iStock_000018493205XSmallMany people say they don’t have a good memory, yet there are some events that we can recall vividly and in detail. Many times it just takes a trigger, such as a smell, or sight or song. You may even find that once you get to remembering one particular event, it will snowball and pretty soon you’re reliving an entire section of your life.

I recall on one long drive across Kansas where I was by myself, I kept myself awake by attempting to sequentially recall my high school years, then my college years – in detail. After a few moments of remembering a few details, I remembered a few more and within a matter of minutes I was going through high school and college all over again (skipping over the not fun parts of course and dwelling on the really good times). Henner, in her book, Total Memory Makeover: Uncover Your Past, Take Charge of Your Future says that the more you remember, the more you become capable of remembering (42).

If you’re having trouble remembering an event, try a little adrenaline (Henner 43). First, remember any intimate or passionate experiences, like your first time (and Henner says that no one has to be told what ‘the first time,’ means). Or, for women try recalling childbirth – dad’s you can recall sitting there feeling useless and attempting to coach (which really doesn’t do anything other than let you pretend you’re somehow involved in the process but don’t BS yourself – mom is doing all the work).

Memory is like a muscle that needs to be warmed up before really using it (Henner 45). Tips for warming it up include:

  • Are there any smells that bring you back in time (Henner 55)? For me its cafeteria food – brings me back to kindergarten and elementary school, or a certain perfume that my first girlfriend used to wear back in 1985!
  • Old songs are a natural memory stimulus (Henner 54). On another Kansas drive I plugged in my iPod and hit Shuffle on the 80s tracks – for whatever song popped up I would let the memory that it triggered occur and then indulge and play out that memory a little bit.
  • Photos are a nice memory trigger of course, which is why we keep photo albums (in the days before iPhoto of course), and videos can also provide stimulus, but I often find myself just watching the videos and wondering why time flies so fast.
  • Try something visceral, like playing an old video game with an old controller, or just pick up the controller and put it in your hand – I’ll bet you’ll be transported back to the time in your life when you were playing that old game (works also if you find an old stand-up arcade game, if you’re of that generation).
  • Anything that you do well requires practice, including memory (Henner 68). Musicians, athletes, have developed unconscious and unlimited muscle memory (Henner 68). And, you get another bonus – that muscle memory helps them be good at other related activities. Ever notice that musicians can pick up on other instruments other than their primary instrument, rather quickly? Same thing with athletes – while they may excel at one sport, they are often pretty good at others. Same thing with your memory muscles – the more you work them, the better your overall memory becomes.

Awhile back I read a book called Megamemory by Kevin Trudeau. It had the usual parlor tricks on how to remember the deck of cards, or a list of vocabulary words, a grocery list and names of people you meet. I occasionally try to impress audiences I speak to by remembering everyone’s name after the finish the introductions. It’s a great hook and exercises my memory muscles a bit. I found that after I did the “trick” for awhile, the memory muscles took over and it became second nature. Pretty soon I couldn’t explain the trick other than to say I actually paid attention when someone said their name to me, it had just become a natural response to remember.

But, I have trouble remembering that same group or individuals just a few weeks later. What I like about Henner’s perspective is that its not about parlor tricks, it’s about treating your memory as a muscle and building its ability over time. I hope to one day be able to remember a class full of people, by sight, a year later.

Henner, Marilu, and Lorin Henner. Total Memory Makeover: Uncover Your Past, Take Charge of Your Future. New York: Gallery, 2012. Print.


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