Sense journaling

A home-brewed way to strengthen episodic memory

Sense journaling

For several years and more intensely since COVID, certain factors have reared their heads, for me and for everyone, that scientists agree aren’t great for memory: increased anxiety, being inside more, being extremely online. After reading up on the research around things that keep it sharp, I realized that while certain types, like semantic (definitions, historical facts) and implicit (tying a knot, riding a bike), already get a lot of attention via the literature on learning, there’s not a lot out there about the improvement of episodic memory, the kind for specific autobiographical events.

Some of the factors I listed in the first paragraph affect this type most heavily. Things that predispose us to being more in our heads and less present mean fewer mental resources and less time on processing sense data, elaborating on it, and encoding it into memory in the first place; when retrieval time comes, the memory just isn’t as readily available. Coherent programs of behavior, like you might see in various types of therapy (CBT) or learning principles (retrieval practice), are largely absent. The best intervention known is aerobic exercise. (I’ve started that back up, too.)

From the reading I did do, I found some interesting leads. A while ago I started experimenting with a practice that seemed likely to work. There’s no way to see the actual effect size without real studies given that my sample size is 1, but it does bode well that, after a few weeks, things do seem to be happening. Remembering where I stashed something around the house seems easier. Others’ mileage will absolutely vary, though even if it’s total placebo effect, worst case is you end up with a bunch of (insane-looking snippets of) memories to look back on. ‘Trader Joe’s bulgogi,’ ‘dog crazy eyes’ — but of course. Fine dining, this was.

Week 1

  1. Get a physical notebook

  2. Divide the page into three columns

  3. Three times a day, write an entry:

    1. In the first column write the date and time

    2. Pick a moment from the last few hours — taking out the trash, cooking dinner, whatever — and think of three sensory features of that moment: things you saw, heard, felt, tasted, or smelled

    3. Write down one of them in the second column and the other two in the third column

  4. Sometime before you go to bed, look through your entries for the day

Week 2

Replace looking them over before going to sleep with quizzing yourself on them:

  • Fold the third column in half so you can only see the first two; use the item in the second column to try and recall what you wrote down in the third

Week 3

Increase the difficulty in other ways, e.g.:

  • writing more things in the third column
  • writing more entries you per day
  • reviewing entries from multiple days prior
  • hiding the second column and using only the date and time when quizzing

Title photo: Self-portrait, Salvator Rosa, c. 1647