Armed with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, actress Marilu Henner can remember vivid details from her past. In "Total Memory Makeover," she shares valuable tips on how to take full advantage of your own memory. Here's an excerpt.
Memory is everything! In every single moment of your life—past, present, and future memory is involved. All that you do, all that you see, everything you learn, each person you meet, and all of your experiences have conscious meaning only insofar as you remember them. No matter how much you discover and experience today, its value vanishes if it’s forgotten tomorrow. When we’re young, we take memory for granted. As we get older, we genuinely fear losing it—not only because the ability itself can fade with age, but also because we are finally wise enough to know its true value. There is no human endeavor more worthy of our best efforts than the pursuit of a great memory!
Like it or not, your past is in you even if you don’t remember it. Every single thing you have ever experienced is in you, stored somewhere on your mental hard drive. It has all been recorded in your body and on your psyche, and it is making you behave in ways that you aren’t even aware of. This can often scare people, but I think it makes an excellent case for developing one’s memory. You may not be consciously connecting this past information to what you are doing in the present, but you should be. You are constantly responding to now because of back then. When you are cognizant of your memories and can call upon them as needed, it keeps you from making the same mistakes over and over again and helps you avoid that pitfall Einstein called insanity. It also makes you better at sizing up situations and making the right choices, as well as understanding why you are the way you are.
There are different kinds of memory, but I am known for my autobiographical memory. Choose any random date during my lifetime (every day since I was twelve in 1964), and I can tell you what day of the week it was and exactly what I was doing on that day. This ability is called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM for short), and I am one of only twelve documented cases in the world, so far. I can’t tell you what combination of nature and nurture gives someone a superior autobiographical memory, but I can tell you that I have learned and retained my most important life lessons from having one. But this book is not just about my memory or the feats I can accomplish with it. It is much more about what this ability has taught me and how you can use these lessons to transform your memory, your past, and ultimately, your future. It doesn’t matter whether or not you were born with my ability. Everyone can remember a great deal more than they do now, and everyone can benefit in the same way that I do. All that is needed are the right tools, along with the motivation and effort required to use them.
How much would your life change if, from this moment on, you had the ability to always make the right decision in everything you did? It goes without saying that your life, anyone’s life, would improve instantly and dramatically. For example, think of Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors in the film Groundhog Day. The movie’s premise is that Phil must relive the same day over and over again. Eventually, after many repetitions, Phil reexamines his selfish life and finally finds the wisest choices, best responses, and most helpful actions for every single moment within that one isolated day. And in less than twenty-four hours (twenty-four hours for everyone else, that is) he becomes the most respected and beloved man in town, gets the girl of his dreams, learns what matters most in life, and sets a course to live happily ever after.
Obviously, this is just fun Hollywood fantasy. Nobody in the real world bats a thousand. But, of course, that is what we aim to do. Groundhog Day was such a success because we would all love to make perfect choices 100 percent of the time. We all would love to have the information necessary to make the right decision in every moment of every day. I think audiences were delighted to see a character who was given the opportunity to learn from his mistakes, despite the fact that it took him repeated chances to finally get it right.
We tend to think of “the right decision” as what will ultimately get us what we want, whether it’s working late for the boss, helping a friend move, hosting a dinner party, investing in a 401(k), or even destructive choices like binge drinking or cheating on a loved one. Sometimes the payoff is immediate, and other times the rewards are delayed. Every choice is based on some kind of incentive. Even obviously wrong choices are made with compelling motivations. Ordering a mud pie for dessert is a choice we make, because the momentary happiness we expect to receive outweighs in our minds the consequences of those butt-plumping calories. Even if we’ve made this mistake before, we still might not stop ourselves. It could make us sick, depressed, or unmotivated, but what is most important is that immediate gratification. Forgetting what may result from a choice is never good. For example, because of the debilitating mud pie, we might end up so tired that we skip the two-mile walk we promised ourselves in the morning. If we could actually see into the future, our choices would be easy. If we knew for a fact that this mud pie would turn out to be the world’s greatest dessert experience and would inspire us to upgrade our two-mile walk to a five-mile run, the choice to indulge would be perfectly advisable. If we knew that changing careers would eventually lead to a much happier, rewarding life, then that choice would be obvious. But we never really know what will happen. That new career could become overly stressful, disappointing, or obsolete. As you can see, our happiness depends upon predicting, as accurately as possible, what will happen in the future. In order to minimize this risk, we gather information, much like Phil Connors does in Groundhog Day. But we don’t have the luxury of do‑overs. For us, the past serves as the primary source of this information. The better you remember your own experiences, the faster you will “get it,” as Phil did eventually.
