Don't Settle for a Memory that Fails

Column by Christina Sevilla

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By Christina Sevilla, Center Director and Owner of LearningRx Denver and Centennial
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Have you lost your car keys lately? Or forgotten the name of your daughter’s soccer coach again? If so, you probably chalked it up to, “I’ve always had a bad memory” or “I guess it’s just part of getting older.” Wrong! There’s no reason you – or anyone else in your family – should feel “stuck” with a memory that fails you.

Memory is just one of the many cognitive skills that can be trained, strengthened and enhanced with the right type of mental exercises. For some people, this mental memory training is nearly an art form (or a full-time job) that culminates with the annual three-day, seven-event USA Memory Championship in New York City.

The 2011 Memory Champion, Nelson Dellis, set a record by memorizing 248 random numbers in five minutes. Dellis says anybody can do it – with the proper training. “You expect to find somebody who’s just naturally good at memorizing things, but that’s not the case, ever,” explained Dellis during a Today show interview. “Everybody who competes in these competitions trained their memory.”

If you’re struggling to see the value of memorizing 248 random digits, consider this: the average person wastes an estimated 40 days a year compensating for things they’ve forgotten. That’s according to Moonwalking with Einstein which chronicles the author’s one-year journey from “average” to 2006 USA Memory Champ. A better memory means less time searching for things, either physically or in your mind, and can lead to an improved understanding of academic material or instructions, better grades or work performance, and more opportunities.

Memory is broken into two main categories. Long-term memory stores information processed more than a few minutes ago. Short-term memory, often called working memory, is a type of mental scratch pad used to take in new information, hold it in awareness and work with it to complete another task, and then dismiss it.

During school-age years, a strong memory is a huge advantage. Working memory is especially important when it comes to mental math, reading (you’re using it now to remember the beginning of this sentence), instructions, and if/then analogies. If your child has poor working memory skills, chances are he has trouble reading, following instructions and doing multi-step math too.

Brain training is one of the most successful ways to increase both types of memory and the other cognitive skills that make up intelligence, including: visual and auditory processing, logic and reasoning and attention. A study of 2009 LearningRx results shows students under the age of 25 gained an average of 3.8 years ability in short-term memory and 4.3 years ability in long-term memory. Other cognitive areas saw similar jumps, with an average IQ increase for all students of 14.9 points.

While intense, one-on-one training may be necessary for that kind of impressive result, there are things that can help improve your memory now.

Make memories memorable.

Your first kiss. Remember that? Or the smell of a freshly bathed infant? These memories are strong because they’re attached to emotions or senses. Assigning strong multi-sensory associations can help you remember things that are otherwise mundane. For example, if you need bacon, picture a sizzling strip of dancing blue bacon that’s making the store smell like breakfast. Visualize the joyful bacon dripping hot grease onto the next item on your list to link them in a memorable way.

Chunk it.

Chunking is the common practice of breaking big amounts of information into chunks the brain can handle. Studies show the average brain can hold seven pieces of information before shutting down. Social security, credit card, and telephone numbers are all chunked. Consider the number 5072066757. As a ten digit number, it’s overwhelming. But when chunked into 507-206-6757, it’s easily recognized as a telephone number, and becomes a much more efficient way to memorize the number for LearningRx Rochester.

Take care of your brain.

Studies continue to show that healthy brain food, adequate sleep, physical exercise, and social interaction all help boost memory.

If you’re concerned about the memory of anyone in your home, consider a cognitive skills assessment. This type of testing takes about 690 minutes and will uncover any cognitive weaknesses. What appears to be a memory problem may actually be an attention deficit or auditory processing weakness; the brain simply can’t pay attention long enough, or process the information thoroughly enough, to remember it. After you determine your brain’s weakest area, you can focus on the most effective training routine to strengthen it. And then forget about ever losing your keys again.

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