USA Memory Champion on Improving One’s Memory

The American memory champion’s results give credence to the notion that (as with other things in life) you can get good at anything you practice at — including memory.

In 2009, after Nelson Dellis’s grandmother Josephine passed away from Alzheimer’s disease (which may have a hereditary component), he was inspired to find ways to keep his own brain healthy and sharp.

“I was a good student, but my memory was average,” Dellis, 35, tells CNBC Make It.

Dellis scoured the internet looking for tips to improve his memory and joined a few forums where professional “memory athletes” (people who train their memory skills for high performance) chatted about different memory techniques. Then he listened to “Quantum Memory: Learn to Improve Your Memory with The World Memory Champion,” an audiobook by Dominic O’Brien, a seven-time world memory champion.

“After that, I went off and, through trial and error, figured out what [techniques] worked well for me,” Dellis says.

Today Dellis, author of the book “Remember It” and a four-time USA Memory Champion (an annual competition for elite mental athletes), is a full-time memory coach based in Miami, Florida. He charges $250 an hour for private lessons to the likes CEOs and billionaires, including Mark Cuban and Sara Blakely.

Here are Dellis’ top three tips on improving your memory and staying sharp.

1. Go offline

Dellis says one the easiest memory tips that he’s learned over the years is to take time to totally disconnect from technology — including your smartphone — for at least an hour a day.

That’s because presence is important for memory, says Dellis.

“Your brain is a processing unit,” he says. “If your brain isn’t present to receive [information] (i.e., you’re distracted and not paying attention), how on earth do you think it’s going to be able to remember it? You’ll be surprised how powerful your natural memory is if you just try and pay attention.”

Dellis’s advice is supported by research: According to a 2017 study from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin, researchers found the mere presence of a smartphone reduces cognitive capacity, affecting one’s brain to hold and process data.

2. Think in pictures

“My goal whenever I memorize something is to turn it into a mental picture in my mind,” he says, which is “any mental representation of what you’re trying to memorize, using as many of your senses as possible.” It could be an association, a sound, a feeling — anything that’s “meaningful” to you, Dellis says.

That’s because it’s much easier to remember a picture of something that you are familiar with than words relating to something new and difficult, he says. (Studies in older adults have shown that pictures can help with memory.)

Dellis uses the example of remembering the name chervil (an herb) to buy at the grocery store.

“Most people might not even know what that is. So I might break that word down into what it sounds like: ‘sure-vill.’ So maybe my meaningful image could be, me saying ‘sure!’ enthusiastically to a ’vill’ain. The more context the better. Maybe I’m agreeing with this villain, because if I don’t, he’ll take all the chervil in the world and secretly garnish all the food in the world and ruin the taste of everything,” Dellis says.

The “more over-the-top and bizarre you make the image, the better.”

To practice, Dellis suggests that when you meet someone for the first time, turn their name into mental images, as he did with chervil.

“You’ll have a higher chance of remembering the person’s name, and you’ll be training your brain to get better/quicker at thinking in pictures,” he says.

3. Explore your ‘memory palace’

When you’re thinking in pictures, you need a place to store those images. So most memory athletes use a technique called the “memory palace,” according to Dellis. The technique (which dates back to the ancient Greeks) has to do with remembering things based on location

According to Dellis, a memory palace works like this: Think of a familiar place (like your house, apartment, office, etc.) and imagine a mental pathway through it. To store your images, simply imagine or “stick” each image on a location along the path in your mind. The idea is that later on when you want to retrieve the information, all you have to do is think of your memory palace, walk back through it in your mind and pick up the images you left there.

It sounds a bit crazy, but it works, according to Dellis and it allows top memory athletes to memorize thousands of pieces of information, he says.

“It’s an effective way of stringing together sets of memories because it uses more and various parts of the brain than simply short term recall (visual, emotional, language, imagination and short term memory),” neuroscientist Tara Swart tells CNBC Make It.

To practice, Dellis suggests choosing three familiar places and selecting 10 locations along your mental path through each. Start by storing daily to-do lists and grocery lists there as practice.

Study: Facts Misremembered to Fit Personal Biases

Reality is sometimes very unpleasant to see, but there are clearly problems in people choosing to cloud their clear views of reality.

A recent study by Ohio State researchers found that people tend to misremember information to match commonly-held beliefs.

If you’re looking for who’s responsible for all the misinformation out there, you might want to take a peek in the mirror.

OK, OK, it’s not all your fault.

Although external sources of misinformation like “fake news” and purposeful disinformation campaigns draw a lot of attention today, recent research at Ohio State University indicates we might misremember information all on our own.

In a recent study, Ohio State researchers found that when given accurate statistics on a controversial issue, people tended to misremember numbers to match their own beliefs. Then, when researchers gave study participants accurate information and asked them to convey it to others, the information grew more and more different as it was passed from person to person.