You could say that everything we do in life is like navigating a maze to get to the reward. Success depends on how well we know the course: where all the dead ends are, as well as all the paths that lead to success. It is easy to repeat negative behavior when we don’t clearly remember the consequences of that behavior. People often say, “I’ll never drink that much again,” only to find themselves doing exactly that. They allow the memory of their hangover to fade. When they are given the choice to take that extra drink, they do it, because they can no longer vividly remember how they felt or the promises they made to themselves. And it’s not just because alcohol dulls memory; people have the same mental block when it comes to food, work, consumer credit, exercise, and bad relationships. It takes some people a lifetime to finally accept the connection between self-indulgence and consequence, and some people never realize it. They never really grow up. Remembering your past in a meaningful way is synonymous with growing up.
In having HSAM, I have an immense, easily accessible, internal library of my past that I can pull from at any point. I carry my personal history in my pocket 24/7. This really does give me an advantage for predicting what will happen in my future. My decisionmaking process has more information to draw from and, therefore, I am better able to make sound decisions than if I didn’t have that information at my fingertips. But what does that mean for you? Keep in mind that it’s not the ability to remember that matters as much as the information itself. You don’t need a superior memory, as long as you have a strategy for gathering, analyzing, and storing your life information.
As an example, every professional sports team and every successful business keeps detailed records of their past. They don’t just show up every day to play the game or go to work and hope for the best. They carefully plan and strategize to put the odds in their favor, so they can achieve their objectives. In baseball, a record is kept for each player: how he performs against left-handers and right-handers, in day vs. night play, the percentage of his ball placement in the field, and so many other factors. This is how managers determine how to use their rosters, which players to start, when to switch, and which plays to call. (Think Moneyball!) The same strategy is used for football, basketball, boxing, tennis, and every other sport. A team couldn’t even compete today without these kinds of detailed reports. Businesses work in the same way. This is what separates a successful business from an unsuccessful one. The more detailed the records are, the better future results can be predicted and controlled. Why not use these same strategies for your own life?
Now, some of you might be saying, “I don’t know if I want to remember too much of my life!” Some people are fearful of remembering certain moments from their past. But I think we need to face the fact that this impulse to forget isn’t totally healthy. Everyone has experiences from their past that they try to avoid: a death in the family, a car accident, being bullied in school or humiliated at work, a lost love, or a bad relationship. Although these are painful moments to relive in your mind, it is therapeutic and beneficial to face and understand them. Negative experiences provide the most memorable and useful lessons. (For example, one reason I’m so committed to my healthy lifestyle is that I lost my parents very young, and this fact is never far from my mind as I make healthy choices on a daily basis.) Conversely, when we avoid negative thoughts and feelings, we give them maximum significance and power. They become emotional “bogeymen.” In denial, we create more pain than we do in simply confronting our memories. Allowing yourself the freedom to relive those moments helps you better understand what made them traumatic in the first place. By understanding that pain, we become better equipped to respond to similar moments in the future and resolve them in our subconscious, which helps weaken their impact. This is the way to conquer the memories you fear most. A horror film is never as scary the second time, and it’s often laughable the third or fourth time you watch it. You can watch the movie with interest, rather than closing your eyes and turning away.
But there is much more to the process outlined in this book than learning from past mistakes. Equally important is remembering moments of success—for example, when we made a boss, a teacher, or a client proud and more confident in our abilities. Remembering the consequences of those choices makes us much more likely to repeat them and is key to establishing a pattern of positive behavior. Another critical benefit of remembering your life is the preservation of important moments that would have otherwise been lost or diluted. Without making a conscious effort to remember the people we care about most, those thoughts and feelings will surely fade. As the years pass, it becomes more and more difficult to evoke the endearing way your father told his favorite joke or how patiently your mother listened to your long-winded stories without ever looking bored. It’s important to your self-knowledge to remember how those moments affected you and what they ultimately mean to you.
But you will never be able to remember if you are resistant to remembering. In order to be successful at remembering your past you have to develop a healthy mind-set about wanting to remember, and, more importantly, you have to get yourself ready to remember. You have to prime yourself. You cannot be unwilling to look back and relive certain feelings of abandonment or a bad breakup, or an unsettling argument with a parent, or the humiliation you felt because of a critical teacher or boss, or a terrifying experience with a bully. Something intrigued you about your past enough to compel you to pick up this book, so please don’t just read it. Be an active and willing player and look at your past from a different perspective through wide-open eyes. For years I have heard people say things like, “I really want to lose weight and get healthy,” but they would make no progress, or get even heavier and unhealthier. I now know from my own and others’ experiences that no progress can be made unless one actively commits to making dramatic diet and exercise changes. This is also true for memory. The desire to remember could be there, but unless you specifically set a course to revolutionize your memory patterns, unless you commit to your Total Memory Makeover, nothing will change. Go beyond just wanting to remember or being receptive to remembering. Take action to remember.
