Lockdown could be destroying your memory

Time tested: For thousands of years people have used imagined buildings to aid recall.

Is memory a muscle? Lockdown could be causing forgetfulness, but humans have developed a number of ingenious methods to counter it, from memory palaces to mystical theatres to “chunking”.

The days blur into one. You have barely left the house for the last month, so when someone asks what you did yesterday, you draw a blank. You strain and strain and come up empty-handed. What distinguished yesterday from the day before it, or the day before that?

Much as lockdown has resulted in some people becoming inactive physically, a recent study suggests that our memories are weakening too. In certain conditions, it seems, people become mentally sedentary.

The idea that memory needs to be exercised is an ancient one. The Greek poet, Simonides of Ceos of the 5th Century BC, is said to have invented a system for training his memory when a dinner party ended in disaster.

He had popped outside to speak to a messenger when the roof collapsed, killing everyone apart from him. The collapse had made the bodies unrecognisable, but Simonides remembered their positions at the dinner table, and was able to identify everyone there.

From this grim discovery, he developed his method. By associating what you wanted to remember with places, and those places with images, you could store information away safely, strengthening your memory.

Soon afterwards, the art of mnemonics was born. Roman orators, such as Cicero drew on his system in order to memorise their famously long and complex speeches.

Some later scholars took such approaches to strange extremes. The 16th-century philosopher Giulio Camillo hoped to build a memory theatre that would allow those who stepped inside to instantly learn everything that could be known.

The process of associating memories with places, which has come to be known as the method of loci is still used today. Memory athletes often build “memory palaces” for this purpose.

Simonides’ system, and other approaches, such as chunking, or the major system—where numbers are translated into consonants, then words—have helped them to perform feats such as memorising Pi to over 100,000 decimal places.

It is possible that these approaches to training the memory mirror how the brain itself functions.

Science now shows that a memory is not a single unit filed away in the cupboard of the brain. Rather, it emerges from a series of connections between neurons. A new network of connections is made between brain cells to create a new memory.

Simonides, Cicero and modern memory athletes enrich the associations of the things they want to remember. They are therefore developing the capacity to make connections.

But there are limits to memory athletics. The practices we have developed are good for holding onto specific knowledge, but sceptics point to the fact that memory athletes are not much better than ordinary people at remembering everyday occurrences. Not everything fits in the memory palace.

So, is memory a muscle?

Memory palace

Yes it is, say some. It is clear that the brain can be trained to allow feats of memory that most people would consider impossible. Just as technology has reduced our need for physical exercise, it has reduced our need for memory. We may not need to know the periodic table when we can Google it, but that ability is available to those who are willing to do the work of reflecting and imagining.

Not so, say others. Marcel Proust famously described the experience of a memory he had been trying to recover in vain finally returning when he ate a Madeleine cake. Studies have since backed him up on the idea of an involuntary, situationally dependent aspect of our memory. We can improve some of our powers of memorisation, but memory itself is a more complex phenomenon.

You Decide

  1. Would you want to remember everything perfectly, or are there some things you are glad to forget?
  2. Should scientists work on ways to create positive memories to replace unhappy or traumatic ones?

Activities

  1. In pairs, design a memory palace in order to remember the last 10 US presidents: imagine a set of rooms visited in a fixed order. In each room, you then place an image that sounds like the thing you are trying to remember. For Donald Trump, for example, you might have a picture of a trumpet.
  2. You are the defence lawyer for a client accused of theft by an eye-witness. Try to make an argument that the witness’ memory is unreliable.

Some People Say...

“The advantage of a bad memory is that one enjoys several times the same good things for the first time.”

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 - 1900), German scholar, philosopher and critic

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that memory is a function of neural connections. These connections are facilitated by a region of the brain known as the hippocampus. This region, which is named after the Greek word for a seahorse because of its shape, is also involved in navigating and recognising places. Techniques of memorisation that use imagined places therefore seem to be well fitted to our current understanding of how memory and navigation are entwined in the brain.
What do we not know?
One key area of debate is how reliable our memories are. While eyewitness testimony is crucial in courts, psychologists have produced a large body of research demonstrating that our memory is suggestible. New associations may subtly alter a more complex memory, in what is called retrieval-induced forgetting. Psychologists have been able to create false childhood memories, or distort people’s perceptions through the wording of questions.

Word Watch

Sedentary
Inactive. From the Latin word for sitting down.
Mnemonics
This refers to any technique used to improve the memory. Both this and the word memory come from the Greek Goddess Mnemosyne, who was, surprisingly, the goddess of memory, as well as the mother of the nine Muses.
Orators
Public speakers. Marcus Tullius Cicero was a lawyer in the time of the Roman republic and was widely revered as one of the greatest orators of all time. His name has become synonymous with eloquence via the word Ciceronian.
Memory theatre
It is unclear if Giulio Camillo ever built his memory theatre, which was intended to contain images in each section of the seating, representing categories of knowledge. To use it, you would stand where the “stage” was, and then look out into the seats at the emblems, absorbing their knowledge.
Loci
The Latin word for places.
Memory athletes
The World Memory Championships are divided into ten categories, including memorising spoken numbers and memorising decks of cards in order. The current world champion is either Italian Andrea Muzzi, or North Korean Ryu Song, depending on which of the two current federations you believe to be the official one.
Chunking
The breaking down of information into manageable chunks. The size of the chunk can vary, so we could chunk a phone number by turning its component pieces into larger numbers (75, rather than seven, five).
Feats
Achievements or doings. While there are a few cases of people with what is called “Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory”, who remember every moment of their adult lives in vivid detail, achievements in memorisation are the result of systematic effort.
Neuron
These are the cells found both in the brain and throughout the nervous system. While they are essential for memory, they do not themselves contain memories. Indeed, an adult brain contains around 41% fewer neurons than a baby’s brain.

Subjects

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