Have an easier time singing songs from your childhood than remembering your new neighbor’s name? You’re not alone.
If you’ve scrolled through social media lately, you’ve probably seen videos filled with butterfly clips and bubble shirts. And you’ve probably sung along to the song playing in the background, even though you haven’t heard it in years.
But when you meet a new coworker or a parent at your child’s school, their name slips your memory as soon as they’re out of your sight. So frustrating!
So, why can we remember song lyrics from years past but not something we learned just the other day?
How your memory works
Your memory is your brain’s ability to store information and retrieve it later. When it comes to memory, your brain has three main functions: encoding, storage and retrieval.
Encoding is the process of making new memories. “Most of what’s stored this way is outside our awareness,” says Dr. Glen Finney, behavioral neurologist at Geisinger, “meaning we often don’t know that we know something until we need the information.”
When we pull these memories from storage, that’s the retrieval process in action. But how does our brain know what to store and what to forget?
This is where short-term and long-term memory come into play. Short-term memory stores information you need to know now, like ideas about a project you’re working on or dates you need to cram in just before that test. This type of memory is limited compared to long-term memory, which translates certain things from your short-term memory.
And then there’s motor memory, also known as procedural memory, which plays a role in how and why we can so easily remember song lyrics. When we hear a song we like, we’re tempted to sing along.
“The act of singing along many times makes remembering lyrics part of your motor memory,” says Dr. Finney. “And we can recall anything stored as motor memory without much effort. Just like we can ride a bike or swim easily, even if it’s been a while.”
The science behind rhyme, rhythm and repetition
Rhyme and rhythm together help give our brain a cadence of words that are easier to remember. This plays a role in why it’s easier for us to remember a song, and it’s something we can use to our advantage in everyday life.
Think about how many times you studied your history index cards to prepare for a test. Or how many times you’ve listened to a particular song.
Repeated exposure to anything increases your chances of remembering it, especially when it’s something you really care about, like your favorite band’s latest track. Or the name of your child’s soccer coach.
Memory tips to give your brain a boost
So, how can you remember more than just song lyrics? Here are a few of our favorite ways to increase your brain power:
Repetition and rhyme are a fun way to help you remember. If you’re helping the kids study for a test, come up with a fun rhyme to remember key facts. Think how “leaves of three, let it be” helped you avoid poison ivy. Then repeat, repeat, repeat.
Word association is another great tool that can help you remember things as simple as someone’s name. Just met another Sarah? Try using the place you met them to remember their name. “If you meet them at a football game, picture them holding a football while you’re talking to them,” says Dr. Finney.
Write it down. Taking the time to write something down gives your brain the opportunity to implant a memory. Plus, you can always reference your notes later. There’s a reason you took all those notes in school!
Practicing focus and mindfulness can help improve your memory, too. “Paying attention to the moment, focusing wholly on conversations with new people or old friends, can help improve your memory, too,” says Dr. Finney.