The researchers I’ve been working with at UC Irvine are still determining exactly how and why HSAM exists, but everyone, whether or not they have HSAM, can document their past and learn from it. It doesn’t really matter if the information is in your head, in your diary, or on your computer’s hard drive. If it is accessible, it is useful. Think of your Total Memory Makeover as the world’s most fascinating history and psychology courses rolled into one, because that’s exactly what it is! Instead of studying American History or Psych 101, you are learning the history and psychology of you, everyone’s favorite subject (let’s be honest!). You are both the student and the subject of this course. The star of your own movie, as it were. But you’ve got lots of costars, too, who are also fascinating: family, coworkers, acquaintances, friends, and foes. Don’t be surprised if you learn much more in this course than you ever expected.
In this course, we will start with what I like to call the Track. Your Track will be your own personal key for unlocking your past. I believe that everyone has a Track for remembering things. Your Track is usually what you care about most. For example, some people can’t remember what they ate for dinner last night but can tell you precise scores, specific dates, exact stats, and detailed plays from a game they watched thirty years ago. Some people might forget sporting events they’ve seen (perhaps deliberately), but they can’t forget a relationship, a haircut, a meal, or even how much they weighed at specific times. (Guilty!) Many people have a career or travel Track. It really depends on what is most important to them personally. Everyone remembers something exceptionally well and in great detail. Everyone has a Track.
Starting with your Track, we are going to go back and document the highlights of your life starting from childhood. Eventually you will have a fairly extensive, well-organized timeline of your life. It sounds complicated, but it’s not. I will be guiding you through it every step of the way! After creating and organizing this timeline, you will then immerse yourself in the history of your life (You 101). I promise you will learn a lot more studying your own life than studying an ancient hero like Alexander the Great. The Internet alone gives you limitless possibilities to tap into your past. You can look up newspaper archives, old photographs from your neighborhood, old postcards, toys and items you formerly owned on eBay, school and church websites, and, of course, all the different social websites, like Facebook, Classmates, and Genealogy, where you can actually contact people you haven’t spoken to in thirty or forty years. That is something no other generation in history has had the ability to do. Suppose you grew up in the sixties in Brooklyn and now you live in Los Angeles. With Google Earth, you can walk around your old neighborhood, step by step, house by house, and trigger thousands of childhood memories while sitting at your computer desk in Los Angeles. Even though Ed’s Candy Store is now a Starbucks, it doesn’t matter. In many instances, the structure is still the same. The memory triggers are still there in your neighborhood even if certain aspects have changed.
This will be good therapy, too. You can’t study your life without taking a good hard look at yourself and learning from it. The past demystifies why something is working or, more likely, isn’t. Positive and negative patterns in your life are easy to identify once you step back and look at them from a wide-angle perspective. Analyzing your history will help you uncover those negative and positive patterns, so that you can take charge and use them to your advantage. Undoubtedly, this will give you a whole new outlook, providing an opportunity to keep what you love, change what you dislike, and get a fresh start! You can begin making sound decisions intellectually, emotionally, creatively, financially, and spiritually. In other words, you can change now by remembering then.
Most memory books focus on mnemonic devices like acronyms, place pegs, and memory palaces to help you remember lists, definitions, names, cards, numbers, and so on. They are specifically designed to help you remember a lot of information—quickly and temporarily—for school exams, meetings at work, shopping lists, and so on. And that’s great. We will be exploring various memory techniques as well, but that is not the main focus of this book. We will be going deeper than that. This book is more about selfexploration. Hopefully, you will be learning things about yourself that you didn’t remember existed. You will be uncovering your past in ways that will help you make connections and remember them the next time you’re faced with certain decisions. Most standard memory books, at least the honest ones, admit that memory itself is not improved. The skill of remembering things may improve, but there’s a difference. You can get very fast at remembering a deck of cards or long lists of numbers or vocabulary words, but you will still forget where you parked your car or the details of your last birthday (or why you shouldn’t marry that tempestuous on‑again, off-again ex!). In addition, memory drills don’t significantly improve your understanding of what you are remembering. They do help to a certain degree, but if you really want to learn with deep understanding, you still have to read, study, analyze, and experience a particular subject. There is no shortcut when it comes to learning. Memorizing definitions or the times tables or the periodic table does help as an aid and reference as you are learning those subjects, but they are not a magic pill that will help you finish medical school in three months—which would never be the goal of autobiographical memory, anyway. In short, mnemonic strategies are helpful but limited
But please don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking mnemonics. Being able to memorize the order of a deck of cards in a minute or less is impressive, but it is not going to help you figure out why you always feel like a victim or seem to repeatedly crave drama in your life. There is a bit of a fast-food feeling to the whole process of mnemonics. They fill you up quickly but can’t sustain you properly in the long run. What is different about this memory book is that I am not trying to help you break any speed records. This is a journey, a wonderful, joyful ride through your life, and I hope you enjoy every moment.
Are you ready for your Total Memory Makeover?
Let’s get started!
From Total Memory Makeover. Copyright © 2012 by Marilu Henner. Reprinted with permission from Gallery, a division of Simon & Schuster.