Brain Pickings

How to Optimize Your Brain: Why Refining Emotional Recall is the Secret to Better Memory

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“You are what you remember — your very identity depends on all of the events, people and places you can recall.”

We’ve seen the many ways in which our memory can be our merciless traitor: it is not a recording device but a practitioner of creative plagiarism, a terrible timekeeper, and the bent backbone in the anatomy of lying. How, then, can this essential human faculty become our ally?

In The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well (public library) — a compendium of pragmatic advice on such modern fixations and timeless aspirations as how to create a great company culture (courtesy of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh) to how to be funny (courtesy of Alec Baldwin) to how to fight for justice (courtesy of Constance Rice) — neurologist, neuropsychiatrist, and prolific brain-book author Richard Restak offers some vital tips on how to optimize your brain, central to which is honing the capacity and performance of your memory:

On a very basic level, you are what you remember — your very identity depends on all of the events, people and places you can recall. Improving your memory will help you develop a quicker, more accurate retrieval of information that will increase your intelligence. Sharpening your short-term or “working” memory requires concentration. For instance, study four unrelated words for 15 seconds, then set an alarm for five minutes. Pay attention to another activity until the alarm sounds. Then try to remember the words. As you get better, change and add to the number of words and increase the amount of time. You can do similar exercises with numbers, visual designs, spoken words or even try to recount the scenes of a television show you just watched.

But this, Restak cautions, can be physically taxing:

When you do these exercises your brain will require extra oxygen, blood and glucose. Just as with physical exercise, this can tire you out. Many “tricks” to sharpen your recall use memory pegs, systems to attach an association or meaning to what you desire to remember. There are visual and story memory systems, some dating back to Ancient Rome. One of these systems is called “the memory palace,” in which you associate the things you want to remember with vivid mental pictures, which you then imaginatively place in a familiar setting such as your living room. Later, you can “tour” in your mind the living room to observe the remembered objects in their familiar places. This technique can be so effective it is often used by memory contest champions.

Argentinian photographer Irina Wering recreates adults' childhood portraits in her 'Back to the Future' series.

Just as important as working memory, Restak argues, is emotional memory — an essential psychological tool that has found creative expression in everything from sentimental cartography to object-based storytelling to wearable personal histories. Restak writes:

Another aspect of recall is emotional memory, when we relive how we felt at moments in the past — elated, sad, depressed, or angry. When we lose emotional memory of our own youth, we find that we no longer understand young people. If this forgetting progresses, we begin to lose touch with ourselves. And if we allow our emotional memories to disappear, as happens with Alzheimer’s patients, we will find a stranger staring back at us from the mirror.

He recommends an exercise for reacquainting yourself with your emotional memory, one practiced by cultural icons in their letters to their younger selves and embedded in the heart of the It Gets Better project:

Find a picture of yourself in which you are half of your present age. Stare at the picture for a while. Then write a letter to your older self from the perspective of the younger you in the photo, expressing all of the younger self’s hopes and concerns about the future. Follow this with a letter back from the present self to the younger you, telling that younger self about all the things they will do in their future and who they will grow into. Hopefully you will uncover feelings and memories of things you haven’t experienced for years.

Annie Lennox's letter to her 16-year-old self. Click image for details.

Restak reminds us of the multi-sensory dimensions of experience:

The olfactory nerve links directly to the emotional centers of the limbic system, so the scents of your past — such as mowed grass, crayons or perfumes — can also bring back emotionally charged memories. Think of Proust and his madeleine.

Complement with this fascinating read on the science of “chunking” and working memory and this guide to the art of revising our inner storytelling, then find more practical modern-day how-to’s on everything from entrepreneurship to comedy to winemaking in The Art of Doing.

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