How to never forget anything again

How to never forget anything again

Got a memory like Dory from Finding Nemo? Don't fret - training your brain to remember everything from shopping lists to people's names and where you left your car keys is actually in your hands

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Karen Ann Monsy

Published: Fri 7 Oct 2016, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 14 Oct 2016, 12:53 PM

How many times have you promised your wife you'd pick up the dry cleaning on your way home, yet somehow landed back at the house perfectly empty-handed? Or called up a friend but couldn't, for the life of you, remember what you wanted to say - all you have is a nagging feeling that it was "definitely important". Car keys? Birthdays? Turn off the stove in five minutes? Forget it. Despite your best intentions, you just can't remember. The worst part? You're probably not even 35 yet.
If this is your story too, small comfort: you're in good company. Sahar Riad, a trainer at The Brain Workshop in Jumeirah, says 80 per cent of the adults who visit their cognitive skills training centre do so because they're grappling with memory issues. These are folks aged 40 and below, mind - people you might expect to be struggling with a mid- or quarter-life crisis, but certainly not memory loss. After all, isn't that for the folks enjoying their pension plans? Well, apparently not, because studies show complaints of forgetfulness among 'non-seniors' are definitely on the rise.

What's going on upstairs?
Though the problem of forgetfulness has its roots in multiple factors, experts say they can all be traced to how drastically our lives have changed in the past few years. Sahar notes that one key factor is how stressed everyone is these days, with the need to make multiple decisions quickly, and constantly be on the go. "I even see it with the kids we work with," she says. "They have so many demands on their time in one day, and they're required to meet them all."
But being in a state of constant or chronic stress has multiple effects, including "killing of some brain cells, halting the regeneration process of new cells, and interfering with memory and the ability to think clearly". Think of stress as someone who keeps interrupting you while you're talking or working, explains the brain trainer. "For information to be transferred into a memory, it has to go through several stages. But when stress keeps 'interrupting', you end up with distorted information that has not even made it to long-term memory, in order for it to be recalled later."
Getting a good night's sleep is critical to the memory process as well because "everything that happens during the day is consolidated during sleep". The fractured sleeping patterns of those who wake up regularly at night (or those who don't get much shut-eye) interfere with how the brain consolidates the day's events and turns out the memory - which is why you often don't "feel like yourself", when you haven't slept well.
Good nutrition too cannot be stressed enough. "The brain needs certain fats and proteins," points out Sahar. "To sit and have a balanced meal at least two - or ideally, three - times a day is not a reality for many. This affects memory and other cognitive skills - and it's becoming more and more evident in the younger generation."
Interestingly, while a lot of youngsters are aware of their struggle with recalling information, she observes that they're likely to brush it off and not give it too much thought. "It's when you're mid-career, in your 30s or 40s, trying to make a mark in the world with goals you're going after, that you realise that all isn't as it should be, and you have a problem that needs to be fixed."
But there's no magic pill, she warns. If you're serious about improving your memory, it must be a lifestyle fix. "Develop healthy habits and, as much as you can, stay away from stress. But, most of all, keep your brain active."

Use it or lose it
As a youngster growing up in Dubai, Mohsen remembers having a very sharp mind during his school days. He could remember tiny details without any trouble at all and multiply double-digit figures with ease. He was actually "proud of [his] brain". But three years ago, the Iranian expat began noticing that he was becoming fairly forgetful.
In fact, as time progressed, it became increasingly difficult to recall things - so much so that it began to get in the way of his work as a marketing manager at a major consumer electronics company. "People would tell me their names during phone calls, and two minutes later, I'd forget what they were," he says. "I'd meet people I'd been in touch with for several years, but suddenly find it difficult to recall their names. Or, I'd be halfway through a conversation and forget the rest of what I wanted to say. It was very embarrassing."
The problem was even worse when it came to recalling numbers - a skill critical to his profession. "In my job, numbers are very important. A marketing manager should always have instant, accurate details on hand. Whether they're sales figures, the number of promo packs we have, the percentages of growth that resulted. I needed to be able to recall all of this information quickly during meetings and negotiations." Instead, he was constantly writing things down and referring notes. "It really took a toll on my self-confidence."
It got to a point where Mohsen had to put everything down on paper - or he'd forget. "But writing everything down was making my brain lazy. I stopped making any effort to remember things." That's when the 32-year-old decided to get help. He did some research and discovered the concept of brain training.
Now, having completed a four-month workshop, Mohsen says he avoids writing down things as much as he can. "I used to have two to-do lists: one for my workplace, and one personal. Not anymore. If I have to run to the grocery, I try to memorise the list using visualisation techniques. I've even installed memory-building games on my phone to exercise my skills whenever I can. I can't say I've achieved 100 per cent efficiency yet, but there's definitely been a big change."

