they say is leading to “an unhealthy narcissism” growing society-wide. Recording our lives for the biopics that are constantly playing out in our heads is fine, but sometimes that has to give way simply to living those lives.

TIME health

12 Unexpected Things That Mess With Your Memory

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You regularly ransack the house to find your keys. You suddenly can’t recall the name of your kid’s teacher. You made your six-month dentist appointment three months late. Sound familiar? Fear not: most forgetfulness isn’t anything serious, says Majid Fotuhi, MD, PhD, founder and chief medical officer of NeurExpand Brain Center in Luterville, MD and co-author of The Memory Cure. Lack of sleep, certain medications, and even stress can impact your memory. “Fortunately, your brain is malleable, meaning it changes and improves,” says Dr. Fotuhi. “Memory can be boosted with simple powerful interventions.” Here are surprising things that impact your memory in both good and not-so-good ways.

A dysfunctional thyroid

When your thyroid’s out of whack, you may feel too hot, too cold, anxious, depressed—and your memory may also be lagging. “Although the thyroid doesn’t have a specific role in the brain, memory loss is the one thing a person notices when it stops functioning normally,” says Dr. Fotuhi. A butterfly-shaped gland that sits along the front of your windpipe, the thyroid reigns over almost all your body’s metabolic processes. “People with high or low thyroid levels—which are very common in women—may have difficulty with memory and concentration,” he says. Ask your doctor for a simple thyroid test to determine if it’s the culprit behind your memory problems.

Health.com: 19 Signs Your Thyroid Isn’t Working Right

Hot flashes

Every time hot flashes make you you feel like sticking your head in the freezer, you may also feel a fog rolling into your brain. “The more hot flashes a woman experiences during menopause, the worse her ability to remember names and stories,” says Dr. Fotuhi. “Fortunately, hot flashes don’t damage the brain in any way. Memory improves once the hot flashes subside.” Other menopause-related symptoms contribute to memory loss, including insomnia and sleep apnea, Dr. Fotuhi says.

Lack of sleep

Last night’s late party makes it less likely you’ll remember your new coworker’s name the next day. “While some part of the brain takes a siesta when we sleep, deeper areas involved with memory and emotional response become relatively more active,” says Allen Towfigh, MD, medical director of New York Neurology & Sleep Medicine. “Individuals with sleep deprivation and sleep disorders not only suffer from impaired memory but also daytime fatigue, impaired attention, and reduced reaction time.” The standard recommendation of eight hours of sleep a night doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. If you wake up fatigued and fall asleep unintentionally during the day, then you may need more sleep, says Dr. Towfigh.

Health.com: How to Fake a Good Night’s Sleep

Anxiety and depression

Worrying about an upcoming presentation in front of the CEO may also hinder your memory, several studies show. “We don’t understand the exact link, but strong evidence indicates depression, anxiety, and bipolar disease disrupts the neural circuitry involved in developing and retrieving memories,” says Dr. Towfigh. “The severity of the memory loss often mirrors the severity of the mood disorder—severe depression brings about equally severe memory loss.” Prolonged periods of everyday stress increase cortisol levels in the brain, which causes our brain cells to lose synapses (the bridges that connect our brain cells to one another), and make it more difficult to create and retrieve memories. The good news is when memory loss exists with a mood disorder (including anxiety and depression), the memory loss is usually at least partially reversible. “As the individual’s mood improves, often so does the memory loss,” says Dr. Towfigh.

Prescription drugs

Check your medicine cabinet: many common prescription drugs can make you feel forgetful. Anxiety disorder meds like Xanax, Valium, and Ativan (which are benzodiazepines) put a damper on the part of the brain that moves events from the short-term to the long-term memory. Tricyclic antidepressants have a similar effect. Heart medicines including statins and beta blockers have also been linked to memory issues, as have narcotic painkillers, incontinence drugs, sleep aids, and even antihistamines like Benadryl. Bottom line: Don’t stop taking your (potentially life-saving) medications, but talk to your doc if you believe any drug you’re on may be messing with your memory.

