©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
Preventing memory loss will always be easier than restoring it.
—Gary Small, MD
The Memory Bible
Tired and hungry, I queued up at the hotel registration desk. Ahead in line an elderly woman (and I use that term advisedly, because I’m no spring chicken myself) was checking in. “No,” I heard her say to the desk clerk, “I don’t know my license-plate number.” And then she muttered under her breath, “Stupid, stupid, my memory is shot.” Too bad, I thought. She’s programming her brain for “dumb” and recall problems!
Next stop was the restaurant. My stomach notified me instantly that the estimated 30-minute wait for a table was unacceptable. As I pondered options, the same elderly woman waved from a window booth and offered to share her space. Wonderful! We chatted over very satisfying French onion soup and mouth watering bruschetta. When she ruefully mentioned the license-plate episode I grabbed the opportunity to ask, “Did you always memorize your license plates when you were younger?”
Her face registered surprise. “Why, no,” she replied. “Never. But I was always embarrassed since my husband was such a whiz with numbers.”
I was tempted to quote a favorite bumper-sticker: Embarrassment is a choice—don’t go there. Instead I asked, “What makes you think that because you can’t recall your license plate, when you never did in the past, that you are stupid and losing your memory?” She blinked several times and shrugged her shoulders.
“I’m lucky if I recall that mine is written on a wallet card,” I explained. And then when the woman mentioned she was driving a rental car, we both dissolved into laughter. Some lively conversation followed. The woman was bright, sharp, and in a word—delightful. Rote memorization just wasn’t her thing.
With information burgeoning exponentially in the 21st Century, my bias is that learning how to access information may be more helpful than packing one’s rote memory with myriad facts. In 7th grade I had to memorize the capital cities of all the countries in the world or flunk geography. Today many of those same countries have been renamed, if they exist at all! While the brain may contain infinite space for concepts and ideas, space for semantic memory may not be unlimited. This means that while some rote memorization can be important in challenging the brain, storing concepts and ideas may actually be more useful overall.
Memory functions are of concern, especially as people age. Here are some steps you can take to reduce memory loss:
1. Identify the types of information that have been easy, versus difficult, for your brain to recall.
Based on your own brain’s innate advantage, some types of recall will be easier than others. My brain has always found tasks such as spelling and rote memorization extremely energy exhaustive. That’s one reason I’m glad for spell-check, although I don’t always remember to use it! But you lecture all over the world, I can hear you say. Yes, I do. Fortunately my brain remembers concepts and ideas very well, and recalls them with little energy expenditure. It does mean that I never present the same seminar twice in exactly the same way.
Hone skills for recall and for accessing information in ways that are energy-efficient for your brain. Recognize that your brain is gifted in specific ways. Some recall facts and figures with ease; others recall concepts more easily. In other words, put your time and energy into the style that is easiest for your brain to use. Write lists, create an internal mental picture, develop your own filing system, or program an electronic device to alert you at specific times. There are strategies that can better match what your brain does easily. Dig to discover them!
2. Expect to retain your memory.
A powerful trigger in memory loss is an expectation that you will lose it. It’s amazing how pervasive this belief is, although it flies in the face of research. I was able to observe expectations related to memory recall first hand in the life of my aunt. When she was age 35 and went on frequent treasure hunts around the house searching for car keys, comments were: she’s got a lot on her mind, what with working two jobs and raising a couple of teenagers. At age 55 when she still couldn’t quickly locate car keys (and family members had tried everything from installing a key hook by the back door to attaching a ball of red yarn to the key ring), comments were: she’s heading for retirement and her memory is starting to slip. When she was still driving all over the country at age 75 and still searching for car keys, comments were:poor dear, her memory is really failing. For the half-century that I was privileged to know her, Aunt Isabelle was always looking for her car keys! Nothing much had changed during that span of time—except the explanation of what was happening.
Some studies have shown that little if any memory function may be lost until the late eighties in individuals who are physically healthy. As one gets older it may take longer for the brain to locate specific facts. It usually comes up with them, however—albeit a few minutes (or hours) later. Be gentle, patient, and honoring of your brain as it searches for the information. A lot is stored up there!
3. Exercise your brain’s memory mechanisms. According to Dr. Restak in his bookMozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot, the failure to actively flex one’s memorymuscles can result in atrophy.
- Experience something new every day (e.g., drive through a different part of town, travel to another locale or country, eat at an unfamiliar restaurant and use your nondominant hand to hold your fork). The possibilities are endless! Look for variety. Solve cross-word puzzles or brain benders, and then write some of your own.
- Rehearse information that you want to store in rote memory (e.g., social security number, phone number, birth date), or make associations with where to access it.
- Select a topic, idea, or concept in which you are interested, and then read and study more about it.
- Memorize a favorite verse or saying, or whistle a familiar tune, or sing well-known song. Rehearse while in the car, taking a walk, or waiting for an appointment. Then learn a new one.
4. Speak affirmingly to yourself and others.
Your brain knows what you think, it hears what you say. Mental states are particularly susceptible to affirmation, the mind’s programming language. The right hemisphere of the brain and the subconscious mind are highly receptive to simple, positive, present-tense statements. Remove all pejoratives from your vocabulary. They can be lethal, even in jest!
Your brain also pays attention to your internal mental pictures. In his bookHealing Words, Dr. Larry Dossey identifies two types of mental imagery: preverbal pictures that act upon one’s own physical being to change physiological activity; and transpersonal pictures whereby the consciousness of one person can affect the physiological activity of another person. That’s powerful. In fact it’s double power!
Affirm that your brain has its own built-in advantage, is gifted in specific ways. Hone those skills. Repeat aloud frequently, I am recalling information quickly and accurately. Create positive internal mental pictures of yourself successfully recalling information or knowing where to access it. Positive imagery can reinforce positive thought patterns and make them even more effective. Human beings eventually become the products of the mental images they entertain about themselves. Positively reinforce all efforts to enhance memory functions.
Have fun in the process. Reminisce with friends and jog each other’s recall. Laugh, cry, and sense/feel. Information stored with an emotional component is often easier to access. Believe that you can make a difference in your memory—you can!
Examples of Memory Types
Explicit or declarative memory - The ability to consciously recall information and to be able to state or declare it. The prefrontal cortex is activated during encoding and retrieval.
Implicit or nondeclarative memory - Memories are reflected in the way a person acts more than in what he/she consciously knows. Portions of the brain are involved that do not require conscious processing, either during encoding or retrieval.