“What our research would suggest is there’s a lot of focus on external sources of misinformation, but we also have to pay attention to these internal sources,” said Jason Coronel, an assistant professor of communication at Ohio State.

For the study, participants were given factual numerical information about four societal issues. Based on pre-tests, researchers found that the numbers for two of the societal issues matched many people’s understanding of the matter. But for the other two issues, the numbers didn’t fit with their understanding.

For the numbers that were inconsistent with how people view the issue, participants were more likely to remember the numbers incorrectly, in a way that matched their probable biases.

For example, researchers presented participants with information showing there were 12.8 million Mexican immigrants in the United States in 2007, and fewer — 11.7 million — in 2014. When participants were then given a memory test, they were more likely to remember the statistics incorrectly, in a way that agreed with many people’s understanding that the number of Mexican immigrants would be higher in 2014 than 2007.

In a second portion of the study, researchers examined how memory distortions can be spread among social circles as individuals share the misinformation they created. Mimicking a game of “telephone,” researchers presented a participant with accurate numbers about a societal issue.

For example, the participant was asked to write down the numbers of Mexican immigrants in 2007 and 2014 from memory. The numbers from the first person were then given to a second person, and the process was repeated to a third person.

Researchers found that as the retellings increased from person to person, the information transformed to be more consistent with people’s understanding of the issue rather than the factual numbers.

It’s one thing to believe information yourself without fact-checking it first, said Shannon Poulsen, a doctoral student at Ohio State who conducted the study with Coronel and fellow doctoral student Matthew Sweitzer. But the second portion of the study shows the danger of then sharing inaccurate information with others, she said.

“Now the issue is not just you … now you’re sharing information,” Poulsen said.

Then, you can become part of the bigger problem, Coronel said.

“If you don’t scrutinize on what you’re remembering and you decide to talk about it and pass it on to another person, you just turned into an external source of misinformation,” Coronel said.

It may be a bit unsettling to think you can’t trust your own brain, but researchers hope the study leads to better understanding about how we remember things and encourages healthy scrutiny and skepticism.

“It can be a little bit scary,” Poulsen said. “But if it’s enough to increase … a little bit of skepticism to a point where people can be accurate, that’s great.”

People tend to think of their memories as simply a video recording device, taking in everything and repeating it back when they need it, Coronel said. But lots of research in psychology indicates memory doesn’t work that way.

Instead, think of memory as a jigsaw puzzle, he said — sometimes you’re missing some pieces, or you’ve got pieces from multiple boxes dumped on the same table.

Even Brief Workouts Quickly Improve Memory Function

Exercise has numerous benefits, and more and more continues to be found about how valuable consistent exercise is. Having a stronger memory will often improve performance in a variety of ways, and thus this research should give people more motivation to workout more.

People who include a little yoga or tai chi in their day may be more likely to remember where they put their keys. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine and Japan’s University of Tsukuba found that even very light workouts can increase the connectivity between parts of the brain responsible for memory formation and storage.

In a study of 36 healthy young adults, the researchers discovered that a single 10-minute period of mild exertion can yield considerable cognitive benefits. Using high-resolution functional magnetic resonance imaging, the team examined subjects’ brains shortly after exercise sessions and saw better connectivity between the hippocampal dentate gyrus and cortical areas linked to detailed memory processing.

Their results were published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The hippocampus is critical for the creation of new memories; it’s one of the first regions of the brain to deteriorate as we get older — and much more severely in Alzheimer’s disease,” said project co-leader Michael Yassa, UCI professor and Chancellor’s Fellow of neurobiology & behavior. “Improving the function of the hippocampus holds much promise for improving memory in everyday settings.”

The neuroscientists found that the level of heightened connectivity predicted the degree of recall enhancement.

Yassa, director of UCI’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory and the recently launched UCI Brain Initiative, said that while prior research has centered on the way exercise promotes the generation of new brain cells in memory regions, this new study demonstrates a more immediate impact: strengthened communication between memory-focused parts of the brain.

“We don’t discount the possibility that new cells are being born, but that’s a process that takes a bit longer to unfold,” he said. “What we observed is that these 10-minute periods of exercise showed results immediately afterward.”

A little bit of physical activity can go a long way, Yassa stressed. “It’s encouraging to see more people keeping track of their exercise habits — by monitoring the number of steps they’re taking, for example,” he said. “Even short walking breaks throughout the day may have considerable effects on improving memory and cognition.”

Yassa and his colleagues at UCI and at the University of Tsukuba are extending this avenue of research by testing older adults who are at greater risk of age-related mental impairment and by conducting long-term interventions to see if regular, brief, light exercise done daily for several weeks or months can have a positive impact on the brain’s structure and function in these subjects.

