If you ask people what is most important in life to them you will likely get a range of answers. Depending on how you precisely phrase the question the responses might include family, God, or some generic moral relativist answers related to being kind, happy, healthy, and many more depending on culture and education or background. But if you really think about it carefully, the most important thing all humans have is our memory simply because it is the repository for our entire life experience.
Regardless of your answer about what the most important thing(s) in your life are, without the ability to recall those memories or those relationships it is simply a void. In the computer age I think nearly all of of us have probably experienced a time when a hard drive has died. All hard drives will eventually fail and it is not a question of “if” but rather “when”. For people that have a good backup strategy in place this is little more than an annoyance. We simply buy a new hard drive, install it, and restore and we are right back in business. But for anyone that has lost a hard drive without a backup, this can be a devastating experience especially if you lost irreplaceable files for example family photos or videos. Unfortunately when it comes to the human brain, there is no backup strategy. We only get one brain and we can’t simply swap it out when we start getting read-write access errors. But the good news is this article will give you a few pointers to keep your brain in tip-top shape and boost your memory as well.
Some people have something known as eidetic memory. For some reason people with confirmed eidetic memories tend to fall between the ages of 6 and 12.It is virtually nonexistent in adults, but there are cases of adults with amazing abilities to recall information that seems nearly impossible to most of us. Ferdinand Marcos for example who was the Filipino dictator reportedly could recite the Philippine constitution forward and backward. John von Neumann, was able to memorize a column of the phone book at a single glance. Simply put eidetic memory is the ability to recall images in extraordinary detail for several minutes like it were a photograph.
Are you curious about your own memory? Here is a free and quick memory test you can try. Chances are you failed miserably. But don’t be discouraged, later in this article I will teach you how to vastly improve your own memory. You will likely never be able to memorize a column in a phone book without a lot of hard work, but chances are you can find those misplaced car keys next time you lose them a lot faster with some very simple tips.
Hyperthymesia or highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM). This is a different type of super memory than eidetic. This condition is possessing an amazing ability to record and recall autobiographical data. The term Total Recall for example usually refers to this concept. I sometimes feel like I have flashes of this ability because I can recall certain days and event with absolute clarity as do most of you. Most of us can remember very happy or perhaps very traumatic events but I am speaking more of simply mundane events like just an ordinary shopping or dining experience where nothing unusual happened. But people with Hyperthymesia can recall nearly every single day of their lives in near perfect detail as if it happened an hour ago even if they are recalling an event from 20 years ago.
Although Hyperthymesia is highly autobiographical, significant outside events like wars, personal tragedies suffered by family or friends and similar traumatic experience can cause their brains to record those events with just as much detail.
As of the writing of this article there are around 6 to possibly a maximum of 25 possible cases in the entire world and chances are you know one of them. Well, not personally but you have likely seen her on TV or in the movies. Actress Marilu Henner, best known for her role as Elaine Nardo on the hit TV sitcom Taxi is one of those confirmed cases. She even wrote a fascinating book about living with this condition with tips everyone can use to improve their own memory called Total Memory Makeover: Uncover Your Past, Take Charge of Your Future
This term is actually just a very broad term that could include an entire range of people and is often misused or misunderstood. It is important to differentiate certain subsets like eidetic and hyperthymesia into their own separate categories as I have done above and understand that true photographic memory is extremely rare. People with exceptional memories are far more common and is a better term to use. This group includes people you may see on TV doing memory feats for example. The good news about these memory athletes is their brains are not wired any differently than yours. Nearly everyone can perform memory feats you thought impossible if you are willing to put in the time and effort.
There are many different techniques people can use. It is likely that you have probably used some mnemonic or similar techniques to memorize long strings of information. Memories recalled by hyperthymestic people tend to be personal accounts of both significant and ordinary events in their lives like buying shoes eight years ago. They can remember every single thing about that day. This extensive and highly unusual memory does not derive from the use of mnemonic strategies; but rather it is encoded involuntarily and retrieved automatically not unlike accessing a file on a computer.
How a Journalist with Ordinary Memory won The Memory Olympics and can teach you how to become a Memory Athlete
Joshua Foer was a science journalist with a very average memory. He became fascinated with the science behind memory. Moonwalking with Einstein recounts Joshua Foer’s yearlong quest to improve his memory under the tutelage of top “mental athletes.” He draws on cutting-edge research, a surprising cultural history of remembering, and venerable tricks of the mentalist’s trade to transform our understanding of human memory.
