The stress of taking an exam, competing on a quiz show or speaking in front of an audience can make you go blank in a minute. Sometimes even the best and most prepared will ‘blank out’ under the glare of the harsh spotlight. If you think you’re alone on this check out former 2012 Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry.
It’s painful to watch him blank out in front of a national TV audience of potential voters. He was proposing the elimination of three government departments to balance the national budget by the year 2020 if he were elected – “commerce, education and… and…” Well, the YouTube video says it all. Given three chances to remember the poor guy still drew a blank ON NATIONAL TV! In his own words… “Oops!”
Perry found out the hard way that stress is a big killer of memory. In fact, that’s the way we’re wired. When we’re stressed the adrenal gland releases cortisol that shuts the brain down. So stress instantly makes you dumb and it was meant to. That’s how we survived threatening situations back when man had to live by instincts and not intellect. “Don’t think just do!” was the message for surviving whatever life-threatening situation we were faced with in that hostile environment.
Today’s stressful situations are mostly intellectual so that same survival instinct becomes our enemy. Memory blocks are often caused by stress because our higher brain functions shut down in order to handle the potential danger. Here are my top three tips to prevent absent-mindedness and stress based memory loss.
1. Breathe deeply
This will relax the brain and help you get control (it helps with panic attacks too). Shallow breathing is great for the fight or flight response but it only makes things worse when you are under intellectual stress. Get some oxygen into the body and you’ll think clearer.
2. Look up
This is a natural response so it should be pretty easy. You’ll notice that people will naturally look up when they’re trying to think of an answer or you ask them for directions. By looking up you connect to your visual memory center, but the natural response to stress is to look down. Be aware of that and force yourself to look up instead. The answer really is up there!
And what was the third thing?… Oh! I almost forgot! (Just kidding)
3. Ask questions
A simple way to get around a mental block is to ask yourself questions about what you are looking for. The key here is to ask questions that you already know the answer to. I have named this technique “Shadow Memory” and it gets you into a good memory frame of mind.
For example if there’s a question about an explorers name on an exam, Christopher Columbus may come to mind instantly and then blocks everything else. This is okay unless it’s the wrong answer. To remove the block ask yourself specific questions that you already know the answer to… Like “What year did Columbus sail?” “What were the names of his ships?” or “Where did he eventually set foot on land?” It usually takes about three questions and the block will disappear. If you’ve lost your keys, ask “How many keys are on the chain?” “Who gave me the key chain?” or “What do the keys go to?” Next thing you know you’ll unlock your memory! (Get it? Unlock?)
If you’re ever threatened by a saber-toothed tiger, toss these tips out the window. But if it’s just a final exam or a moment on stage, they’ll surely help you survive your blanking out moment.