Monday, November 8, 2010


I'm warning you now.

Read the words in the title and commit them to memory because somewhere down the road, maybe 20, 30, 40 or perhaps 50 years from now, you will be sitting across a table from someone who, almost immediately, upon meeting you, will tell you to remember those 3 little words. You will feel nervous, confused, insulted, patronized and perhaps experience something akin to "performance anxiety" as they then proceed to run you through various mental challenges. About 5 minutes after you are stirred up enough they will then ask you what the words were that they gave you to remember. And despite the increased intensity of emotion, self-doubt and confusion the words will bubble up from your long term memory and you will be able to say calmly, "car, ball, man". The thing is they will assume that these words are new to you and that you have stored them in your short term memory and you will have passed this portion of the test.

Just giving you a heads up.

OK, it might not play out exactly like this but after hearing those words first repeated in 1998 and every year thereafter at each of my parents' cognitive assessment evaluations, I can assure you that they are etched in my brain. Every time I accompanied my folks for "their" assessment all I could think was, please don't change the 3 words because I am so primed to remember them that they will block out any new incoming ones. I bet ya that almost everyone who's accompanied their parent or loved one to a geriatric assessment from this particular team has these three words burned into their brains too.

This all leads me to these observations about memory retention.

When trying to remember something state it - short, simple and to the point. Let's say I have to remember a grocery list consisting of: milk, bread and cheese. There is no need for me to say, "remember to get milk, bread and cheese". Because I am anxious about my ability to remember, using the word "remember" (in this context) triggers my belief that I have a bad memory and that I'm going to have difficulty remembering. Feeling that I won't be able to remember the list; I become anxious.


Cartoon copyright Nance Thacker 1991.
Click on image to enlarge
To embed this kind of memory it is best to feel relaxed and happy. So:

  • My memory prompt is SIMPLE: "milk, bread, cheese". 
  • I  REPEAT these words at least 3 times while tapping my watch (Since I am inclined to look at my watch numerous times before going to the store, each time I do it is a visual prompt for memory. In hypnosis we call this anchoring). 
  • Each time, while repeating and tapping I VISUALIZE: the items (perhaps getting really specific about the images) and me picking up the items and paying for them at the checkout (this takes only a few seconds). 
  • And, I FEEL how good it feels to have accomplished the task.

Now I just have to remember where I parked my car!

The key for this - I have to be MINDFUL of parking it in the first place. I liken it to getting out of "passenger" mode. It is less likely that, as a passenger, I will remember where the car was parked because I tend to rely on the driver to do this. So I have to shift to "driver" mode and note my surroundings. Since I can be an easily distractible, multi-tasker, mindfulness is something I have to come back to constantly. I call this "applied meditation" practice.

Since, in the scenario I have just described, I have a vested interest in the things I want to remember I am more motivated to recall these things. In the case of my grocery list - these items will allow me to make a meal and that makes me feel good.  And since I'd rather not wait til the parking lot is sufficiently emptied before I can find my car I'm highly motivated to take note where it was parked in the first place.

In contrast, "car, ball, man" meant nothing to my poor parents who were full of anxiety at the time of their assessment.  And, when the time comes, it will mean nothing to you too. So practice those 3 words now.

There will be a test!

COMMENT ON THE CARTOON. I'm not proud to admit this but, unlike some people, I will pick out the longest line at the checkout so that I can browse the "brain candy" mags. And I often memorize where I left off for the next visit to the grocery store.

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