Total Recall: A Reader’s Guide to Memory Gain
Posted January 7, 2018 6:06 p.m. EST
Here in the valley of my mid-50s, I try not to get into a swivet over my occasionally faulty memory: Sometimes the mind has a mind of its own. But when I read this chilling passage — “I am dementing. I am dementing. I am dementing.” — from Gerda Saunders’ recent memoir “Memory’s Last Breath: Field Notes on My Dementia,” I found myself starting to panic.
In a world increasingly dominated by the Google/Apple/Facebook/Amazon hegemony, we hear a lot about the threat to privacy. But isn’t memory just as vulnerable? Now that, as former New Republic editor Franklin Foer writes in “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech,” “our phone is an extension of our memory; we’ve outsourced basic functions to algorithms,” doesn’t the world seem like an ever-larger parking lot that has mysteriously swallowed our Toyota? Don’t we all wish, now more than ever, that acquaintances came equipped with their own “Previously on this series …” trailer?
Foer and Saunders aren’t the only writers on this beat. Recent books by Robert Sapolsky, Michael Lemonick, Felicia Yap, Emily Barr, Dale Bredesen, Val Emmich, Oliver Sacks and Elizabeth Rosner, among others, have addressed the theme of non-historical memory. Last July alone, more than a dozen books specifically about the topic, most of them self-published, were released.
You’d expect the themes of amnesia or powers of recall to be prevalent in thrillers or in memoirs by trauma survivors or over-beveraged rock stars, but even literary fiction is getting in on the act. In Rachel Khong’s sly, diaristic “Goodbye, Vitamin,” a 30-year-old who moves back home learns she has to care for a dementing father who has started leaving his pants in trees. In Alissa Nutting’s outrageous sex comedy “Made for Love,” a woman on the lam from her tech pioneer husband discovers that he has implanted a chip in her brain that allows him to download all her experiences.
The majority of the recent or coming books about the topic, though, are nonfiction works that take a prescriptive approach to memory loss. I recently spent a month trying to follow the dictates of two of them, both written by doctors: Daniel G. Amen’s “Memory Rescue: Supercharge Your Brain, Reverse Memory Loss, and Remember What Matters Most” and Andrew E. Budson and Maureen K. O’Connor’s “Seven Steps to Managing Your Memory: What’s Normal, What’s Not, and What to Do About It.” The first thing I noticed about these two workbook-type tomes is, because they’re not intended to be read straight through, they repeat information so frequently as to render a reader frantic about his mental health. I kept wanting to ask Amen, a physician with his own chain of clinics: Didn’t you pimp turmeric 10 pages ago? Before reading the books, I’d taken eight memory tests that I’d found on various websites, to get a baseline of my powers of recall. Consolingly, I’d tested slightly above average for my age. But once turmeric started to ominously reappear, I felt like Jennifer Lawrence in “Mother!”
On the diet and exercise front, the two books were mostly in agreement: Strangely, neither wants you to lie on the couch while idly nursing a stick of French butter. (But take heart, both books want you to eat a little dark chocolate each day. Budson and O’Connor, who teach neurology at Boston University, don’t even stipulate that it needs to be unsweetened.)
For me, the doctors’ bodily prescriptions fell into two categories: Things I Already Do, and Things I Can’t Be Bothered to Change. On the former front: I dance two hours a week, walk briskly 30 minutes a day and consume a lot of vegetables and water but not much alcohol or butter. On the latter: Hands off my trusty colleagues caffeine and baked goods, not to mention my occasional visitors, Mr. Charred Meats and Ms. Marijuana.
When it came to recommended activities, this Scrabble enthusiast was dismayed to learn from Budson and O’Connor that “there is not currently strong enough evidence for us to suggest the use of brain-training games.” Rather, they encourage you to learn new skills or information while being social. To this end, I took an Iyengar yoga class. I chatted up a friend about the recent Mayweather-McGregor boxing bout. I had a CVS employee show me how to use a price scanner, and a church employee tell me what an undercroft is. (“Are we in the undercroft now?,” I asked him. “Yes, we’re in the undercroft,” he told me. I felt like I’d wandered into a young adult novel about hot, troubled teens who foil the time-space continuum.)
In a similar vein, Amen encourages you to undertake various activities while using your non-dominant hand. Slight splattery mayhem ensued in my kitchen one night when I tried to slice 30 or so cherry tomatoes in half with my left hand for a salad. It looked like an audience at La Scala had very strong feelings about our floor tiles.
Two of the books’ dictates seemed like they were demonstrably working. First, Amen recommends that you spend 15 minutes a day in deep prayer or meditation, which “reliably activates the prefrontal cortex.” Of the 30 days I tried meditating — I stare at a spot on the wall, and repeatedly clear my mind — I was unable to focus eight times and fell asleep once. But two of the sessions led to the most productive workdays I’ve had all year.
I also noticed good results with memorization techniques wherein you create images in your mind. One of these is a rhyme that runs, “One is a bun, two is a shoe, three is a tree” and so on up to 10. Thus, if given a list of words to memorize that starts “sally, smokey, desperate,” I’d first imagine “All in the Family” co-star Sally Struthers bursting from a hot dog bun; then a pair of shoes being barbecued; and then a tree whose roots spell out “kill me now.” Equally effective was imagining walking through our apartment and finding the 10 words, in groups of two or three, in various rooms. So, I’d imagine opening our front door and finding Sally Struthers, on fire, playing a nonspeaking juror on “Law and Order.”
When I retook the eight online memory tests a month later, my scores mostly went up about 10 percent. I muffed one test, but, during it, a fly had landed on my keyboard: Confirmation of my suspicion that I don’t have a retention problem, but occasionally I have an attention one.
In the end? I will probably keep meditating. I will definitely keep imagining 1970s sitcom stars emerging from breadstuffs. To celebrate my gains, I thought about buying Robert Wright’s “Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.” But, given my attention deficit, the better bet might be Mike McCormack’s much-lauded novel “Solar Bones,” about an Irishman ruminating, Molly Bloom-style, on his whole life: It’s written as one sentence.