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How The Brain Remembers to Remember

'don't forget' note on a clothesline
'don't forget' note on a clothesline

Have you ever forgotten about an appointment? After making the appointment, you probably told yourself that you had to remember to go -- but when the time came, you didn't realize you had someplace to be until you were already 10 minutes late.

This type of memory -- remembering to remember -- is called prospective memory. And now, new research has revealed two different brain processes used in this kind memory, that could lead to ways of improving our ability to remember.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, involved having study participants lie in an fMRI machine while they looked at words that came across a screen. The words fell into two categories. When a word that fell into the first category came up, study participants were supposed to press an assigned button that corresponded with that category; ditto for the second category. There were also special targets that came up on the screen during this experiment; when one of these targets came up, there was a third button study participants were supposed to press.

The special targets portion of the study was designed to test prospective memory, since participants were required to remember to take an action in response to a specific event in the future (the appearance of a special target).

Based on the data from the fMRI, researchers found two different brain activation patterns when the correct button was pressed for special targets. These special targets included whole words and random syllables. When one of the syllable targets appeared, something called a "top-down brain process" occurred. This process, which is supported by the brain's prefrontal cortex, requires the participant to constantly pay attention and monitor the screen for the special target. It would be similar to constantly reminding yourself about your appointment so that you didn’t miss it.

However, when the special target was a whole word, similar to those found in the other task, the brain saw it as a reminder to push the third button. This brain process would be equivalent to the idea of setting a reminder on your phone to get you to the appointment on time.

“These findings suggest that people could make use of several different strategies to accomplish prospective memory tasks,” study researcher, Mark Daniel, Professor of Psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, said in a statement.

Another thing that could potentially help with memory? Clenching your fist, according to a study published earlier this year in the journal PLOS ONE.

For more tips on improving your memory, check out this blog post from Huff/Post 50 blogger Jan Dougherty.

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