As aging continues its irreversible path, I look at many things about life that give me satisfaction – physical well being, emotional resilience, and intellectual capacity in particular. Like many baby-boomers, I work to stay on top of my game as much as possible and part of that is studying issues that relate to preventing decline. Memory is one of those areas where I feel most vulnerable.
My search for staying intellectually alive led me to pick up Joshua Foer’s Moonwalkin with Einstein (2011). Foer was a journalist who started research on memory and ended up getting caught up in memory competition, ultimately winning the U.S.A Memory Championship.
Memory used to be much more important in the days before written word became common and particularly before we relied so much on documentation in writing, schedules, and reminders of various sorts. Educated individuals used to have to memorize because there was no way to easily get back to information other than through one’s own recall. The problem with recall is that our brains store memory of information and experiences in all sorts of places, often dispersing pieces of the same memory in different portions of the brain. Thus, when attempting to recall, our brains execute a search function for the missing pieces we need, sometimes successfully and other times not. The key for trained mental athletes is to actually exploit the brain’s natural inclination to break memory up by creating ways to recall what they want by relating it to a visual memory. Many of the mental athletes about whom Foer wrote use “memory palaces” or complex pictures of familiar environments on which they “hang” the information they want to remember. This technique demonstrates how we remember a detail or fact in the context of something more memorable. Repetition of the memory obviously reduces the chances that it will slip into portions of the brain where its recall can no longer be accessed.
Some practically useful tips related to memory enhancement include that we don’t remember well when we are fatigued or stressed. Song is one of the most effective structuring devices to reinforce learning; that’s why children often learn their alphabet with the song, “A,B,C,D,E,F,G… now I’ve learned my A,B,Cs, won’t you come along and sing with me.” You heard the melody in your head, did you not? Another tip is that, the less we are focused on repetitive tasks, the more we are able to concentrate on acquiring new knowledge. Thus, an accompanying memory strategy is to allow habitual things to move to automatic recall; stop trying to do them better – just let it happen. By contrast, if we want to become highly proficient, as in performing music, practice should evolve to automatic recall while at the same time maintaining conscious control of what you are doing. Honing the ability to pay attention, exercising consciousness control, and seeking to think connectively across multiple experiences and domains then provides the foundation for creativity or invention.
Foer’s ultimate conclusion through his study and competition in memory contests was that all the tricks of memory are overrated on the criteria of practical use. Even though he learned how to train himself to remember the names and details of new acquaintances, he found that in daily application the effort it required to do this was simply not worth it. If we want to remember more, Foer concluded that we should concentrate on acquiring the discipline of paying attention and on making connections throughout our life experiences that scaffold ideas and insights for future potential relevance and use. In Foer’s words, “…there is something to be said for the value of not merely passing through the world, but also making some effort to capture it – if only because in trying to capture it, one gets in the habit of noticing, and appreciating.”