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Is It Possible To Improve Our Memories Or Are We Doomed To Forget As We Age?

By Rebecca Barry Hill
Illustration / Getty Images
Illustration / Getty Images

Memory is a fickle beast at the best of times. But what if you could train it?

It’s an awful feeling. You’re at a party and the host’s sister approaches. You know her name, and you’re pretty sure you discussed her job at last year’s party, but now that she’s greeted you enthusiastically and asked about that camping trip you took at Easter that you’ve since, well, forgotten about, you’re silently praying your partner won’t expect to be introduced, or

On the drive home a song comes on the radio that you haven’t heard for 20 years. You sing along, word for word. Perhaps you’re not fading into cognitive decline after all…

Memory is a fickle beast at the best of times, but it’s easy to think we’re sliding into a pandemic of forgetfulness, a collective midlife side-effect of living a life so fast-paced, we can’t possibly be expected to remember where we put the keys. Add to this our increasing longevity, that fact we’re profoundly outliving our ancestors, along with a greater awareness of cognitive problems such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, and concerns, post-Covid, with issues such as brain fog and stress. And what of our addiction to our smartphones, our reliance on search engines and GPS to remember important information, like how to get to the hardware store, and what to buy once we’re there?

Mental health clinician Gregory Winkleman and consultant psychiatrist Dr Mark Fisher are used to hearing from people concerned for their memories, even if it turns out they don’t have pathological cognitive issues like the beginnings of dementia. The duo worked in the mental health services for many years before setting up the Hinengaro Clinic, a privately run service that helps those with memory-related problems, dementia and late-life mental health issues.

“A significant number of the people we see don’t actually have dementia,” says Gregory. “They have all sorts of other things — principally anxiety, poor sleep, that sort of thing, but they’re worried about having dementia.

“And that worry can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because if you’re anxious, if you’re sleeping really poorly, those are brain events. If it’s not treated and if you don’t do something about it, that can turn into dementia.”

Referrals to the Hinengaro Clinic spiked following the lockdowns, which the pair put down to family members being around long enough to pick up on troubling signs, along with the chronic lack of socialisation. Who can remember one Groundhog Day from another?

Stress and anxiety can also be to blame for memory issues, they say, but for those finding themselves forgetting where they are or how they got there, paying for things twice, suddenly struggling with language, or forgetting how to use the TV remote, they’re signs of something more serious.

For those diagnosed early enough, the clinic can help people stave off symptoms and improve quality of life through a tailored programme of medication, cognitive stimulation (a form of group therapy), lifestyle changes and engaging patients and carers in support networks. And the good news for healthy individuals keen to future-proof their memories, is the strategies are similar.

“Keeping contact with other people and meeting and talking to them is really important,” says Dr Fisher.

The other must-dos for a healthy memory are lifestyle factors well within our control. The Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability (aka the FINGER study), found a small improvement in people’s cognition when they engaged in exercise, cognitive stimulation and cardiovascular management. And a study from The Lancet Commission in 2020 identified 12 modifiable risk factors for dementia, such as alcohol intake, hypertension and air pollution, that account for around 40 per cent of dementias worldwide.

How memory loss is connected to hearing loss

Another huge influence on developing dementia is hearing loss, believed to be because of the lack of social connectedness that can occur, something that, once diagnosed, can often be ameliorated with hearing aids.

“A fast-flowing conversation in a group of people is a significant cognitive challenge,” says Dr Fisher. “If you’re starting to become deaf, you’re not following and you tend to tune out. A lot of it’s to do with social connectedness, because loneliness has quite a pernicious influence on one’s health.”

If there was such a thing as real-life memory training, perhaps it’d be working in hospo, a role that juggles that social connectedness with constant cognitive demands on retention. Rebecca Smidt, co-owner of Cazador restaurant in Mt Eden not only has an excellent reputation for her restaurant’s food, she’s renowned for her service — and her ability to take orders without jotting them on a notepad. She regularly holds a dynamic list in her head, comprising various drinks, appetisers, entrees, mains and sides, from groups of up to eight people (larger groups order from a ‘feast’ menu), along with any spontaneous requests she might get from a table when she’s clearing glasses away. But Rebecca says she doesn’t use any fancy memory tricks — she’s just been doing it for so long, remembering has become habitual.

“I think it’s because I’m interested,” she says. “I’m curious and I’m invested in the sense that I just want to make sure they’re having a great night. It’s actually more of a conversation about how people would like to dine than a transaction when I’m taking an order. It’s a little different than if I were at a café — or next door at the Cazador deli — where we don’t have the same amount of table time.”

Rather than rushing to get each order from someone’s brain to the chef, the process of remembering starts earlier, when Rebecca first gets wind of the occasion, a chance to ponder if guests might be sharing a dish, or if they’re regulars with culinary preferences from their last visit. By the time her guests are seated, she’s built up a rapport. She’ll often recommend dishes too, that level of engagement in someone’s meal acting as mental glue.

