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I have been a postdoc for many years now in a theoretical field. Thus, while progress in my career has been slow, I am not without experience. There is one particular thing that I feel keeps limiting me, and has been a source of a lot of anxiety and worry: over just a few months, I forget things I learned. I forget the names of techniques, theorems, authors about which I had tens of conversations. I forget mathematical techniques and derivations I worked with many times. I forget how to effectively use programming languages I have not used for as little as 6 months. I forget small theoretical results of proofs I produced and neglected to write down because they seemed trivial t the time.

I worry that personally I am much worse at remembering than others, and sometimes this makes me wonder if an academic career is even suitable for me. There are people I admire for their vast knowledge and how they can contribute something meaningful and relevant to just about any conversation. I wish I could be like them, but all I can recall is some very vague memories, unless I am currently working with the topic we are discussing.

Are other people struggling with this issue too, and are there techniques or exercises to improve? Is this perhaps caused by the constant flood of information that bombards us in this digital life we lead, and maybe displaces the actually useful knowledge we accumulated earlier?

I apologize if this is considered off-topic. Just delete the question then. This is something that has been seriously worrying me for years now, and it is hard to discuss face-to-face.

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    Do you have stress issues? Is your life or work especially stressful? I realize my question is "off the wall" as you give no hint of it in your question. I have the same issue, but for me, I think it is age, not stress. – Buffy Oct 14 '18 at 12:17
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    Same here, but just like @Buffy, it's age.(I am sixty-something). If you're young, you may need to see a medical doctor, sometimes it's sign of illness. – scaaahu Oct 14 '18 at 12:20
  • @Buffy, I just point out to the students that they are getting older faster than I am :) (1 day on my total cf 1 day on their total...) But forgetting things is SO annoying...grrr – Solar Mike Oct 14 '18 at 12:44
  • Take a look a spaced repetition technique – Ooker Oct 14 '18 at 15:21
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I'll suggest a couple of things here.

First, and most important, if this is a new thing for you, or if it has developed recently then find a doctor. Go to a specialist in Neurology. You may need to get a brain scan. This is especially important if you are young, but also worthwhile if you aren't. There are some degenerative brain diseases that you want to know about early on.

The other, totally unrelated, is that if you are under a lot of stress, say in your work, then your brain, even if completely "normal" might not be working efficiently and your immediate concerns might be interfering with recall of things in long term memory. There are a lot of things that I know, and I know that I know them and haven't forgotten them, but it takes me a lot of effort to recall them. I try to lead a stress free life but the modern world makes that difficult.

Stress can be a killer, actually. If this is your issue you need to find ways to reduce it to a manageable level. One way is to do regular physical activity. Evan better is to do some physical activity that also engages your brain in a way different from your work or normal life. The physical activity gets your blood flowing and oxygenated, and the change in brain activity also can reduce stress. Some university departments field, say, softball teams. Many universities have athletic facilities open to faculty and all students.


I've assumed here that this is not an issue of not being able to recall things you've learned thoroughly. If that isn't the case and you are still a bit shaky on the knowledge, as students normally are, then it is more a question of reinforcing your knowledge through practice and engagement with the material. That is a different issue altogether, of course.

Someone, a regular writer here, made and deleted a comment that you depend less on memory and keep important things in notebooks. I agree somewhat with that, especially in the sense that creating notebooks is, itself, a reinforcement of what you know and want to remember. Perhaps that writer will come back and fill out an answer.

Also note that, as my doctor explained to me, forgetting and lack of recall are not the same problem, though they seem to be.

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