Whether you have memory problems (can’t recall the name of someone you met a week ago?) or not, you’re likely to improve your memory after reading this book. I am really against self-help books that seem to pop up every week with something new that guarantees to extend or improve or completely change your life for the better. But this is the one book that actually did all those things and never promised to do any of them. It is rare to read a book that you actually enjoy reading but can also drastically improve your life as n added bonus. What makes the book so interesting is that it is narrative non-fiction and reads like a novel with lots of interesting stories and fascinating characters.
Moonwalking with Einstein expands the mnemonic technique I learned back in college by use of something of which I’d never heard called “the “Memory Palace.” The Memory Palace exploits our inherent skill for remembering images and spatial locations, harnesses these two abilities we all posses in abundance, and relates them to the memorization of numbers, lists and assortments of other difficult to remember items. The amazing thing is that the Memory Palace not only makes memorization easy, it also makes it fun. I’d strongly recommend you give this book a try. The techniques can even be fun to try out with your family, friends, or co-workers. Chances are you will greatly improve your memory which gives obvious and immediate benefits. At the worst you are out a few bucks for a book that is extremely entertaining all on it’s own even if you don’t care to improve your memory. Here is a short video below with Joshua to give you a great idea of what the book is about.
Two Urban Legends that Need to Die: 10% Brain Use and Multitasking
While writing this article a commercial advertising the new movie called Lucy appeared on TV in the background. It is about a human with super abilities because she can use 100% of her brain. News Flash: We all can and do every day. This is a very old urban legend dating all the way back to the 1890’s that says that humans only use anywhere from 3%, or 10%, or 20% or some other small percentage of our brains and if we could just figure out how to use the other part we could all be geniuses or in the case of this movie have super hero powers.
It is complete and utter non-sense and it amazes me so many of my educated friends actually believe this ridiculous lie. It might make for a good Hollywood thriller but nothing more. Our brain uses over 90% simply not all at once. If it did, not only would it overheat but the amount of calories required would be extraordinary. It already uses around 20% of the calories on average or more. The brain is simply very good at caching and only using the parts it needs when it needs them and is very efficient.
Another urban legend is multi-tasking. Do you have an annoying friends that brags about being great at multi-tasking and always brings it up in conversation as one of their greatest qualities? Chances are you do. The number of deaths from texting while driving prove otherwise. Human brains simply aren’t equipped to do true multitasking. We can do multiple things at once but will always give priority to one tasks over the other. “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” said neuroscientist Earl Miller. And, he said, “The brain is very good at deluding itself.” Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT, says that for the most part, we simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. What we can do, he said, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed.
For anyone who has a loved one that has experienced or is currently experiencing memory disorders, I do not need to explain the importance of memory loss to you. It can be a slow and agonizing experience both for the person with the memory loss and their loved ones. To have a husband, wife, mom or dad you have loved for decades no longer recognize you is heartwrenching.
There is alcohol-related dementia, mental blocks as we age, dementia, Alzheimer’s, vascular disorders, post-traumatic memory loss from war veterans for example, and concussion related memory loss that sometimes happens to athletes to name but a few.
Every single event and every person we have ever known or loved are contained in our memories in our brains. If we begins to lose our memories, do we lose ourselves? That is a philosophical question better left for another time but in my humble opinion I think it does.
David Hume, in his seminal work “A Treatise of Human Nature,” offered what was, at that time, a radical notion of human identity: that the “self,” as we conceive of it, is not a single spiritual or psychological entity, like a “soul,” but rather a collection of discrete sensations and impressions — a “bundle,” as he called it. Connections between these individual perceptions give rise to the idea of a continuous “self.” And memory gives that self lasting force.
I think Brian Falkner said it best in his book Brain Jack. “We are our memories,” Dodge said. “That’s all we are. That’s what makes us the person we are. The sum of all our memories from the day we were born. If you took a person and replaced his set of memories with another set, he’d be a different person. He’d think, act, and feel things differently.”
All of us will begin to lose memory to a certain degree as we age. The good news is that research shows that normal aerobic exercise that helps keep your body fit also help keeps your brain fit. So one of the best things you can do to live a long, healthy life with a good memory is simply do something you learned as a child. Get enough sleep, eat healthy foods, exercise, and keep your stress down. Doing Puzzles and any challenging mental activities can also help. Good luck and Good memories!