Yet since the restaurant’s point of sale technology has improved, Rebecca says she finds it more difficult to know she has it right. In the old days, she used to write each order on a carbon copy ticket, one for the front of house and one for the kitchen, the process of putting pen to paper being her checking policy.

“That’s when I’d be confirming it to myself,” she says. “But now that it’s a touchscreen, I’m less convinced by my memory. It’s almost like you are offloading the information rather than storing it.”

A 2021 University of Tokyo study of students and recent graduates backs this up. The study found that physically writing something on paper (as opposed to entering it into a device), stimulates greater brain activity when recalling the information an hour later. Researchers say that the complex spatial and tactile information associated with writing by hand is likely what leads to improved memory. All the more reason to park your phone in favour of a dog-eared notebook. And to stay engaged.

It’s never too late to improve your memory with training techniques

It’s never too late to make improvements, either. In her fascinating book, Memory Craft, Australian academic Dr Lynne Kelly makes a convincing case for memory training. Earlier in her career she’d written extensively about the systems Indigenous cultures used to hold and pass on vast stores of knowledge, without leaving a written record (the Navajo could remember more than 700 insects to three levels of classification; Aboriginal Australians can relay stories going back 10,000 years). She became inspired to try them out for herself, experimenting with training methods while in her 60s, curious to see if she could improve what she refers to in the book as her “appallingly bad” memory.

Using everything from medieval visual alphabets to remember speeches, her hands and fingers to store knowledge of astronomy and imaginative “memory palaces” to learn French and Chinese, she tried out a diverse range of tools with impressive results. Kelly is now Australia’s senior memory champion, an achievement measured by the speed and accuracy of her ability to memorise shuffled decks of playing cards. More importantly, she can rattle off the names of 412 native Australian birds, list the prehistoric ages of the earth and their corresponding dates, and never flub someone’s name after meeting them at a party.

“Right into the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Western students were also taught to train their memories,” Dr Kelly writes. “It is only in the last few hundred years of Western society that we have lost the ability to memorise vast amounts of information. We use writing and technology to do the job for us. But memory, writing and technology can all enhance each other.”

She also suggests that training our memories could be “invaluable for delaying, maybe even preventing, some forms of dementia”.

Memory is a muscle that needs to be exercised

Acclaimed New Zealand actor Sarah Peirse, star of the Auckland Theatre Company production Switzerland (and several high-profile roles including Heavenly Creatures, and Offspring), agrees. Memory is a muscle, she says. “You have to work it and exercise it.”

The act of learning lines is itself a form of memory training. Some of her fellow actors remember lines in relation to where they sit on the page, whereas others rely more on physical memory.

“I used to walk a lot and learn my lines while walking,” she says. “And interestingly there have been some studies done recently that talk about walking being one of the ways you can aid your memory. If you’re trying to learn text, it’s a good way of doing it.”

A 2014 study at the Institute of Medical Psychology, Goethe University, Germany, found that subjects who were engaged in low-intensity motor activity like walking while learning a foreign language, had better recall than those who learnt while sedentary. The results line up with previous studies showing that increased cortisol levels can improve memory formation — to a point (other studies have shown that too much stress has the opposite effect).

The rhythm, the focus, the fact there are different parts of the brain operating at once — all of it helps the lines to stick, says Sarah. Reading right before sleep is also effective.

“Apart from that, it’s like your times tables,” she says. “It’s just rote learning.”

As if standing up on stage in front of hundreds of expectant people wasn’t terrifying enough, what then, if a line vanishes from your mind at a crucial point in the plot? This is where the physicality of the role, coupled with the location on the stage where you stand to deliver each line, and what you’re doing with your arms, your posture, your expression, can act as a sort of internal prompt, says Sarah.

“Sometimes the best way to climb out and move on is to physically move to the next place that you know you need to go to,” she explains. “You’re actually re-engaging with memory and then the line just pops up and away you go.”

Take a lesson in memory retention

For those of us not treading the boards or working the restaurant floor, how do we acquire an airtight memory? There are a number of courses on the internet aimed at boosting our mental RAM, but one of the best known is The Magnetic Memory Method, taught by Australia-based Canadian, Dr Anthony Metivier.

A former York University professor, he holds a BA and an MA in English literature, an MA in media and communications, and a PhD in Humanities, and has published more than 20 books on the subject. He’s been teaching his method of memory training on the internet for several years, driven by a passion to improve the memories of people everywhere. It’s not necessarily for those who want a cool party trick by rattling off all the names of the people there, Kevin Trudeau-style — but to improve your life in some way, whether it’s learning a second language, studying phrases of philosophy that inform everyday thinking or delving into a field of study (medicine, law, how to play Thunderstruck by AC/DC on guitar).

