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Adjust Your Attitude to Boost Your Memory

If you often find yourself calling people "what’s his name", or the thing in your hand a "whatchamacallit", you may want to change your attitude. In a series of new experiments, researchers are finding that your preconceived views about learning can affect what it is you hope to remember. Memories, in part, seem to grow stronger or fade away based on where you stand in the nature versus nurture debate: Do you feel smart people are born that way, or can anyone become the next Albert Einstein under the right conditions?

Those who consider intelligence a natural gift—or the lack thereof the fault of bad genes—may have trouble recalling a fact they have just learned. On the other hand, those who believe that intelligence is something that can be acquired through dedication and hard work demonstrate more vibrant memories of things past. Jennifer Mangels, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University in New York, says that such flexible thinkers have better memories because they are less concerned about forgetting. "They look at a mistake at a more meaning based level, rather than superficially." she says.

As a result, explains Mangels, the brains of flexible thinkers process information in greater depth, increasing the likelihood of memorization. These latest revelations stem from research done on college students, but Mangels says that the right attitude may help at any age. Citing a study that compared senior university professors to elderly retirees, Mangels says that academics retain better memory skills—no surprises there.

"But it’s not that professors are brilliant." says Mangels. "It’s that they are engaged in the process of learning."

Flexible thinkers appear well suited for the "use it or lose it" philosophy of healthy aging, adds Mangels. Whether it’s teaching, reading a book or doing a crossword puzzle, keeping mentally engaged is thought to be one step you can take to prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

For those worried about school performance, a flexible view of learning is also linked to better grades. Studies led by Mangels’ colleague at Columbia University, Carol Dweck, show that flexible thinkers are more motivated, can better cope with and achieve higher goals in the face of academic adversity compared to those who have a set belief of intelligence. Picking up on this theme, Mangels recently tested some fifty college students to see if such attitudes might influence long-term memory.

As part of the study, which has yet to be published, about half of the students identified themselves as flexible learners; they believed that anyone could do well in school by working hard. The other half, who researchers dubbed the "entity theorists", said that being smart is essentially the luck of the draw.

Mangels’ team measured brain activity in students as they asked various questions dealing with humanities, science and geography. To ensure that both groups started on the same emotional playing field, Mangels rigged the test so that all the students would flunk. "We made sure that everyone experienced the same miserable sense of failure." she says.

Afterwards, the researchers told the students the correct answers, and then surprised them by giving them same test over again. The flexible learners remembered 8 percent more of the right answers than the students who believed intelligence is fixed.

According to brain imaging scans, the flexible learners also showed more sustained activity in the frontal and left posterior regions of the brain, a sign that they might remember the information for a longer time.

"It’s like preparing for work by doing some of it ahead of time." says Mangles, adding that a flexible mentality is good to pick up at any age. To improve your memory, don’t be afraid to admit that you may not know everything. And if you still call someone "what’s his name." keep motivated to get it right the next time. "Even when the chips are down, you can still learn." Mangels says.

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