It could easily be stated that memory is a crucial part of mental fitness and overall health. The decline in memory and cognitive ability is not something that exclusively affects our aging population. Regardless of our age, it is important to flex our mental muscle and keep it in shape if we want to unlock our full potential as human beings. A strong, healthy mind is as important as a healthy body or balanced state of emotions. A fully functioning memory can help us in many areas of our lives-personally, professionally and in our relationships. This is a story about a person with a totally average memory (me) who took one baby step towards improving this valuable natural resource.
Over the past several months, I have been hearing a lot on the topic of memory. I’ve been hearing about people who can memorize the order of several decks of cards, thousands of consecutive numbers, or lengthy poems (verbatim). These feats seemed impossible to me and without employing any of the techniques that I had been hearing about, I sat down with a deck of cards and attempted to memorize as many as I could in the manner that I was accustomed to. It went something like this: “ok… nine of diamonds, king of spades, two of hearts, three of clubs. Repeat-nine of diamonds, king of spades, two of hearts, three of…..three of…..three of spades?” How could my memory be so poor?
The answer came to me in the form of a TED talk given by Joshua Foer. He started off the talk by describing a scene in vivid detail. The subject matter of the scene was inconsequential, it was the vividness it evoked that made it memorable. Simply stated-it turns out that the area of the brain that is used to achieve feats of super-memory is different than that which most people use to remember information in their daily lives. The use of images, symbols, emotion, and the conjuring of the sense of smell, taste, and touch can help us to file away larger amounts of detailed information for recall at a later time. If we attach meaning and vividly imaginative storytelling to our memorization, we can access those memories much more readily.
The test: a new year’s eve to remember
Immediately after watching the TED talk on New Year’s Eve, I decided that there would be no better way to ring in the New Year than by accomplishing the feat (that I truly doubted I could accomplish) of memorizing a stack of 52 shuffled cards. In what many would consider a strange new year’s eve outing, I set out to buy a deck of cards. I ended up at a gas station near my house. The attendant pointed me in the direction of the playing cards and probably thought I was on my way to a party to socialize, eat, drink and be merry. Little did he know that I was on my way home to sit and teach myself to memorize that deck of cards before mid-night!
*Disclaimer: Keep in mind that I did this with no formal training and I am still a complete novice! I took what I heard in one TED talk and a couple of podcasts and applied it. There are probably much better and more efficient ways to do this, but this way worked for me. Being that I consider my memory to be completely average and on some days, just downright lousy, I think this technique will work for you too if you take the time and focus to apply it. It does take focus, so hang in there! For more formal training, please seek out a qualified memory trainer or memory training system. This is merely the experience of an average person on a late night quest for a modicum of memory mastery!
How to memorize a deck of cards (one technique)
- Open your mind to the creative impulse. Let your mind think in terms of storytelling, symbols, songs, smells, tastes, and feelings. Use humor.
- Start small. Take 5-7 cards and make up a silly story about the characters. Use word associations. For example: “the king loved the lucky queen and they had seven rich children who were constantly joking around in their nine room clubhouse.” Did you get it? It’s a reference to the king of hearts (heart=love), the queen of clubs (club=clover=lucky), the seven of diamonds (diamonds=rich), joker (joker=joking around), nine of clubs (club=clubhouse). There are tons of ways to do this. The more ridiculous, the better. Whatever works for you. Don’t be embarrassed to be silly.
- Take groupings of 5-7 cards and combine them into bigger stacks (i.e.: 4 stacks of between 5 and 7 cards is between 20 and 28 cards-you’re roughly halfway there! Divide the story in any way that works for you.
- To reiterate, once you have your groupings, link the smaller stories together so that they flow into one complete story. The smaller groupings are like chapters in a book and your final job is to string all the chapters together to make a complete picture. Think of interesting links or themes that you can use to bridge the smaller pieces of the puzzle together into one coherent story that you can be proud of and entertained by. Don’t be surprised if, after memorizing the deck of cards, you retain this memory even after several days have passed. This is the true sign of a good story!
Give it a try! It is challenging, but it is a good exercise for the mind. If this is not for you, don’t fret, it’s not that you’re incapable of doing it. It just that you may need more practice or some training. There are plenty of different ways to exercise our minds, for example: Sudoku, puzzles, crossword puzzles, etc. To form a complete picture of health, we must exercise our minds like we exercise our bodies and balance our emotions. This completes the trifecta for a healthy, optimized, and fulfilled life! Whichever mind exercise you chose to do, have fun!
Isaac S Haynes, PhD, MATCM, LAc. holds a Doctorate in acupuncture and Tui na from Zhejiang Chinese Medical University and a Master’s Degree in Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine from Yo San University. His practice is located in Madison, Wisconsin. For more information about his services, please visit: www.madisonacupuncture.net. or connect with Isaac on:Facebook and Google+