Smoking

If you’re still smoking, that may help explain memory lapses. “Smoking damages the brain by impairing its blood supply,” says Dr. Towfigh. Research published in the Archives of General Psychiatry gathered from data obtained from more than 7,000 men and women found a more rapid decline in brain function (which included memory along with vocabulary and other brain functions) with age than from those who never smoked. “Furthermore, cigarette smoking promotes the accumulation of abnormal proteins which impair the brain’s ability to process and relay information,” says Dr. Towfigh.

Health.com: 15 Ways Smoking Ruins Your Looks

A high-fat diet

Greasy burgers and French fries pack on pounds and are hard on your heart—and they may also cause memory issues. One study revealed that adolescent mice had poorer learning and memory skills after being fed a high-fat diet for eight weeks, while another study on middle-aged rats found that the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for short-term memory) may be particularly vulnerable to the impact of high-fat diets.

More research is needed to determine for sure whether or not high-fat diets impact human memory, but here’s what we do know: Calorically dense diets promote type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease, which can all do damage to our brains, says Dr. Towfigh. “This holds true earlier in life, too. Studies link childhood obesity with a reduced attention span and impaired concentration and focus.”

Stress

A sudden emergency can make it tough to recall something as simple as your home address. A rat study published in Neuron shows that stress hormones influence an area of the brain area that controls working memory. Researchers found that repeated stress reduced receptors in the part of the brain that’s connected to thought processes Although this study involved animals, the human brain works similarly, explains Dr. Towfigh. “Repeated or chronic stress can be harmful. Regular exposure to elevated glucocorticoids (a hormone released by the adrenal gland) also causes our brain cells to reduce receptors, making brain cells less capable of responding to neurochemical (brain chemicals) cues.” Finding ways to relieve stress may help: Practicing meditation does double duty by easing stress and helping improve memory, according to a study from the University of California, Santa Barbara. College students who completed eight 45-minute meditation sessions over two weeks increased their average GRE exam scores from 460 to 520 and showed improvement on tests of working memory.

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Germs

A nasty cold sore does more than make you feel self-conscious—it may be messing with your memory, according to a 2013 study in Neurology. Researchers found that people who exposed to many germs, such as herpes simplex type 1 (the cold sore virus), over their lifetimes were more likely to have memory problems than those exposed to fewer germs. Among more than 1,600 study participants, those with a higher “infectious burden” had a 25% increase in the risk of a low score on a cognitive test. Although there is no vaccine for the cold sore virus, childhood vaccinations against other viruses could help prevent problems later in life, the researchers suggest. In addition, regular exercise may help too—doctors think repeated infections may damage blood vessels, since a high infectious burden is also linked to a greater risk of stroke and heart attack.

Green tea

Now for some good news: chemicals found in green tea may help improve your memory, according to a University of Basel study. “Several compounds, EGCG and L-theanine, in green tea increase neurogenesis (growth of new brain cells) in the hippocampus, the part of the brain used for short-term memory and learning new things,” says Dr. Fotuhi. How much green tea has not yet been determined, says Dr. Fotuhi, who recommends combining green tea with other healthy habits such as exercise for greatest memory improvement benefits.

Exercise

Regular sweat sessions also help keep memories sharp. “Physical exercise improves mood and sleep and by doing so, it invariably improves cognition and memory,” says Dr. Towfigh. An animal study published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity, for example, showed daily exercise increased brain cell growth after 12 weeks of conditioned running. Dr. Fotuhi recommends 45 minutes of aerobic exercise four days a week for the best memory boost.

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Vitamin B12 deficiency

Vegetarians and vegans are at a higher risk of being deficient in vitamin B12, which keeps the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and helps make DNA. That’s because B12 occurs naturally only in animal foods: shellfish, meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy. In addition to fatigue, loss of appetite, constipation, and weight loss, a B12 deficiency can also lead to memory problems. If you feel your meatless diet may be affecting your memory, your doctor can give you a blood test that determines whether you should be taking a vitamin B12 supplement.

Note: it’s not just veggies who are at risk for a B12 deficiency. Pregnant women, older adults, and anyone with pernicious anemia or gastrointestinal disorders like celiac disease and Crohn’s disease may need supplementation.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

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