Research: Depressive Episodes Can Damage Memory

The extent of the damage depends on the severity and length of the depressive episodes. This new research gives a concrete example of why it is important to improve mental health outcomes — it turns out that depression can have directly negative effects on the brain, and there are plenty of implications for human society based on that.

During a depressive episode the ability of the brain to form new brain cells is reduced. Scientists of the Ruhr-Universität Bochum examined how this affects the memory with a computational model. It was previously known that people in an acute depressive episode were less likely to remember current events. The computational model however suggests that older memories were affected as well. How long the memory deficits reach back depends on how long the depressive episode lasts. The team around the computational neuroscientist Prof Dr Sen Cheng published their findings in the journal PLOS ONE on 7th June 2018.

Computational model simulates a depressive brain

In major depressive disorder patients may suffer from such severe cognitive impairments that, in some cases, are called pseudodementia. Unlike in the classic form of dementia, in pseudodementia memory recovers when the depressive episode ends. To understand this process, the scientists from Bochum developed a computational model that captures the characteristic features of the brain of a patient with depressions. They tested the ability of the model to store and recall new memories.

As is the case in patients, the simulation alternated between depressive episodes and episodes without any symptoms. During a depressive episode, the brain forms fewer new neurons in the model.

Whereas in previous models, memories were represented as static patterns of neural activity, the model developed by Sen Cheng and his colleagues views memories as a sequence of neural activity patterns. “This allows us not only to store events in memory but also their temporal order,” says Sen Cheng.

Impact on brain stronger than thought

The computational model was able to recall memories more accurately, if the responsible brain region was able to form many new neurons, just like the scientists expected. However, if the brain region formed fewer new brain cells, it was harder to distinguish similar memories and to recall them separately.

The computational model not only showed deficits in recalling current events, it also struggled with memories that were collected before the depressive episode. The longer the depressive episode lasted the further the memory problems reached back.

“So far it was assumed that memory deficits only occur during a depressive episode,” says Sen Cheng. “If our model is right, major depressive disorder could have consequences that are more far reaching. Once remote memories have been damaged, they do not recover, even after the depression has subsided.”

Cognitive Impairment in Mice With Dementia Reversed

It’s a significant development for treating that disease and those similar to it.

Reversing memory deficits and impairments in spatial learning is a major goal in the field of dementia research. A lack of knowledge about cellular pathways critical to the development of dementia, however, has stood in the way of significant clinical advance. But now, researchers at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University (LKSOM) are breaking through that barrier. They show, for the first time in an animal model, that tau pathology — the second-most important lesion in the brain in patients with Alzheimer’s disease — can be reversed by a drug.

“We show that we can intervene after disease is established and pharmacologically rescue mice that have tau-induced memory deficits,” explained senior investigator Domenico Praticò, MD, Scott Richards North Star Foundation Chair for Alzheimer’s Research, Professor in the Departments of Pharmacology and Microbiology, and Director of the Alzheimer’s Center at Temple at LKSOM. The study, published online in the journal Molecular Neurobiology, raises new hope for human patients affected by dementia.

The researchers landed on their breakthrough after discovering that inflammatory molecules known as leukotrienes are deregulated in Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. In experiments in animals, they found that the leukotriene pathway plays an especially important role in the later stages of disease.

“At the onset of dementia, leukotrienes attempt to protect nerve cells, but over the long term, they cause damage,” Dr. Praticò said. “Having discovered this, we wanted to know whether blocking leukotrienes could reverse the damage, whether we could do something to fix memory and learning impairments in mice having already abundant tau pathology.”

[…]

After 16 weeks of treatment, animals were administered maze tests to assess their working memory and their spatial learning memory. Compared with untreated animals, tau mice that had received zileuton performed significantly better on the tests. Their superior performance suggested a successful reversal of memory deficiency.

To determine why this happened, the researchers first analyzed leukotriene levels. They found that treated tau mice experienced a 90-percent reduction in leukotrienes compared with untreated mice. In addition, levels of phosphorylated and insoluble tau, the form of the protein that is known to directly damage synapses, were 50 percent lower in treated animals. Microscopic examination revealed vast differences in synaptic integrity between the groups of mice. Whereas untreated animals had severe synaptic deterioration, the synapses of treated tau animals were indistinguishable from those of ordinary mice without the disease.

[…]

The study is especially exciting because zileuton is already approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of asthma. “Leukotrienes are in the lungs and the brain, but we now know that in addition to their functional role in asthma, they also have a functional role in dementia,” Dr. Praticò explained.

“This is an old drug for a new disease,” he added. “The research could soon be translated to the clinic, to human patients with Alzheimer’s disease.”

