Why is my memory so bad?

And is there hope for the scatterbrained ?

Dr. Marian Berryhill is a professor and memory researcher in UNR’s Cognitive and Brain Sciences Program. PHOTO/KRIS VAGNER

Dr. Marian Berryhill is a professor and memory researcher in UNR’s Cognitive and Brain Sciences Program. PHOTO/KRIS VAGNER

Picture a giant carrot cake—the size of a suburban ranch house.

Here’s why: A couple of weeks ago, I learned a new word, “epicaricacy.” The legitimacy of this word is debatable. Urban Dictionary condones it. Traditional dictionaries do not, and it’s sparsely used. It means the same thing as “schadenfreude”—that is, taking pleasure in someone else’s pain—and, while its obscurity will probably keep me from using it in print much, it does solve a common household problem. “Schadenfreude” is a handy word that I have occasion for regularly—like, every single time my kid beats me at chess and eagerly relishes my defeat—but, as far as I can tell, I’ve never really pronounced it correctly. So, when I first heard “epicaricacy,” which rolls off the non-German-speaking tongue pretty easily, I decided to adopt it for frequent colloquial use.

But I had some trouble getting the word’s unfamiliar combination of syllables to lodge itself in my memory. I had to keep asking, “What was that word again?” until finally I devised a method to make it stick. I thought, “What does ’epicaricacy’ sound like that would be easy to remember? Well, it kind of sounds like ’epic carrot cake.’” So, I pictured the house-sized cake, and it worked. The word hasn’t slipped my mind since.

But a lot of other things have slipped my mind. It happens all the time. Apart from being able to associate far-fetched images with hard-to-remember words pretty easily, my memory is terrible. You should hear me trying to recall the plot of a movie a few months after I’ve seen it: “Uhh. Umm.” And, once a week or so, when RN&R editor Brad Bynum says, “Don’t you remember we just had this conversation?” I tend to say something like, “That does seem like a conversation we would have had, but, umm, no, this does not ring a bell.”

So, I set out to find out why my memory is so faulty and what, if anything, could be done about it. Along the way, I learned a bit about what local memory scientists do.

What is memory, anyway?

Let’s start with the basics. Memory is the brain’s system of encoding, storing and retrieving information. Physiologically speaking, those jobs are done by neurons, which are the brain’s nerve cells, communicating with each other via neurotransmitters, the chemicals that allow the transmission of signals.

One fairly common assumption is that memory works like a file cabinet—we put information in there, it stays safe and well organized, then, we pull it out when we need it. But in reality the process is quite a bit messier than that. Memory is malleable, and when it comes to autobiographical memory, the kind that helps us recall our own experiences, it’s also pretty unreliable.

“It fades,” according to Dr. Marian Berryhill, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. “It’s conflated across time and space, and everyone who was at a particular event has a different kind of memory for what happened. And every time you retrieve a memory, it changes.”

To describe just how it changes, Berryhill likes to use a food metaphor. Think of a dish of food you’ve stored in the fridge and later reheated. “It’s going to be largely the same, probably, but when you take it out and warm it up again, the cheese sags,” she said. “The vegetables get a little wimpier. It’s not exactly the same. Sometimes it’s like reheating lasagna. It’s not going to be entirely different. But sometimes it’s like letting ice cream melt. So, for some of those more fragile memories, you take it out, maybe it’s still occupying the same volume, you still recognize that it’s strawberry. But the structure, the shape, those are fundamentally pushed around.”

What could go wrong?

There are a lot of things that can go wrong with memory. Some of the bigger problems include, of course, Alzheimer’s disease—which causes neurons to stop working, stop communicating with each other and die—and brain injuries, including those common childhood concussions, which can cause temporary or permanent loss to short- or long-term memory.

But what we’re looking for here are reasons why the ordinary, non-injured brain can’t remember where it put its keys or recall what’s on the grocery list.

