How to Remember Everything

April 18, 2012 at 3:59 pm , by

I am a lost cause without my phone. It’s my second brain: It stores all my important phone numbers, addresses, account passwords, my calendar and my to-do and shopping lists. It’s helpful, sure, but could there be a downside to not having to remember anything on my own?

Definitely. Your brain’s capabilities depend on how much you practice certain things, says neurologist Majid Fotuhi, M.D., a member of the Journal’s Medical Advisory Board. Dr. Fotuhi stopped by our offices last week with two-time USA Memory Champion Nelson Dellis to share some tips for staying sharp. (That’s Dellis, far right, teaching me how to memorize a stack of cards. Dr. Fotuhi sat next to me for encouragement. It was hard, but I did it!)

I’ll be honest: At first I wondered, why should I work to improve my memory when my Blackberry is already more reliable? But Dr. Fotuhi reminded me that when you’re exercising your memory, what you’re actually doing is growing your hippocampus. (That’s the part of the brain responsible for short-term memory.) And people who have a bigger hippocampus have a reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease. “Use it or lose it applies to your brain, even more so than to your muscles,” he says.

The trick is to take information you want to memorize and convert it into something you can actually see in your mind’s eye, explains Dellis. It sounds a little like hocus-pocus or at least more work than just writing it down, but the more you practice, the quicker you’ll be. And it’s sort of fun.

Here’s how to do it: Picture the thing you want to remember, maybe someone’s name at a party, and assign a funky image to it. The most memorable images are funny, bizarre, sexual or gross. So if you’re trying to remember my name, you might think of a million dollars (Amelia, a million, sort of similar?), and then picture me attached to a harness (Harnish) trying to pull a giant cart of money.

When you want to remember a list of things, like your grocery list, it gets a little harder. It’s based on the same principle, but instead of one image, you’ll build a series of images into a story.

First, pick your “memory palace.”
Think of a place you know well and can actually see in your mind. Maybe it is a room in your house or maybe it’s the route you take to work. All that matters is that you can picture it.

Pick distinctive places in the room or space you’re visualizing.
So if it’s your bedroom you might use different pieces of furniture. If it’s the street you grew up on, it might be each of the houses or storefronts.

Now, take items on your list and associate them with the place.
This is the fun part. It reminds me of the story you get when you play Mad Libs—or a nightmare, depending on what kinds of things you find memorable. Here is a part of my grocery list from my last trip.

  1. Cake mix 2. Bread 3. Lunch meat 4. Frozen chicken breast 5. Razors 6. Hummus

And this is how I might remember it, using the Journal offices as my palace.

  • Journal Food Guru Tara Bench is buried in her cube under boxes of Funfetti cake mix. She’s trying to get out, but there’s so many boxes it’s like quicksand and she keeps getting sucked back in.
  • Then, there’s a trail of sliced turkey and ham leading to Health Director Julie Bain’s office, where instead of working, she’s slicing whole-grain bread.
  • Across from that scene is my cubicle, which I can’t walk into because everything is frozen and all of my office supplies are now made out of chicken, kind of like Lady Gaga’s meat dress but even more startling. I start trying to shave the ice with my razors so I can get back to work.
  • On the other side of me is an open cubicle, which is filled to the brim like a giant bowl of hummus, my favorite food. So I decide to take a break from shaving the ice off my chicken-phone and head over there for a quick snack.

This was only a part of my list, but I could go on forever, using my co-workers’ offices and the items on my list to create a story that’s hard to forget.

Ready to give it a try? Create your own story the next time you head to the grocery store. Don’t write it down; just visualize it as you’re making the list and see how well you remember the items when you’re cruising the aisles. When five or six items becomes too easy, start working your way toward 10, 20, 50 and more. “There’s really no upper limit because the more you practice, the better you’ll be,” Dr. Fotuhi says.

It may seem silly at first, but you might surprise yourself with just how much you can do. Plus, as Dr. Fotuhi reminds us, you’ll be doing your brain a huge favor.