Why Can't I Remember What I've Read?

This is an essay by Tucker Cummings.

Picture this: you’re out to dinner with friends, when the conversation turns to current events. You say, “Oh, I just read a fascinating article about that!” But then, you find yourself floundering when you try to remember the specific names of the people involved, or find that vital statistic trapped on the tip of your tongue.

You read the article with care just that afternoon, and you really enjoyed it. So why has all of the relevant information just slipped out of your memory? More importantly, what can you change about your reading habits to improve your reading recall?

Digital Media and Distractions

You’re not alone, particularly if you find that your mental recall is failing you after reading a story in a digital format. In one New York Times article, English professor Alan Liu argues that online reading environments can foster bad reading habits and poor mental focus.

On the one hand, reading in a digital environment can cause tunnel vision. You might click through to an article because of a keyword that interests you, and subsequently fail to grasp the sense of the article as a whole. Or, as Liu explains, you develop a habit of poor focus, caused by distractions on the margins of the page (like blogrolls or links to other sites, for example.)

In the same article, Sandra Aamodt, co-author of “Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life,” notes that multitasking on your computer can compromise your focus as well. One study she cites found that people working on computers switched tasks every three minutes, sometimes taking as long as 23 minutes to resume a previous task they had abandoned. In her opinion, “frequent task switching costs time and interferes with the concentration needed to think deeply about what you read.”

Unfamiliarity Breeds Contempt

Another issue that might be affecting your ability to recall information you’ve read is your level of familiarity with the subject in the first place.

Kate Garland, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Leicester, outlined one study where researchers decided to test whether print or computer information was the superior medium for learning. Students who had no familiarity with economics were presented with complex economics data. The study found that more repetition was required with computer reading to impart the same information. Not only that, but book readers seemed to digest the material more fully.

So for readers looking to improve their mental recall, it may make sense to read e-books when they are already somewhat familiar with the material, but splurge on a print edition when the information is complex and totally new to them.

Consider Your Fonts 

Numerous studies over the years have shown that the font you read in also has a measurable effect on your ability to recall information. Older adults are said to have a harder time comprehending passages which includes lots of italics or parenthetical statements. Even a difference of two font points can cause a memory meltdown, with one study finding that when faced with a choice of reading an article in 8 point or 10 point font, those who read the 8 point font read more slowly and had poorer recall.

The style of font matters a great deal as well, with some readers seeing as much as 9% improvement in recall when reading in a serif font, as opposed to a sans serif font. This seems to be because the markings on serif fonts can make rows of text more separated, much in the same way that underlining a row of text when studying can do. The next time you’re reading an article online, try copying it into Word and changing the font to improve your recall.


I had a French teacher who was fond of saying you had to repeat a vocab word 32 times before it would sink into your head. And you know what? He was right. Repetition might be as dull as dishwater, but it works. If you really want to improve your memory when it comes to what you’ve read, you need to start practicing your repetition skill. The more you force yourself to repeat a particular quote or statistic, the more likely it is to sink in (and the more likely you’ll recall similar info in the future, since you’re training your brain to expect these sorts of tests.)

Breathe Deep

Deep, slow breathing may be the most simple thing you can do to improve your memory of the written word. These cleansing breaths can trigger your brain to produce Theta waves, the same brain waves you produce during sleep. Putting yourself in this calm, relaxed mindset makes you more ready to process new information.

Hopefully, with practice and awareness, you will now be better equipped to retain those important facts, figures, and beautifully written passages from the next story you read.

What tricks do you use to commit things you’ve read to memory? Tell us in the comments below!


Tucker Cummings is the author of “The Strange Adventures of Margery Jones,” a microfiction serial about parallel universes. Her work has been featured on HiLoBrow.com (where she took first prize in their Spooky-Kooky fiction competition), OneFortyFiction.com, and “The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities” (Harper Collins). Connect with her at tuckercummings.com or send a Tweet to @tuckercummings


  1. Guest Post at Read.Learn.Write | Tucker Cummings

    […] Up today at ReadLearnWrite, I have guest post about digital reading and forgetfulness. Hopefully you’ll remember it after you’ve closed your browser window. Read it here: Why Can’t I Remember What I’ve Read? […]

  2. R. Silver

    Wow Brandon, this was a very informative article. It’s one thing I’ve been struggling with a lot. Just a few days ago, I remember that I saw a video on procrastination, but only after a few minutes of thinking do I remember that procrastination is defeated by rewards. (Do note, I watched it twice.)
    Keep being awesome!

    R. Silver

    1. Brandon Monk

      Thanks for the positive feedback.

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