For one thing, stress can decrease the ability to recall things—and the ability to encode them in the first place.

Age affects memory loss, too—and sooner than you might think. Memory actually starts declining when we’re in our 20s. And a lot of people who are in their 60s notice they start forgetting things that seemed permanently stored, such as an ATM PIN or an acquaintance’s name. The good news is that if, in your 60s, you’re annoyed by this type of memory loss, that’s actually a sign that you’re doing OK. If it were Alzheimer’s setting in, you likely wouldn’t even notice that you were forgetting things.

As you may have suspected if you’ve ever jumped into the same Wikipedia hole twice or GPSed the route to your best friend’s house for the fifth time, our reliance on technology has made our memories worse, too.

“When you know equipment is backing up your cognition, you don’t code it—you don’t keep it,” said Berryhill. There are mountains of studies to back that up.

A 2008 study conducted in Tokyo found that pedestrians drew less accurate maps of the routes they had walked if they’d used a GPS than if they hadn’t. And an often cited study from 2011, led by researcher Betsy Sparrow, then with Columbia University, found something called the “Google effect” or “digital amnesia.” Explaining her findings to PBS NewsHour, Sparrow said, “When people expect to have information accessible to them later, they don’t remember it as well as when they don’t expect to.”

Science—slow and steady

Berryhill works in the Cognitive and Brain Sciences Program and the Memory & Brain Lab, within UNR’s Department of Psychology, along with a team of colleagues and students. They devise and conduct experiment after experiment in the hope of slowly adding to the world’s cumulative knowledge of how the brain works.

They work in a couple of small, hallway-shaped labs brightened by window light, with desks against the walls and a few computers. Some of the monitors show lines of code, which students have to write themselves. (For that reason, the program attracts its share of grad students who come from math or engineering backgrounds.)

“Participants come in—usually they sit at boring computers,” said Berryhill, opening the door to a closet-sized experimentation room inside one of the labs. On a small desk is an old, boxy CRT monitor, which is no longer manufactured but is still favored by researchers in cognitive and vision sciences.

“Here’s some electrodes,” said Berryhill, picking up a cord with what looked like a small, damp, kitchen sponge at its end. “You just put these on the head. You put a tiny amount of current into the brain.” The team has used this experiment to try to determine whether electric current can stimulate memory—and they’ve found that it can, but typically only in people whose memories are already working well to begin with.

If a breakthrough that small sounds like it would try your patience, a career in this type of research might not be up your alley. Progress is slow, and the parameters of what this team is looking for might appear, to the non-scientist’s eye, very narrow. They want to learn things like whether people can recognize symmetry well, or remember a specific, Rorschach-looking shape that flashes on a monitor for a split second, or try to measure how people’s eyes adapt to blur.

“On scientific research, you’re trying to add one more bead to a string,” Berryhill said. While the team’s discoveries might seem modest in the grand scheme of things, she argued that their cumulative effects are invaluable.

“So there’s … bench-to-bedside research that’s very clearly targeting disease,” she said. “But there’s also the basic research, that is so easy to ridicule. It’s so easy to pull a paper out of a stack and go, ’Can you believe these monkeys? They went off and studied … mosquito larvae that live in this particular tree.’

“But in my opinion—and there are good data to support the view—is that you don’t even know the consequences of not funding research,” said Berryhill.

She also mentioned that, at a moment when grant funding is under federal scrutiny, students’ ability to learn to evaluate data is of paramount concern to her. She added that in some cases that data relates to immediate concerns within students’ own families. “Parkinsons, depression, addiction, PTSD, these are commonly discussed topics in the world around us that we will never get to the bottom of [without continued research].”

Berryhill and many of her students and colleagues were among those present at the Northern Nevada March for Science on April 22.

Can memory be improved?

