We use our memory constantly, from the moment we think to hit the alarm clock “snooze” button in the morning to just before bedtime when we place our eyeglasses on the nightstand so we can find them quickly upon awakening. Everything we do—driving to work without getting lost, typing the password to an email account, wishing a co-worker happy birthday on the appropriate day—is rooted in memory. But how does memory work and are we operating ours efficiently? There’s no user’s manual.
Two parts of the brain are responsible for memory. The hippocampus holds short-term memories, and the cerebral cortex stores long-term memories. The hippocampus screens everything that we experience and allows the most important details to enter the cortex.
“The hippocampus is a gatekeeper,” explains Dr. Majid Fotuhi, 51, the founder and chief medical officer of NeurExpand Brain Center based in Columbia, Maryland. “Something like a restaurant phone number that you’ll call once, it’s going to discard it. But something worth remembering, that goes to the cortex.”
The cortex is like a disorganized archive brimming with information. Everything that we remember is there, but we can’t search through it methodically to find what we’re looking for. Ever try to recall a name or a title that you can’t quite grasp? If the details are committed to your cortex, you should be able to recall them—eventually.
Fears of memory loss
Do you often forget where you left your car keys or struggle to remember events? Perhaps you believe that you have a poor memory and there’s nothing you can do about it, or you’re convinced that Alzheimer’s disease inevitably will snatch your mind.
“Five million people have Alzheimer’s, but 100 million worry about it,” says Fotuhi, who urges worriers to replace their anxiety with a more proactive response.
Memory experts say we can improve memory with simple exercises that strengthen and expand the hippocampus, which shrinks in Alzheimer’s patients. “Size does matter,” says Dr. David Perlmutter, 59, a neurologist in Naples, Florida, and author of “The Better Brain Book.” “The smaller your hippocampus, the less memory function you will have.”
Experts say we boost our memory when we learn anything new. The process strengthens the hippocampus the way that weightlifting strengthens muscles.
“‘Use it or lose it’ applies to the hippocampus more than the biceps. Memorizing is pushups for your hippocampus,” says Fotuhi, author of “Boost Your Brain: The New Art and Science Behind Enhanced Brain Performance.”
Nelson Dellis, 29, of Miami, Florida, who won the USA Memory Championship in 2011 and 2012, was inspired to improve his memory when his grandmother was losing hers to Alzheimer’s disease. Dellis, who can memorize the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards in 63 seconds, insists that his memory was average before he began his quest.
“When my grandmother died, it was a turning point,” says Dellis, a former software developer who now is a motivational speaker and memory consultant. “I couldn’t believe that it was possible for the human mind to decline that way. I needed to see what I could do now to try to make my brain healthier.”
He spends hours every day improving his memory through various techniques. Like most serious mental athletes, Dellis uses vivid images to help him remember.
“Take whatever it is you’re trying to memorize and turn it into a mental image,” Dellis says. “Make it as crazy or over-the-top as possible—that’s what your brain prefers to memorize. If you want to remember your grocery list and the first two things are toilet paper and Q-tips, picture some wet toilet paper wrapped around a Q-tip, and you’re sticking it all in your ear, and there’s lots of wax.”
Helping average people improve their memories is what businessman Tony Dottino, 66, of Windermere, Florida, had in mind when he founded the USA Memory Championship in 1997.
“I’d always thought that the older you get, you’re doomed to have less capacity for remembering things, but that doesn’t have to be,” Dottino says. “The purpose of the event is to dispel these myths, to prove that anyone can improve their memory.”
Joshua Foer, 31, of New Haven, Connecticut, learned that lesson firsthand. After attending the 2005 USA Memory Championship as a journalist, he trained to compete in the 2006 championship, which he won. His 2011 book, “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything,” describes his experience.
“You see people performing these utterly miraculous feats of memory, and it seems unreal,” Foer says. “But trying it myself, those seemingly unbelievable feats are actually not that hard to pull off. It’s just a matter of technique and practice.”