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Memory Man | By Dr. Lenny Salzberg

It’s a subject that has stumped thinkers since Plato: memory. How do mere clumps of tissue hold on to certain experiences, sights and sounds, even distant childhood scenes, while others slip away? Scott Hagwood may not have all the answers to the mysteries of the brain, but the Fayetteville man is a four-time National Memory Champion. I first met Hagwood at a conference he presented on how we remember and why we forget. Hagwood has a busy career as an author, speaker and memory expert, but he took the time to talk about a few memory tips. “You have to SEA to see,” he says. SEA stands for senses, emotions and action. If you want to remember something well, encode it well. Use your senses – see it, feel it, touch it, taste it, smell it, hear it. And if you can’t actually do these things, visualize yourself doing them. Next, engage your emotions. Do you remember the first time you heard your newborn baby cry? Do you remember what you were doing on Sept. 11, 2001? When something has an emotional component, we can recall it more easily. Finally, include action in your mental imagery. If you were trying to remember the word flag, you would remember it better if you could feel the fabric of the American flag, see it waving in the wind, hear it whipping back and forth. If you pictured the flag being handed to your mother at your father’s funeral, this would give you both emotions and action. You are unlikely to forget flag anytime soon. But what about the more mundane – ever had trouble remembering a simple grocery list? Use your unlimited visual memory. We each possess unlimited space in our brains for images, and a technique known as the Roman Room takes advantage of this fact. First, you need to prepare a room in your mind. To do this, imagine a room that is familiar to you. I’ll walk you through one of my rooms to help you visualize the process. I walk into my office and go to the corner immediately to my left. In my office, there is a white lab coat hanging on a hook. I feel the coat, put it on and take it off. I notice a big stain on the sleeve. Next, walking in a clockwise fashion, I look at the adjacent wall. Hanging there is a painting of purple mountains and green fields. I imagine myself as a child, rolling down those mountains. I can smell the grass. I walk to the next corner of the room until I reach a thick book, the “Physician’s Desk Reference.” I leaf through the pages. In the middle of the next wall is a small mirror. I feel how smooth it is. I make funny faces and laugh at my reflection. I continue moving around the room, picking distinct objects in the next corner, on the next wall, in the last corner and on the last wall. I now have eight memorable loci. I turn to the floor for nine and look up at the ceiling for 10. With my eyes closed, I can picture the items I’ve selected in each location in the room. These 10 locations become “pegs” on a pegboard on which I can hang whatever I want to remember. If I need to remember a list of 10 things, such as groceries, I can relate each item to the object in my office. The more ridiculous the association (e.g. my lab coat is soaked in milk, dripping onto the ground), the better I’ll remember it. Using this technique, I’ll no longer need a grocery list. I’ll mentally walk around my office and picture each item. Will learning these techniques make you a national memory champion? Hagwood compares it to piano lessons; start with the basics, master them and then go to the next level. If you practice each week, you’ll be pretty good before you know it. You may start out playing “Chopsticks,” but with practice you’llwind up playing Chopin. By practicing challenging tasks on a regular basis, your memory will improve. CV

Dr. Lenny Salzberg teaches and sees patients at the Southern Regional AHEC Family Medicine Center.