We all have memory failures in our daily life and this is perfectly normal. Whether it’s forgetting your car keys, not remembering the name of an acquaintance or failing to show up for an appointment on time, we all forget things. We’re not computers and our memories are not perfect. If you have MS you might struggle with your memory functioning every single day. But it is possible to improve things.
My recent research has focused on memory rehabilitation. We’re making good progress and I want to share some of the techniques we have developed.
Memory is a very complicated process. It is composed of three stages: encoding (that is, forming new memories), consolidation (retaining the memories) and retrieval (recalling the memories). In this article I will focus on encoding because that is where the vast majority of memory failures occur.
We learn things every day. We are constantly relying on our learning and memory systems. You may need to remember what to get at the shop, you may need to remember a series of things from your to-do list throughout your day. You’re learning the name of a new acquaintance, you’re learning a new process that you might have to perform at work. There are so many memory-taxing situations in our daily lives – we can only improve our lives by learning how to learn better.
Imagery and memory
So how do we do that? My research team has identified several techniques that help in learning new information. The first one is imagery. Imagery is the process by which we attach a mental image or picture to a verbal idea.
You can do this with almost anything. Let’s say you need to remember the word “house”: you might picture your own house, with all its individual details. By doing this you’re forcing your brain to encode information so the word house is being processed and remembered by your verbal memory networks. But it’s also being processed and remembered by your visual-spatial memory system which is further back in your brain. By remembering in two ways you’re increasing your brain activity and building two paths of recall.
So how does this help? Let’s say I have lots of things on my to-do list one day. It might seem counterintuitive to say don’t just remember all these things, also remember a series of pictures. I still have to remember a whole bunch of stuff and that’s my problem! The secret is to combine unrelated material and many ideas into one image. Let’s say that you’re leaving for work in the morning, rushing out the door and you don’t have paper so you can’t write anything down. You have to remember to call your mother, to buy eggs and apples on your way home, to pick up coffee for your 9am meeting and finally you need to remember that last night you changed your wifi password and it’s now “blossom”.
Those are five completely unrelated pieces of information that you’re going to need throughout your day, but you can combine them into one image. First imagine your mother. Next imagine her breaking some eggs. On the table next to your mother picture an apple, whatever kind of apple you like best. If your mother really likes apples you might picture your mother eating that kind of apple – anything that makes that image more specific to your experiences and your memories. Next to the apple you have that cup of coffee – imagine it in your favourite coffee cup.
The final thing you have to remember was that last night you had to change your network password to the word “blossom”. It should be easy to picture blossom. I associate the word “blossom” most strongly with the cherry blossoms that bloom in Washington DC – that’s just the strongest memory of that word to me. For someone else it will be very different.
So you can take several very different pieces of information, combine them into one image and make those items much easier for you to remember.
Instead of remembering that you have to do these five things throughout the course of your day, you have one image; and when you visualise that in your mind it calls to mind these five different things.
The second technique is context. Context refers to what comes before or follows a word. So if I need to remember the word “house”, going back to our previous example, I might say the old house on the hill was charming. I’ve enriched my memory for that word by providing more semantic meaning to it. It’s old, its charming and it’s up on a hill – that’s a much richer memory for me now.
Just like imagery, you can do this with extremely unrelated material. Let’s use another daily life example: let’s say that you’re running to the shops and you have to pick up peas, hot sauce and a mop: three completely unrelated items located in different parts of the store that have very different uses.
To remember this you could create a story where a man walks into a restaurant. He ordered peas with hot sauce on them. He proceeds to get ill and the waiter has to come over to clean up. It’s a little bit crazy, and you are not likely to see it in your everyday life. However, that little bit of eccentricity makes it easier for you to remember it.
The true power of context comes when you combine it with the imagery. So, take your little story of the man in the restaurant ordering the peas and hot sauce. Let’s create a mental image around that story.
Your image might be a static picture because that’s how you think, so you have a picture in your mind of a young man sitting in a restaurant and he has peas in front of him with hot sauce on top and maybe you have the waiter off to the right holding the mop, waiting for that man to get sick.
That’s one image. But someone else may think more in a movie: perhaps they would picture the man walking in to the restaurant sitting down, eating his hot sauce on the peas, becoming ill and the waiter coming over and cleaning up the mess. Either way it works: just do what works best for you.
At the Kessler Foundation we’ve been doing research on memory in people with MS. We teach people these two techniques, five sessions per week for two weeks. After treatment we find a significant improvement in people’s memory abilities on a test where we ask patients to remember a list of words. They do substantially better after treatment then they do before, but more importantly these people are reporting that their memories in daily life are better. They’re able to apply these techniques every day.
This is a tremendous finding. We also see that the brain changes how it was learning and remembering information in only 10 sessions across five weeks. We’re changing how the brain is working and that’s a pretty amazing finding.
These techniques are very simple but they require a lot of practice. You don’t necessarily need to go to therapy to learn the techniques, you can simply start to visualise things: start with one item and then make it two items, three items. Bounce your ideas off a friend. The important thing to remember is that your memory is not static. We can improve it with effort, but like everything else it takes a lot of practice.