“So he says, ‘Try to remember these twenty words, in order, with their numbers.” Rich was describing Jim Kwik’s online course Improve Your Memory Now from the Omega Institute. “He said he could teach us to recall them so well that if he said ‘eleven’ we’d immediately respond ‘skis.’”
“How’d you do?” I asked.
“At that point, I could barely remember three.”
“One, the sun. Two, socks. Three, traffic light. Four, searchlight. Five, star. Six, soda. Seven, rainbow. Eight, octopus. Nine, cat. Ten, toes. Eleven, skis…” He rattled off all twenty, but I lost the thread because I was completely gobsmacked. This was last Sunday, weeks after he’d finished the course. How did he do that?
“What we think of as memory loss is really mostly distraction,” he said. “We spend 45% of our time mind-wandering: thinking about the past or imagining the future. In those moments we aren’t really paying attention to others or to the mental notes we’re making about picking up milk at the market. It’s even worse when we are multi-tasking — something Kwik says is a myth. We’re not actually doing many things simultaneously, we’re shifting rapidly back and forth, doing one thing after another in short bursts, undermining the quality of our work and accelerating the distraction.”
The fact the real culprit is distraction was excellent news. Why? Because we can do something about it.
“Kwik says your memory is actually better than you think it is,” Rich told me. “We get into trouble because we keep trying to recall words when our minds are designed to capture images. He showed us how to attach symbols to things we want to remember: One, the sun; there’s only one. Two, socks come in pairs. Three, the traffic light, which has three colors. Four, the searchlight, found on cop cars with four wheels. Five, a star. Six, soda in a six-pack. And so on. You carry those numbers in your mind and use them to construct images that are much easier to recall than words.” Keep forgetting your friend’s address is 25 Eighty-eighth Street? Think of a pair of socks draped over a star followed by a pair of octopuses.
“You can create your own images,” Rich said. “Say you’re food shopping and need two avocados, a basket of blueberries, and some salmon. Kwik suggested visualizing yourself with two avocados on top of your head, blueberries coming out of your nose, and a salmon wrapped around your throat.” My mind’s eye instantly saw Rich standing in the middle of the produce aisle, a whole salmon draped jauntily around his shoulders, balancing avocados on his head. Would he, I wondered, have time to shove blueberries up his nose before store security showed up to escort us off the property?
“Want to hear how I remember pretzels?” Rich asked.
How powerful is symbolic recollection? In the Netflix documentary The Mind, Explained, I watched Yanjaa Wintersoul memorize 500 three-digit numbers in ten minutes. How? She converted the digits to sounds then images using her own personal code. “So 5 is an S, 3 is an A, and 9 is a G, just because of the shapes. So basically it’s like reading something instead of looking at all these numbers.” The next number, 166, converts to TBB. Wintersoul then turned SAG TBB into a vivid, offbeat image: “This saggy, half-naked person is covered in, like, tabouli.” Her imagination placed 500 such images in order throughout a familiar location — what some call a memory palace — and then she mentally strolled from room to room identifying the numbers.
For those of us who can barely remember if we're out of avocados, Wintersoul's feat is dazzling. But the real challenge comes in trying to recall life events. The process is piecemeal and slippery at best, sometimes leading to false memories, unreliable eyewitness accounts, and stories that conflate separate memories into one seamless tale. The Netflix documentary asks: Why would Mother Nature give us such faulty recording equipment?
It turns out the survival value of recollection doesn’t lie in accurately preserving the past but in storing images that help us envision the future and take appropriate action. I grew up watching my mother race around the house looking for her car keys and glasses muttering, “I’m losing my mind. I’m losing what’s left of my mind.” Vivid images of her frustration, and my own during similar frenzied hunts, motivate me to keep my keys, glasses, phone in assigned places.
Sometimes our unconscious mind merges separate memories to make a point. As a kid, Melanie Mignucci vividly recalled 9/11. “I remember my mom was working in the city. I remember smoke billowing out over the water of the Long Island Sound behind the building where I went to elementary school.” There are just a few, tiny holes in her story: her mother was working in Connecticut at the time, her classroom windows didn’t face the water, and smoke from the World Trade Center was 40 miles way and drifting in the opposite direction. According to neuroscientists, Mignucci blended memories with screen images to create a narrative that was less technically accurate but better expressed the day’s staggering personal impact.
That got me thinking about our memories of 2020. I know, most of us would pay good money to acquire a case of total amnesia around the whole grisly year. But someday we may need to draw upon those experiences to cope with other disasters that knock us sideways.
Among its many other lessons, 2020 taught us about the fragility of memory itself. Throughout the pandemic we've all commiserated with each other over brain fog and memory lapses, which are a common result of long periods of isolation and loss of the structure that once defined our days. Beyond that, we’ve all been living under the knowledge that a killer virus is rampaging across the planet, possibly heading directly towards us; distractions don’t come much bigger than that. It’s a wonder any of us can remember our own names, let alone whether we need those blueberries Rich has up his nose.
The good news is we can retrain our brains to retain the memories we care about. Yes, no matter how old we are. “It was once believed that as we age, the brain's networks became fixed,” explains Neuroplasticity: Rewire Your Brain for Learning, Memory, and Mood. “But now, an enormous amount of research has revealed the brain never stops changing and adjusting. Connections within the brain are constantly becoming stronger or weaker, depending on what is being used.”
I saw a meme today that said, “Not only is my short-term memory horrible, but so is my short-term memory.” If you’re having days like that, maybe it’s time to start visualizing a better future. Creating mental images of yourself wrapping fish around your neck and slathering a flabby friend’s half-naked body with tabouli may be just what you need to re-energize your brain, live more fully in the present moment, and create memories that will last forever.
This post is part of my ongoing series of articles on surviving the pandemic and, with luck, emerging from it with some remnants of our sanity and good humor intact.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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