Most people can't remember what they ate for dinner yesterday, never mind how they celebrated their 17th birthday or what headlined the news that day. Marilu Henner, on the other hand, can remember virtually every day of her life. Henner, who many remember as the character Elaine O'Connor Nardo on the sitcom Taxi, is one of only 12 documented cases of Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, or HSAM. People with HSAM have an abnormal ability to remember the intimate details of events in their lives and what was going on in the world on any given day in vivid, experiential fashion.
In her recently released book Total Memory Makeover: Uncover Your Past, Take Charge of Your Future, Henner recalls the memory games she played as a child. These exercises, writes Henner, were a way to "mentally challenge and exercise my brain to the point that I could 'time-travel' back to: What did we do each day of our vacation? What was I doing when I was exactly to the day my younger brother Lorin's age? My niece Lizzy's age? And it was not just about touching down on a fleeting image or a feeling from the past, but rather going deeper and deeper into memories and specific moments, exploring my past thoughts through the lens of the present."
In Total Memory Makeover, which just made The New York Times Bestseller list, Henner guides readers through exactly that process, helping them create connections between their past memories, present lives and the futures they hope to create. Henner sees memory as both a vast reservoir of information and an opportunity for self-exploration -- a contention confirmed by research that suggests that everything we've ever experienced is stored somewhere on our mental hard drives.
Henner deconstructs the many alluring types of memory and provides an extensive number of exercises designed to help readers access their memories, sift through painful ones, and release personal obstacles connected to repressed memories. "Negative experiences provide the most memorable and useful lessons," said Henner, who herself is infectiously positive.
In addition to being an actress and a healthy living coach, Henner is the author of The New York Times bestselling Marilu Henner's Total Health Makeover, among other books. A long-time friend of Leslie Stahl, Henner and the remarkable capacities of people with HSAM were put on the cultural map when Stahl featured them on a CBS 60 Minutes Super Memory Summit.
I recently spoke to Henner about Total Memory Makeover and tried, in vain, to remember what I did on my 21st birthday.
What exactly is HSAM - and was that a curse for your parents?
No, it wasn't a curse for them. My parents died very young so if anything I feel like it's a tremendous insurance policy against loss. Most people remember eight to 11 events in a year. People with HSAM remember more than 200 events, and the memories are extremely detailed, very specific and autobiographical. It's not about memorizing lines, or looking at something and closing your eyes and describing it. It's more like the experience of being someplace or going through something, and recording information as you're experiencing it.
The prevailing mindset is that we have to let go of our pasts. You're suggesting that we should actually remember every detail about them. How can total memory recall actually help people take charge of the future?
First of all, your past is in you and on your mental hard drive whether or not you're acknowledging it or not -- or whether you remember it or not. It's what makes you behave and do things in your present. So why not explore it for all it's worth? If we didn't have a memory -- the layering of information that carries over into our present -- then what are we doing here? Our brains are capable of so much more than people realize.
By embracing the positives of your life, you might not necessarily be able to reinforce positive behaviors, but by not studying negative behaviors, you tend to make the same mistakes over and over again.
I use the Einstein quote in the beginning of my book. Einstein once said: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results." And I reply with: "That's not insanity, it's bad memory." When somebody says, "oh, I don't want to look at this negative thing from my past," it's like saying, "I'm going to read this book, but I know in Chapter 10 the protagonist goes through something difficult, so I'm not going to read Chapter 10 even though it informs the rest of the story." How can you leave out a huge chunk of your life? If you really explore your memories head-on, each time you look at them you see things that you didn't see before. You have a new perspective that touches on your present.
It sounds like a way to of short-handing the therapeutic process -- by using one's own past and one's memory as a road map to understand where one wants to go in the future. Is that the case with your memory work?
Yes, and it's definitely a shortcut to some therapy techniques. And everyone has a primary track on which they've embedded their memory.
What's a memory track?
It's like the jigsaw puzzle of your life, sort of like your hard-edged pieces that give you a stronger, clearer picture of things. You start with your track and the rest starts to fill in. And everyone remembers something especially well -- we all have a dominant sense, whether it's visual or auditory or even a sense of smell. When you start to play with your dominant sense, it's amazing what starts to come back for you. We have these incredibly textured, rich histories. Our lives are so full of daily adventures, people, plots and themes. It's like we have an entire gene pool or bag of trick that we can draw from and make connections. It's very empowering.
And people are truly able to release things or change once they've started to really explore these memories?
I've seen people lose weight, stop smoking, stop drinking, have better relationships, stop picking bad boys, really clean up some of the messes with their spouses or their partners and it's incredible. Memory work is very powerful.
Isn't it true that the longer we live and the more memories and baggage we accumulate, the harder it is to remember things?
Yes, but that's why it's so important to go back, explore our memories and get a different perspective or re-analyze them. The longer you live, the more cross-connecting you can do; the more emotional meta-tagging you can do with your memories. I think it's the opposite of memory loss. Once you really start understanding your memories and go back to really explore them, the more material you have to work with.
