Can Journaling Improve Memory? (Yes, Here’s How & Why)

Maili
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Last updated on June 14, 2020

It’s fairly obvious that jotting things down can help you remember them. From shopping lists to diaries, people have used writing as a memory aid since the dawn of written language. But can journaling improve your memory on a larger scale?

The evidence says yes. Journaling has many positive effects on your mental health and functioning, including improved memory. Of course, just writing things down does not make you a memory champion, but there are definitely some benefits to reap if you know how to journal.

In this article, I will take a look at the ways journaling can improve your memory, and share some tips on how to journal for maximum benefits.

Journaling, gratitude, mindfulness, and introspection. What do all these things have in common? It’s that they’re all significantly correlated to your happiness. That’s what the section Journaling For Happiness is all about in the biggest (freely available) guide on how to be happy.

Memory as a function, what is it?

Of all the cognitive processes, which are all important for normal everyday functioning, memory is probably one of the most important ones. Take a moment to imagine what it would be like if you were to lose your memories. Frightening, right?

The human memory is a very complex thing. In fact, it’s not a singular process, but rather a system consisting of different memory types and processes. A short primer into human memory is therefore useful before we look at what science says about journaling and memory.

3 types of memory

Humans have three types of memory:

  • Sensory memory
  • Short-term or working memory
  • Long-term memory

When we talk about memory, we usually talk about long-term memory. American psychologist Nelson Cowan describes long-term memory thus:

“Long-term memory is a vast store of knowledge and a record of prior events, and it exists according to all theoretical views; it would be difficult to deny that each normal person has at his or her command a rich, although not flawless or complete, set of long-term memories.”

Nelson Cowan

Long-term memory is generally thought to be limitless in capacity, but our memories are never 100% accurate. Over time, we tend to lose details from our memories, even the most cherished ones, and we usually forget information that we don’t use for a long time (although some things seem to stick around). For example, I have forgotten most formulas from my high school math classes, but for some reason, I can recite the Pythagorean theorem in my sleep.

another kind of long term memory a floppy disk
Another kind of long term memory!

Sensory memory doesn’t seem like memory at all, since it lasts less than a second. Its purpose is to provide a representation of a sensory experience (for example, the sight of a person) from which short-term memory can extract relevant pieces of information (for example, recognizing the person as a friend). Short-term memory is also sometimes referred to as working memory, although some researchers think that they are distinct, but related concepts.

Working memory is used to plan and carry out behavior. For example, as we recognize our friend, we must decide on a behavior. Should we wave at them? Perhaps we aren’t feeling like talking at the moment, so we try to pass by without them noticing.

In the article linked above, Cowan writes:

“One relies on working memory to retain the partial results while solving an arithmetic problem without paper, to combine the premises in a lengthy rhetorical argument, or to bake a cake without making the unfortunate mistake of adding the same ingredient twice.”

Nelson Cowan

Just like most people can’t imagine a life without long-term memories, we can’t function without working memory.

The effects of journaling on memory

Journaling has many benefits, from boosting your happiness to improving your mental health. And turns out that it can improve your memory, too.

Journaling can make your memories more specific

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Writing something down means that you don’t have to rely only on your memory when recalling the information. While this doesn’t improve your memory in the strictest sense, it keeps the information more accurate than your memory does.

The simplest example of this is a shopping or to-do list, but it works for more personal memories, too. Want to make sure you don’t forget to buy milk? Write it down. Want to make sure you’ll never forget how spending two months in quarantine felt? Write it down.

I am not always the most consistent journaler, but I do reach for a pen when I am going through hard times. While dealing with a breakup or the loss of a loved one is something most people would rather forget, I find myself reading through old journal entries to find inspiration in hard times. They help me remember that I have been through tough times before and what helped me to get through.

daily journaling 1

In addition to being a literal extension to your memory, journaling can also help to make your memories more specific.

Studies on the effect of journaling on your memory

In a 2012 study, college students were asked to write either about an emotionally disturbing event in detail; their feelings regarding a disturbing event, or describe their day for 20 minutes on 3 consecutive days.

The results showed that students who wrote about emotional events or their feelings demonstrated significantly greater autobiographical memory specificity 6 months after the writing sessions.

Although our memories will never be entirely accurate, having more specific memories about your own life can be beneficial. For example, when faced with difficult situations, individuals who are not able to access specific memories may be at a disadvantage as they are only able to generate a limited number of solutions to their problems.

In addition, there is evidence that a lack of memories can make it hard to imagine the future, because we don’t have any memories of specific past experiences to use as a basis for future goals or predictions.

Journaling improves working memory

In their 2001 study, researchers Klein and Boals asked 35 college undergraduates to write about their thoughts and feelings about coming to college, and 36 students to write about time management. They found that students who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings exhibited working memory improvement 7 weeks after the experiment, while the control group did not.

Similar results were found in a Japanese study from 2008, where undergraduates were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: writing about a traumatic experience, their best possible future selves, or a trivial topic for 20 minutes. The results showed that compared to other groups, the students writing about a traumatic experience exhibited an increase in working memory capacity 5 weeks after the writing sessions.

journaling has many benefits but also some cons

Although the mechanism isn’t entirely clear, these improvements in working memory are probably due to the fact that writing expressively about a stressful experience, such as coming to college, helps to create a coherent narrative of the experience, which in turn frees up precious cognitive resources.

In other words, when we experience stress or worry, a part of our mind is always occupied with it. For example, if you have to work during a global crisis, the worry over the crisis stops you from giving 100% at work. You simply don’t have the brainpower for it, so to speak.

But if you take time to examine the feelings of worry and stress and what they mean to you, and create a narrative of the experience, everything will become much clearer. As a result, a smaller part of your processing power is spent on worrying.

Tips for journaling to improve memory

If you’d like to improve your memory by journaling, here are a few things to keep in mind.

1. Be expressive

Go deep into your feelings and use emotional language. Don’t just recount the story – describe and analyze it in as much detail as you can.

Remember how your high school English teacher cautioned you from using too many adjectives? This is the time to use all of the adjectives you couldn’t use in your essays. This is your memory. Write whatever you can and want in order to properly express it!

2. Pick the right time

While the journaling session should be fairly short – 20 or 30 minutes is enough – you should pick the time carefully. Make sure you won’t be interrupted and set aside your phone while writing. Really concentrate on the task at hand.

If you’re really going deep into your feelings, journaling during a lunch break at work or right before going out with your friends might not be the best idea. Give yourself time to get away from your journal (emotionally) after taking your thoughts apart.

3. Be patient

A word of caution: when you start journaling about difficult feelings, it can get worse before it gets better. Writing about a negative experience can immediately bring up uncomfortable feelings and thoughts, while clarity and acceptance comes later.

This applies to working memory benefits, too: in both studies cited earlier, working memory capacity decreased immediately after the intervention, but improved several weeks after.

In this sense, journaling helps you build more long-term happiness.

Wrapping up

Journaling is a beneficial tool in many ways and it can support your memory, too. In addition to being a literal extension of your memory, writing things in your journal can help to create more specific memories and boost working memory capacity. Not all journaling is equal, though – to reap maximum benefits, you really have to dig deep in your thoughts and feelings, but it will be worth it.

Now I’m looking to hear from you! Do you use journaling to improve your memory? Have you noticed any of the benefits discussed in this article? Let me know in the comments below!

Maili Tirel

School psychologist

School psychologist, teacher and internet counselor from Estonia. Passionate about coffee, reading, dancing, and singing in the shower, much to the neighbors’ dismay. Counseling catchphrase: “It’s okay!“

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