“You have to keep practicing,” Cam told him. “Now try me.”
Cam looked straight ahead. She said, “Click,” and then closed her eyes. Cam always said “Click,” when she wanted to remember something. She said it was the sound her mental camera made when it took a picture.
from Cam Jansen and the Mystery of the Stolen Diamonds
written by David A. Adler
illustrated by Susanna Natti
Viking Press/Puffin/Penguin, 1980
I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, on the banks of Lake Erie. Besides memorizing spelling words, arithmetic facts, and song lyrics, we learned the names of all the Great Lakes. I can name them now with a memory aide, a mnemonic device. When put together, the first letter of each lake spells the word HOMES: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior.
Mnemonics help me a lot when I want to remember the items on my grocery list, the ages of my grandkids, and the correct spellings for difficult words. Here’s an example you probably know: A rat in the house might eat the ice cream spells arithmetic if you use the initial letter of each word.
In musical notation, name the notes on the treble staff by using the initial letters in the sentence Every good boy does fine for the lines. The spaces spell the word FACE.
Songs can also be memory aids. I can name (sing) the first 22 Presidents of the US by singing their names to “Rock a Bye Baby.” Use the number of syllables in the number of terms they served to correspond to their names. (George Washington gets only Wash-y and John Adams gets Ad. Thomas Jefferson gets Jeff-y and so on.)
My granddaughter can list the first 100 digits of pi by singing the pi song. It goes to the tune of “Hall of the Mountain King” by Edvard Greig. It’s on YouTube. Search “Hall of the Mountain King pi” (Can I ever get past pi!?)
Like Cam Jansen in today’s quote, associating one word or idea with another is sometimes a good way to remember a thought. The other day, I was talking to a friend about music. He mentioned the word tonic in relation to chords. I asked him “like gin and tonic?” The answer was no, but a qualified yes. I remembered the word long enough to look it up and found out while it has nothing to do with alcohol, the word is spelled the same way. It refers to the first notes of a musical selection and is the basis for the rest of the melody and harmonies.
Here’s a mnemonic spelling rhyme you probably know: I before E except after C and when sounded like A as in neighbor and weigh.
Mnemosyne, (pronounce n’ MAH sah nee) the Greek goddess of memory, is associated with creativity, knowledge, history, and art. Her symbol is a fountain. Her name translates in English to memory. While the ability to remember is one of her gifts to us humans, she also gave birth to the muses, her creative spirit-children that allow us to create beautiful songs, art, and humor/amusement.
In the days when ancient Greeks worshipped Mnemosyne, before writing was wide-spread, the whole society depended on her. Laws needed to be consistent over time. Passing judgement based on those rules needed to be fair. History was passed from generation to generation by storytellers. They all depended on memory.
Memory research began in 1957, when Brenda Milner described a patient, known as H. M., to have suffered profound amnesia after brain surgery to alleviate symptoms of epilepsy. Medical science quickly learned about the various structures of our brains. The surgery was refined and perfected. Specialized images pinpointed the lesions involved in a particular patient’s epilepsy, allowing doctors to greatly minimize poor outcomes and maximize beneficial results. Some peoples’ memories have even improved because they are no longer impaired by their seizures.
Most scientists describe several types of memory. Our experiences and actions may begin with a sensory image, say pulling out a musty-smelling box of wooden blocks. Unless there is reason to remember the image, it will be forgotten. Since I associated the musty smell with the fun I had playing and the love lavished on me by my grandparents, the memory was important. It still influences my feelings about musty smells, the importance of childhood play, and even how much I like to play with blocks with my own grandchildren.
Short-term memory helps me grocery-shop without a list. I can hold about seven items until I pick each off the shelf. I arrange the items in one of several ways, alphabetically, according to the geography of the store, or by categories. All those mnemonics are helpful in the short term. Don’t ask me for last week’s list, or even yesterday’s!
Working memory serves us a little differently. When we pay attention, say to a particular birdcall on a walk, we’ll be able to identify that same call later, even if we don’t see the bird. We can add numbers in our heads. We can make a familiar dish for dinner without a written recipe.
Long-term memories can be called back at will from hours or even years ago. But memory is tricky. Even if several people share an experience, each one will remember it slightly (or profoundly) differently.
And memories can change over time. A horribly embarrassing event can become raucously funny and harsh memories can soften.
The Mayo Clinic lists some ways we can improve our memory functions.
Be physically active. Blood flow helps our hearts and our brains.
Stay mentally active. Play word games. Read. Learn a new skill.
Spend time with others. Exchange ideas. Make plans. Laugh together.
Stay organized. Designate places for things. Keep a calendar. Limit distractions.
Sleep well. Most adults need between seven and nine hours.
Eat a healthy diet. Limit alcohol.
Some people say it’s the power of Mnemosyne’s gifts, memory and creativity, that distinguish us from other animals. I’m not so sure. Spider webs, birdsong, and communication-dances of bees all seem inspired to me.
I’m reading Tracy Kidder’s new book Rough Sleepers (Random House, 2023) about Dr. Jim O’Connell’s urgent mission to bring healing to homeless people in Boston. It’s heartbreaking and heartwarming, current and timeless.
-—stay curious! (and creative)