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Memory is a funny thing. There are many things we'd like to forget—like bad haircuts, lousy meals and upsetting fights with loved ones. And then, there are those things we would love to remember—such as where we parked the car, the name of that restaurant we want to recommend to our friends and a word that we've used a hundred times before but is now stubbornly stuck on the tip of our tongues.
Aside from eating foods (like omega-3-rich fish, nuts and grains, and kale, collards and spinach), using certain spices (like turmeric and thyme) and getting a good night's sleep and plenty of exercise, what else can we hope for to keep our memory sharp?
Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing someone who knows what it takes to win at remembering. Nelson Dillis is the two-time champion of the USA Memory Championship, a sporting event for mental athletes. After losing his beloved grandmother to Alzheimer's disease, Dellis was inspired to keep his mind sharp. In the time it takes you to brush your teeth or wash your hands, he can just about memorize the order of a full deck of shuffled cards.
Below, Dellis shares some tricks of the trade.
Q. What got you interested in memorization and how did you become so proficient it?
A. I have always been interested in the mind and ways to improve it. After my grandmother passed away from Alzheimer's disease in 2009, it made me that much more motivated to find ways to keep my mind healthy. Through research, I discovered the USA Memory Championship, which led me to learn about techniques to help improve my memory. From that point on, I became obsessed with constantly improving it.
Q. What are your top three secrets to memorization?
A. 1. Paying attention; 2. Staying diligent with my daily training; 3. Creativity!
Q. Do you believe everyone has the ability to memorize, or do you think it takes a special, in-born talent? Are some people just naturals?
A. I believe we all have the same potential in our minds. Naturally, some people have better memories for different things here and there, but compared to the degree that a trained mind can memorize, it is nothing. To reach that level, I think anyone can unlock it.
Q. Are there any special foods you eat or supplements you take to help your brain stay sharp?
A. Yes! I eat a lot of foods with antioxidants (like blueberries, for example). I also take daily DHA omega-3 supplements to help my memory be all it can be.
(Editorial note: Research finds that DHA is the predominant omega-3 fatty acid found in the brain, especially concentrated in that region responsible for complex thinking skills.)
Q. Can you provide some tips to help the average person memorize a grocery list and remember where the car is parked?
A. The main techniques I use involve taking whatever it is you want to memorize and turning it into a picture in my mind. Not just a regular picture, but also something that evokes some kind of emotional response (usually a humorous one). The more crazy and bizarre the image, the more memorable it becomes. When memorizing where you park your car, for example, look at the floor number or letter once you've parked your car and think of something that relates to the letter/number. Say you're on the fifth floor, a 5 kind of looks like a snake. Imagine a snake jabbing its fangs into your tires. The more involved you make the picture the better. So maybe don't stop there, imagine you've parked your car in a snake's den. Thousands of snakes swarm your car and as they all attack your tires, the car explodes into a fiery ball. There you go. It's over the top, but memorable.
To memorize a list, like a grocery list, just link all of your images into one long, interconnected story.
Q. Over the years, a lot of research has shown that we lose our memory as we age, but that not all types of memory are equally affected. There's also evidence that older adults can have better brain function in certain areas than younger adults. What's your take on this?
A. Yes, that's true to an extent. But, honestly I believe that if you train your brain daily, doing different mental exercises, no matter what age, you can have an amazing memory. At the USA Memory Championships, we see competitors of all ages, from 11 all the way to 60. Age doesn't really seem to be an issue when you look at those who train their memories.
Q. Another age-related question: Older people are notoriously better at remembering long-ago events than things that happened yesterday. How can people improve their short-term memory as they age?
A. Isn't that incredible? I am always fascinated by that! For those getting to those later years, the best thing you can do to improve your short-term memory is to keep your brain active. Ideally, memory exercises are the best. But doing puzzles or learning new tasks are great ways to stimulate the mind. Another great trick is ... staying fit. Not really a trick, but it makes sense. If your body stays fit and healthy, so will your mind.
Thank you, Nelson! I'll remember this interview for a long time.