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Why keeping a diary could be the key to a better memory

By Linda Blair

In the chaotic modern world, keeping a diary helps you to process and remember information

We love to read about the lives of other people. In recent years, as the popularity of many types of books have declined, sales figures for biographical and autobiographical memoirs have remained strong. At the same time, the proliferation of blogs and the use of social media to recount events in our daily lives has been vast. Everyone, it seems, wants to tell their story.

This isn’t surprising. Throughout the last century, a number of psychologists wrote about the powerful human need to make sense of one’s life. Erik Erikson described the lifelong desire to establish a unique identity and find a sense of purpose. His contemporary Abraham Maslow created a theory of “self-actualisation”, five sequential stages of human needs that culminate in the need to feel a sense of accomplishment and to achieve one’s unique potential. Clearly, recalling and making sense of our past helps us establish identity and purpose.

Nowadays, however, when we’re constantly tempted by distractions and besieged by more information than we can process, life can seem disorganised and chaotic. This, in turn, may cause us to doubt our memory and wonder if we’ll ever find clarity, direction and purpose.

One of the best ways to remember and make sense of what happens in your life is to keep a written diary. According to Arthur Applebee, Professor in the School of Education at Albany University in New York, keeping a record of personal events – either online or, better yet, by hand – enables you to reach more reasoned conclusions about what you’ve learned.

Writing down what you experience also improves substantially your ability to remember it later, as Martin Conway and Sue Gathercole showed in a series of experiments conducted at Lancaster University.

If you wish to make it as easy as possible to recall recent events accurately, the best time to do so is bedtime, as Agnes Szollosi and her colleagues at the University of Technology and Economics in Budapest discovered. They recruited 109 young adults and asked them to keep a daily diary for five days. Participants were given one of three sets of instructions: to record in the evening the events of that same day; to record in the morning events of the previous day; or to record in the evening events of the previous day.

Thirty days later, participants were asked to recall as much of what they’d recorded as possible. Those who’d kept their diary in the evenings – whether they recounted events of that same day or the day before – had greater and more accurate recall than participants who’d written their diary in the morning. The researchers suggest that this is because when we recall events just before bedtime, the memories are consolidated and stabilised during the sleep that follows.

If you’d like to increase the chance of remembering and making sense of your past, keep a written diary – and do so just before bedtime.

Linda Blair is a clinical psychologist, author of The Key To Calm. 

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