Memory Debunked

These 3 common beliefs about memory aren’t true

No, you don’t have to use visualization to remember where you put your keys.

From your passwords to where you parked your car, there’s a lot to remember every day. If you struggle with your memory but shrug your shoulders and accept it as is, you’re holding yourself back, says Nelson Dellis, author of Remember It! The Names of People You Meet, All of Your Passwords, Where You Left Your Keys, and Everything Else You Tend to Forget.

“You need to start thinking differently about how your memory works and how to better utilize its best qualities,” he says. “Some horrible anti-memory notions exist that need to be dispelled.”

Here are the three misconceptions about memory that you need to forget:

1. My memory is bad, and I’m stuck with it

This is the biggest myth, says Dellis. “People think memory is static when in reality it’s dynamic, with the ability to expand, strengthen, and hone it with a little bit of technique and work,” he says.

As a four-time winner of the USA Memory Championship, Dellis says people are often skeptical of his advice. “What I do seems unbelievable, and if you’ve never tried it before, you might think it won’t come naturally to you,” he says. “The only difference between you and me is training.”

It’s easier to believe that some people have a more gifted or even photographic memory, says Dellis. “In my personal experience having been around memory competitions with the best memories in world, I’ve never seen anybody who claims and proves they have photographic memory,” he says. “When you know you’re capable, suddenly you’re responsible. It’s easier to believe you can’t do do the work than it takes to embrace something we all can do.”

The difference between remembering and forgetting isn’t failing to pull something from your brain; it’s putting it in your brain in a memorable way, and anyone can work to improve, says Dellis. For example, Joshua Foer, a journalist who covered the U.S. Memory Championship, went from curious onlooker to champion after training just a year. He wrote about the experience in his book Moonwalking With Einstein.

2. Memory requires visualization, and I’m not a visual learner

Some people have a preference for hearing things rather than seeing things, and others like to write things down to focus, but if you think you have to be a visual learner to have a good memory, you’re mistaken, says Dellis.

“Visual learning actually has very little to do with what you see with your eyes, and almost everything to do with what you see with your mind,” he says. “Whether you hear a piece of information, read it, or copy it as you’re reading it, all you’re doing is giving it your attention. You can pay attention any way you want, but attention is only the first step.”

Visualization aids in memory and it can include all of the senses. “What does something remind of you of when see it in your mind?” asks Dellis. “You can think of smell, sound, or touch. Encompass all of the senses and add emotion to tag a mental image. We all can do that, no matter how you learn.”

3. The brain can hold only so much information

When memory competitions started, experts thought it was impossible to retain more than 20 digits and repeat them out loud, says Dellis. “The record now is well over 450 digits,” he says. “Boundaries keep getting broken. It’s not so much the amount the mind can hold; it’s how much time and desire you have.”

The brain does have a limit, but it’s far beyond anyone’s reach, according to Paul Reber, director of the Brain, Behavior, and Cognition program at Northwestern University.

“It’s somewhere in the vicinity of a million gigabytes,” says Dellis. “If you had a DVR with that kind of capacity, you could store 3 million hours of TV shows, or a little more than 342 years of nonstop action.”

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