Banana. Sunrise. Chair. Those 3 words are part of a clinical examination used to test memory and cognition. Hold them in your mind while you read the rest of this article.
Memory is strange. You could probably vividly describe specific events from years ago, but if I asked you to describe how you got dressed yesterday morning, it might be a little fuzzy.
Why? Is it genetic? Is it just how human brains work? Or is there something we don’t fully understand at play when it comes to our memories? The answer to all 3 questions is a resounding, “Maybe!” Even scientists aren’t completely sure.
Your brain isn’t exciting to look at. It probably weighs about 3 pounds (about the same as a Macbook Air). It’s wrinkly, soft, and delicate. But it stores all of your memories. How?
In the simplest sense, memories are sets of connections between nerve cells, called neurons, in your brain. Your memory’s are not like a photo album carefully laid out in order. Instead it’s more like a jumbled and chaotic mess of interconnected bits of information. Kind of like this:
It’s by strengthening those connections we build long-term memories which last for years. Current scientific research suggests the strengthening of connections may be happening while we sleep, on a subconscious level.
Some scientists seem to think there are actually 9 or more different types of memories:
Different memories are stored or encoded in different ways. Implicit memories, like those of rote tasks and behaviors (like getting dressed in the morning) are encoded differently and may not have as strong a network of neural connections as an episodic memory (like a favorite childhood birthday party) does.
But, like I said, memories aren’t like pictures in a book. They’re connections in our brains that are reinterpreted each time we remember them. This leads us to another question, “Can we trust our memories?”
Jaden Smith might be on to something.
Since our memories aren’t physical objects, how do we know they’re real? We can’t. Experts believe we put too much stock in our memories. We believe them to perfectly reflect past events.
Nothing could be further from the truth. We misinterpret what we see. We recall events and change details slightly and begin to remember events, places, and facts in ways barely resembling the truth. Stress and confusion are just two of the factors contributing to what are known as false-memories.
Eye-witness testimony is one of the most unreliable forms of evidence, thanks to, among other things, problems with human memory. Just hearing about the crime from a police officer, lawyer, or other witness can cause an eye-witness to twist their own memory. Plus the stress and confusion of witnessing a crime in the first place leads to an inaccurate memory which only gets worse over time.
So, if you’re ever in an argument over an event you think you remember clearly, don’t forget, your memory’s not perfect. In fact, it’s not even close.
Those are some familiar faces above, aren’t they? Sheldon Cooper, Hannibal Lecter, Sherlock Holmes, and Will Hunting. What do they have in common? They have some form of near-perfect photographic memory– a form of memory where nothing is forgotten and is always 100percent accurate.
In popular culture, photographic memories are used to resolve roommate disputes, terrorize Clarice Starling, solve crimes, and complete organic chemistry homework in under an hour. But what about in the real world? Do they exist?
In reality, scientists have identified something called eidetic memory, and it’s the closest form of memory to what movies and TV commonly call a photographic memory. Those with an eidetic memory can recall images, text, and what they’ve seen with remarkable accuracy… most of the time.
However, it’s not uncommon for eidetikers, as they’re known, to make mistakes just like the rest of us, adding or subtracting information based on their own unconscious biases, expectations, and beliefs.
There are some amazing feats of memorization that seem like something straight out of a movie.
Nigel Richards’ amazing Portlandia-esque beard isn’t his only claim to fame. In July of 2015, he won the National French Language Scrabble Tournament in Paris.
Nigel’s feat wouldn’t be especially interesting, except for these two facts:
How’d he do it? Nigel memorized the entire French dictionary in less time than it would take most native French speakers to read it! Nigel has been playing Scrabble for years, having won multiple US National and World Championships (albeit in English). He claims to recall words simply by referring to mental images of the dictionary’s pages!
Jonathan Safran Foer? Does his name ring a bell? He’s a popular writer of such books as Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
But unless you’ve read Moonwalking with Einstein, you’ve probably never heard of his little brother Joshua Foer. The book (written by Joshua), tells the story of how he won the 2006 United States Memory Championships. He even set a record, memorizing the order of a shuffled deck of cards in under two minutes. Even more amazing, he had originally planned to simply cover the championship as a journalist, but ended up entering himself.
How’d he win? He was trained by an expert memorizer from Britain, named Ed Cooke, and used a technique known as a memory palace (hold on to that thought, too, I’ll talk more about memory palaces soon).
How long does it take to recite pi to nearly 70,000 digits? A bit over a day. 24 hours and 4 minutes to be precise. That’s how long it took Chao Lu, a Chinese man, to recite the mathematical constant pi to 67,890 decimal places.
Pi, if you can remember back to your middle school math class, is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Pi is an irrational number, meaning it can’t be expressed as a fraction. In simpler terms, it’s completely random and goes on forever, never repeating itself.
Most people can’t even remember their own phone number! But Chao Lu could remember nearly 10,000 phone numbers!
Do those three people simply possess superhuman memory powers mere mortals like the rest of us will never have?
Yes and no. They’re definitely outliers and they may be genetically predisposed to having a good memory, but you can use some of their tricks to improve your own memory.
One of the most common techniques used by expert memorizers is the memory palace. A memory palace is a fictional place, located entirely in your mind, where you store your memories. A memory palace is built up over time. Rooms are added on as new memories are formed. Furniture, decorations, and anything you can imagine fill those rooms.
Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But it really works! The trick is to create a memory palace so detailed and unique you can picture its contents in your mind. Then associate what you want to remember with locations in the palace. With enough practice, you’ll be able to mentally stroll through your memory palace, recalling each memory you’ve stored there.
When it comes to remembering a face, a name, or a simple set of facts, nothing beats a mnemonic or association you can’t forget.
The most common might be: Roy G. Biv. Not a guy with a funny last name, but a mnemonic device used by kids to remember the color of the rainbow: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet.
To memorize a difficult list of facts, try making your own mnemonic. Let’s say we wanted to remember the order of the first 10 US Presidents: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, and Tyler.
How about, “We all just made majestic apple juice before helping Tom?” Or something like that.
You can associate a person’s name with a physical attribute or something about their personality, Meg with long legs or Andy who likes to eat candy. You get the idea.
The trick is to come up with something that works for you. Interestingly, many people find vulgar or gross mnemonics to work better, because they’re so memorable and evoke a strong emotional reaction.
Despite years of research and dozens of theories, memory is still a bit of a mystery. While some people seem to never forget a thing and others can’t remember where they live, there are simple tricks anyone can use to improve their memory.
Oh, and before I go, what were the three words, I asked you to remember?