By Jean Reynolds

Many people assume that remembering details about an event is a simple process: the human brain records what happens and stores it in a kind of mental filing cabinet, ready to be retrieved if needed.

But neurologists who research brain functions say that remembering is a far more complex and unreliable process. The human brain is wired for two kinds of memories: short-term and long-term. Both functions can malfunction if conditions are less than ideal.

Short-term memory is used to absorb a immediate data about a situation: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Under ideal conditions, the brain will record details about clothing, conversations, elapsed time, noise, smells, and other information about a crime scene. Later on some of those details may be critical to an investigation or a court case. But two problems can arise. First, often conditions are less than ideal. Stress, fear, and fatigue can cause an officer to miss important details that should have been noted and remembered. The inevitable confusion at a crime scene can distract an officer and cause memory failure.

Most seriously, short-term memory—as the name implies—is temporary. Short-term memories are erased quickly to make room for new memories. Officers have to make a conscious effort to transfer information into long-term storage—a task that’s easily overlooked during a busy shift. Later the officer might sit down to write a report, only to realize that essential information is fuzzy or forgotten.

Researchers have discovered several useful techniques for improving both short-term and long-term memory functions:

  1. Remember that brain and body work together, and strive to stay in top condition. Eat well, get sufficient rest, and engage in activities that will help maintain your physical fitness.
  2. Start a personal memory enhancement program. Practice remembering conversations, colors, clothing, and sounds and smells in your everyday experiences. When you watch a TV show, try to reconstruct as much of the dialogue as you can when a commercial comes on the air.
  3. Train yourself to do an automatic scan of your surroundings several times each day. The ability to observe, analyze, and remember is essential to successful policing.
  4. Make a conscious effort to transfer information from your short-term to your long-term memory.
  5. Take notes. Keep a pen and a small notebook in your pocket for emergencies when you don’t have proper writing materials with you.

These suggestions will help you develop an enhanced capacity for observing and remembering that will serve you well throughout your law enforcement career.