Does this kind of memory work have implications for people with Alzheimer's?
Yes, because it's using their life. It's something that's very real to them. It's not like looking at isolated numbers or pictures on decks of cards or memorizing this grocery list. Let's use your life. That's where the gold is. That's where the richness is. That's where you're going to cross-connect. People's brains fire up so much more, for example, when they're hearing music that they've heard before.
Dr. McGaugh has done some incredible work analyzing the neuro-pathways that fire up when people with HSAM answer questions, and he's connecting that information to Alzheimer's patients. That said, no one who has HSAM has ever written a how-to book to try to help people. I might not be able to give everyone HSAM, but I can definitely give them BAM -- Better Autobiographical Memory.
What's one thing that you know now that you wish you knew growing up?
I definitely wish that I had known more about health and nutrition when I was growing up and my parents were alive. They died young, but even if I couldn't have saved their lives, I could have alleviated a lot of their pain. So much in my life changed after their deaths in terms of health and nutrition. There was no way I wanted their deaths to be in vain. After they passed, I became obsessed with learning everything I could about the human body, and I wanted to share it with everyone I knew. I'm a big believer in paying it forward. How can I not share information and the things that I've learned in my life, especially since I remember them anyway?
Check out the slideshow below for Henner's tips on how to make over your memory.
People often tell me the day they were born to test my memory, and after telling them the day of the week, I love to turn the tables and ask them about their 21st birthday. The context of a memory helps fill in details that may, at first, be a little hazy. When you recall the day of the week an event took place, everything else starts to make more sense. Even though my mind has automatically stored that my 21st birthday was on a Friday, yours doesn't have to. Find the day of the week of your 21st birthday by Googling the date. Just knowing how long you had to wait for a weekend or how quickly you were back at school or work after your night of partying will help unlock details that you didn't remember were in there.
Music is one of the easiest ways to remember something. It can put us back in a physical or mental space faster than almost any other trigger. Furthermore, any song you can call your favorite is probably loaded with memories. Maybe your first listen jumps right into your head, but if it doesn't, find the song on YouTube and let yourself be transported back to the first time that song graced your soon-to-be in love ears (or your soon-to-be-dancing feet!)
Weddings are usually memorable occasions in our lives, and they appeal to our love of linear thinking. It starts with getting ready, followed by the ceremony, the reception, and then, perhaps, the after party. I call this horizontal memory because it moves along a swath of horizontal time and sequences events in an easy-to-visualize timeline. However, we can also remember a wedding in a vertical manner, unlocking more information as we go deeper and deeper into one particular moment. The more you think about actually being there, the more information will come to you. You might also get a lot out of remembering in a mushrooming way, where the wedding opens you up to a whole sea of connected memories, including those that occurred months later and months before. Both this method and the final one, sporadic remembering (completely non-connected events that spring to mind), are more free associative than horizontal or vertical thinking, but they can be especially useful for seeing the big picture of a certain time in your life.
I know from teaching memory classes for years that everyone has a dominant sense that helps you record, retain, and retrieve memories. Which one is yours? Sight, sound, touch, taste or smell? When trying to recall a first date with someone, play to your strengths and use your dominant sense to trigger the memories of that date. (How did they look, what did they say, how did they feel, what did you eat, or how did they smell?) By activating your dominant sense, you may not only be able to bask in the glow of a long forgotten moment, you may also be able to look at it under a harsh light that will help you notice a red flag you should have seen the first time around.
One thing that amazes people, even more than my ability to recall dates and events, is how many phone numbers I hold in my mind. This is especially freaky when I haven't seen somebody for a decade or two. There are many techniques out there for remembering strings of numbers, but here's how I do it, and I think it's the most personal method out there. Each one of us automatically knows several combinations of numbers that we can relate to at a glance (a birthday, anniversary, etc). When you have a phone number to remember, break it into two-, three-, or four-digit pieces that are already significant to you, and it'll be much easier. You don't need to make up images to remember the number, because it is all coming from things you already know.
This one you obviously remember, otherwise you wouldn't think of it as your favorite day. But how well do you remember it? Really dive into the details of what made this day so special? Was it the people? Some activity you love to do? What you were wearing, reading or even eating? Whatever gets you back there most vividly is probably something I call your primary memory Track - the lens through which you can most easily access your past (e.g. travel, sports, clothing, relationships, etc.) Everyone has something they remember especially well, and knowing your Track will help take you back!
People often say to me, "No way can I remember a few years ago. I can't even remember what I ate for dinner last week!" Using the suggestions from panels 1-6, prompt your memory by applying them to last Sunday's dinner. Use the date, music, the four types of memory retrieval, your dominant sense, a significant number and your primary memory Track to get the ball rolling on what you did and, eventually, what you ate last Sunday. If you still cannot remember, try paying attention this Sunday, so that next week at this time, you will remember! Memory takes practice, and like anything else, practice makes perfect!
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