Metivier struggled with depression for years before stumbling across these techniques, which dovetailed with his rising interest in meditation. With his newfound skills helping him focus his attention away from the negative self-talk, coupled with the dopamine hit he got from recalling increasing chunks of information, the clouds of his emotional darkness soon evaporated. Discovering the techniques was down to “luck meeting a mysterious X-factor,” he laughs, “which is partly coming from pain because I had a problem to solve. I was very depressed. I almost didn’t get the PhD. I almost got a mouthful of pavement is what I got.”

He acknowledges that there’s effort involved in learning and using these techniques — they’re no silver bullet. But I’ve practised some of the methods, including his modern memory palace technique to reboot the French I learned at high school, and I can attest to the fact that while it can take a bit to get your head around, ultimately it’s more effective for long-term retention, and more fun, than rote learning.

Dr Metivier says memories aren’t necessarily ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but ‘trained’ or ‘untrained’. And he’s adamant that despite his various certifications, and the fact he can rattle off scripture and phrases of Chinese, German and Latin — something he does throughout our Zoom interview — it’s not, he insists, because he’s especially intelligent.

“There’s a principle called the Pharmakon principle in philosophy,” he adds, “which is that every cure contains a poison, and every poison contains a cure. And the internet is destroying critical thinking because of its relationship to rote learning. So we need elaborative encoding [the process of consciously inputting information into our memories] more than ever before because we’re actually remembering things without thinking about them. We’re not elaborating them in our minds.”

Although we shouldn’t romanticise our book-reading past, he warns, studies such as the Flynn Effect showed that IQs had been increasing globally, until the internet came along, and we started to see them decline. The late 2000 European studies found that the lack of focus that can accompany speeding through information online “lowers overall intelligence and affects our ability to stick with complex tasks and the capacity to make reliable decisions. It’s also taking a toll on our emotional intelligence, as we become victims of decision fatigue from too much technological stimulation,” noted an article in Forbes.

If you’ve ever read something online then forgotten it almost as soon as you’d put your phone down, it could also be because our reading style often changes when we’re on our screens, to one of scanning and skimming material, rather than analytically reading a piece from start to finish.

“That has degraded our attention spans and encoding options,” says Dr Metivier. “So people are more overwhelmed than ever before and they don’t have proper pattern recognition.”

Like Lynne Kelly, Dr Metivier is a proponent of the ancient art of memory palaces, mental approximations of spaces we know that are already in our minds (the layout of our home, our old school, the walk we take around the block each day). Simply put, it’s in these vitual familiar spaces we can park pieces of information we want to remember by turning the information into an image (the wilder and more inappropriate the better). We can then mentally walk our way from room to room, a process Dr Metivier calls “recall rehearsal”, sending the data into long-term storage, ready to access later when we need it. (For a more in-depth explanation on this technique, visit his Magnetic Memory Method website or Dr Metivier’s YouTube videos.)

This is all very well for information we’re studying, but what of the everyday stuff that trips us up? The name of the party host’s sister, the title of the book we wanted to recommend to a friend, a wedding speech?

There’s no difference between any type of data, he says.

“Memorising a person’s name is memorising a foreign language phrase is memorising the name of a card in a deck but without the exercises, it’s hard to see that there’s an equality amongst all information. Equality is demonstrably true because all information exists in space.”

One way to improve our memories, he suggests in his book The Victorious Mind, is not to think of them as an amorphous, automated process but a behaviour under our conscious control. There’s the act of acknowledging we have something we want to remember. Then there’s the process of associating it with something that might help us to recall it later.

Using this method, when you first have the thought, ‘I must remember this author’, instead of leaving it to chance (or tapping it into your phone), you’ll associate them with a memory of something already firmly entrenched in your mind. You might think of the room in which you first encountered the name of the author, say, Bonnie Garmus: in a café. Bonnie is also the name of your neighbour’s Wheaton terrier, so you could picture the dog drinking from a coffee cup with Lady Gaga and Jake the Muss. You could even go one step further by pre-empting that you want to remember author’s names and create a preordained memory palace for books, based on your memory of the local library, parking the dog and his unlikely companions in the section where the ‘B’ books are filed.

It sounds like a lot of work, and for most of us, it probably is — but perhaps the mental effort required is a preventative measure in itself.

And it’s this idea that we must challenge our cognition with something novel that Gregory Winkleman of the Hinengaro Clinic is all for.

“The very best thing you can do is read a book, talk to people, get some exercise,” he says. “If you can combine that with cognitive stimulation, that’s brilliant. That’s been shown that getting the blood working in your brain and your body going and keeping your mind working at the same time is the absolute gold standard. That’s where the evidence is.”

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