ON THE BALL: (left to right) Brain trainer Sahar Riad and grocery store owner Sheriff Madamvillath
"We're just not interested in people anymore"
Sheriff Madamvillath has been working in groceries around the UAE for the last 18 years, and has owned his own in Sharjah for the last six. The Sas Al Nakheel grocery store provides home deliveries to at least eight high-rise buildings in the Al Nahda area, not counting a daily footfall of more than 100 people in the store. With the phones constantly ringing and regular customers often picking up items and merely waving them at him before strolling back out (the understanding being that they'll pay later), Sheriff says there is a lot of 'mental billing' that goes on everyday.
It's no mean feat either, considering it takes at least a year to learn the brands and prices of every item in the shop. For the delivery boys, there is the added requirement of remembering which orders go to which house - and no, they don't write it down. Necessity is their driving force, says the 43-year-old owner from Kasargod, Kerala. "It's because the job requires us to have sharp memories that we push ourselves," he says, pointing out that when delivery boys go on leave (sometimes for four months at a time), they always need a week or two to readjust and recall everything upon their return. "Everything they used to know tends to go into a 'dormant state' when it's not in use, but can be recalled when they're back on the job."
Given how busy the store gets, Sheriff admits he doesn't always get to immediately jot down the items regular customers take on credit - but he always remembers the next time he sees them. "Most people who tell us they'll pay later are regulars who usually pick up the same things: bread or paper or milk. I have a way of linking that customer's face with the item they took, so the next time I see them, I quickly remember what they took and jot it down in the records before I forget again."
He makes a poignant point when asked why more and more younger people are losing the ability to retain information. "Their world revolves around their gadgets," he shrugs. "There's no need to remember anything - phone numbers, dates, names - because it's all on your phone." But worse than that, he says, is the apathy. "In order to remember things, you have to attach importance to the person or situation; if you don't care about something, it's not going to register in your mind. That's why we forget names. We're just not interested in people anymore."   
Sheriff reckons if he didn't have the grocery, he'd probably still have a good memory - but maybe not such a sharp one. "There are no shortcuts," he says in the end, as a gentleman pops through the door, hands him two coins and exits. (Apparently, he's a regular who picks up the morning paper.) "You have to keep exercising your memory. If you stop in between, it will get rusty."

Practice makes perfect
You have to give it to the information counter clerks at The Dubai Mall. While many of us are prone to standing in the middle of the world's biggest mall with befuddled expressions or poring over its extensive maps, wondering which turn to take, these guys barely take a second to tell you how to get around the mall from A to B - oh, and with alternate routes to boot! It sounds like a great party trick, but it's also enough to make the rest of us mere mortals feel like Dory from Finding Nemo, bless her 10-second blue tang fish brain.
Casual conversations with the clerks reveal no sorcery, however. Anyone can do it, they say generously. "All we do is study the map - and keep revising it to refresh our memory and learn the locations of new stores that have opened up." The initial familiarisation process can take anywhere between two to three months; the stellar recall abilities follow with daily practice. "It's not that we don't have the occasional 'brain freeze'," shares a particularly friendly staffer, who added that the constant memory exercise even goes a long way towards helping in other areas of life as well - and not just on the job.
As brain coach Jim Kwik says, there is nothing like a good or bad memory - only a trained and untrained one. And don't you forget it.
. Stare: In this game, you need to look at an image for 20 seconds and then test yourself on how much you can remember. You can do this anywhere, anytime - just look around you for 20 seconds, close your eyes and see how much you remember; then repeat. Repetition is important in order to form neural pathways that make it easier to do certain activities.
. Visualisation: This technique can help you when you need to remember a list of things; you match each word to an image, and make a story that links each one to the next. Take a shopping list of five items, for example: milk, apples, laundry detergent, kitchen towels, and pencils. You can spin a story like this: milk got spilt on the kitchen towels, so I used the laundry detergent to clean them; then I drew an apple on the bottle of detergent using a pencil. It may seem a little silly at first, but it has proved a powerful tool to help the brain remember.
- Courtesy: Sahar Riad

Is it just plain forgetfulness - or an indication of something more? You can take this observational survey to find out. Simply rank each statement, using the following key:
0 - less often OR doesn't apply
at all
1 - at about the same frequency
2 - slightly more
3 - considerably more
4 - significantly more

Compared to people of your same age and gender, how often do the following behaviours occur in you?
. You often ask to have things repeated
. You have difficulty remembering telephone numbers
. You need to look multiple times when copying something down
. You have difficulty following verbal directions
. You have difficulty recalling stories and jokes

Now, total your score and see how you fare! A score of:
. 6 or below suggests normal range
. 7-9 suggests a possible weakness
. 10-11 suggests a likely weakness
. 12 or above suggests a significant weakness
- Courtesy: The Brain Workshop

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