In national and international memory tournaments, contestants compete to memorize things such as decks of cards, lists of numbers, images of faces and random lists of words. Researchers in the Netherlands set out to determine the difference between the brains of the people who win these tournaments and those of ordinary people. They took brain scans of 23 of the world’s top 50 memory champions and 23 scans of non-champions whose ages, genders and IQs matched those of their counterparts.

In the study, published in March, the researchers didn’t find any real physical differences between the two groups’ brains. They did find a difference in the way the memory champions’ brains were acting, though. When the champions recited long lists of words, the parts of the brain associated with memory and the parts associated with spatial reasoning were interacting, and in the laypeople’s brains, they were not.

Memory champions are also sometimes called “memory athletes.” And one of the ways they train is to associate things they’re trying to remember with visuals. (Could it turn out that in the world of memory whizzes, the link between giant carrot cakes and new vocabulary words isn’t actually all that weird?)

Another expert who talks about memory being developed through practice is Kevin Horsley, author of the book Unlimited Memory. He likens memory to biceps—you’re not born with them, you work for them. Horsley was diagnosed dyslexic as a child and told he didn’t have much hope to develop strong concentration or memory. He graduated from high school a shaky reader. Shortly afterward, he read a book on memory development and concluded, “Our memory is just a habit, and habits can be improved with the right kind of training.” Ten years later, he memorized pi to 10,000 digits, and he now is an official Grand Master of Memory. That title goes to people who prove they can memorize 1,000 random digits in an hour, memorize 10 decks of cards in an hour, and memorize one deck of cards in under a minute.

I decided to take Horsley’s advice.

Picture that

Unlimited Memory reads a lot like a self help book. It starts with instructions to silence your inner critic, change your mind about your abilities and be in the moment, instead of being mentally all over the place.

Worry and stress are memory killers, Horsley says, concentration is critical, and multitasking is a sure-fire way to ensure that facts and observations never even get absorbed through the thick skulls of us multitaskers, let alone remembered. Oh, and we should not check our email, Facebook and Twitter 50 times a day. (Yes, 50 times a day is an actual figure that Horsley said he’d come across.)

At this point in the book, I confess that I was thinking, “Sure, buddy, I will simply drop all my stubborn habits in one fell swoop. I will turn off my phone. I will achieve inner peace in a jiff, and all will be well. No sweat.”

But then, as if he’d predicted the exact page at which I was planning on throwing in the towel on even considering his ambitious self-improvement project—page 49, to be exact—he began offering specific tips on exactly how to remember things better.

He had a list of foreign words, with ideas for remembering them. In Zulu, inja means dog. “Picture an injured dog,” he advised. After that, there are pages of similar exercises for how to match a spacial concept with something you’re trying to memorize. It turns out that when you are using your creativity, at all, it becomes easier to absorb and retain. I got a 100 percent on the foreign words quiz. I tried a more elaborate test with my family, memorizing a 14-item grocery list by picturing the groceries in ridiculous situations, the dried fruit mashed into my speedometer, an egg thrown at my passenger. All four of us who took the quiz got a pretty good score on the first try, and either a 13/14 or a 14/14 on the second try, as Horsley predicted. A few days later, I can still recite the list in its entirety.

So, why do so many avenues of memory improvement seem to lead back to visuals and mnemonics? It turns out that way back in the 1400s, the invention of the printing press—and the widespread literacy that eventually caught on as a result—may have had an even bigger impact on human memory than digital technology has had more recently. Before we could store knowledge in books, we had to remember the things we needed to know. And visualizing things apparently played a big role in that process.

Historian Elizabeth Eisenstein wrote in her book, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, “As learning by reading took on new importance, the role played by mnemonic aids was diminished.”

Does that mean our ancestors went around picturing house-sized carrot cakes? Maybe they did. And, in my experience, Horsely’s advice for memory improvement—including the mindset change, less multitasking and the practice exercises—which at first seemed barely surmountable, was easy to start picking up. I’m going to keep trying it. So the next time you see me, ask me about that movie I saw two months ago.