Memory Transferred Through Snails Using RNA Injection

Memory is one of the most important aspects of creatures with higher intelligence, and it was recently found that animals can mentally replay past events. Altering the processes that control memory could be enormously useful — as in restoring positive memories — or enormously harmful — as in deleting memories of events that were vital to learning. That’s technology’s lack of a moral imperative though — the outcome depends on how it’s used.

UCLA biologists report they have transferred a memory from one marine snail to another, creating an artificial memory, by injecting RNA from one to another. This research could lead to new ways to lessen the trauma of painful memories with RNA and to restore lost memories.

“I think in the not-too-distant future, we could potentially use RNA to ameliorate the effects of Alzheimer’s disease or post-traumatic stress disorder,” said David Glanzman, senior author of the study and a UCLA professor of integrative biology and physiology and of neurobiology. The team’s research is published May 14 in eNeuro, the online journal of the Society for Neuroscience.

RNA, or ribonucleic acid, has been widely known as a cellular messenger that makes proteins and carries out DNA’s instructions to other parts of the cell. It is now understood to have other important functions besides protein coding, including regulation of a variety of cellular processes involved in development and disease.

The researchers gave mild electric shocks to the tails of a species of marine snail called Aplysia. The snails received five tail shocks, one every 20 minutes, and then five more 24 hours later. The shocks enhance the snail’s defensive withdrawal reflex, a response it displays for protection from potential harm. When the researchers subsequently tapped the snails, they found those that had been given the shocks displayed a defensive contraction that lasted an average of 50 seconds, a simple type of learning known as “sensitization.” Those that had not been given the shocks contracted for only about one second.

The life scientists extracted RNA from the nervous systems of marine snails that received the tail shocks the day after the second series of shocks, and also from marine snails that did not receive any shocks. Then the RNA from the first (sensitized) group was injected into seven marine snails that had not received any shocks, and the RNA from the second group was injected into a control group of seven other snails that also had not received any shocks.

Remarkably, the scientists found that the seven that received the RNA from snails that were given the shocks behaved as if they themselves had received the tail shocks: They displayed a defensive contraction that lasted an average of about 40 seconds.

[…]

Scientists know more about the cell biology of this simple form of learning in this animal than any other form of learning in any other organism, Glanzman said. The cellular and molecular processes seem to be very similar between the marine snail and humans, even though the snail has about 20,000 neurons in its central nervous system and humans are thought to have about 100 billion.

In the future, Glanzman said, it is possible that RNA can be used to awaken and restore memories that have gone dormant in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. He and his colleagues published research in the journal eLife in 2014 indicating that lost memories can be restored.

First Evidence that Animals Can Mentally Replay Past Events Found

Many innovations and breakthroughs have been based on or inspired by better understandings of animals, such as understanding bats leading to sonar and understanding scorpion venom leading to the development of new medicines. Perhaps animals have different mental processes than humans to remember past events, but in any case, there’s likely benefits to this research still unseen.

Neuroscientists at Indiana University have reported the first evidence that non-human animals can mentally replay past events from memory. The discovery could help advance the development of new drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease.

The study, led by IU professor Jonathon Crystal, appears today in the journal Current Biology.

“The reason we’re interested in animal memory isn’t only to understand animals, but rather to develop new models of memory that match up with the types of memory impaired in human diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease,” said Crystal, a professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and director of the IU Bloomington Program in Neuroscience.

Under the current paradigm, Crystal said most preclinical studies on potential new Alzheimer’s drugs examine how these compounds affect spatial memory, one of the easiest types of memory to assess in animals. But spatial memory is not the type of memory whose loss causes the most debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

“If your grandmother is suffering from Alzheimer’s, one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the disease is that she can’t remember what you told her about what’s happening in your life the last time you saw her,” said Danielle Panoz-Brown, an IU Ph.D. student who is the first author on the study. “We’re interested in episodic memory — and episodic memory replay — because it declines in Alzheimer’s disease, and in aging in general.”

Episodic memory is the ability to remember specific events. For example, if a person loses their car keys, they might try to recall every single step — or “episode” — in their trip from the car to their current location. The ability to replay these events in order is known as “episodic memory replay.” People wouldn’t be able to make sense of most scenarios if they couldn’t remember the order in which they occurred, Crystal said.

To assess animals’ ability to replay past events from memory, Crystal’s lab spent nearly a year working with 13 rats, which they trained to memorize a list of up to 12 different odors. The rats were placed inside an “arena” with different odors and rewarded when they identified the second-to-last odor or fourth-to-last odor in the list.

The team changed the number of odors in the list prior to each test to confirm the odors were identified based upon their position in the list, not by scent alone, proving the animals were relying on their ability to recall the whole list in order. Arenas with different patterns were used to communicate to the rats which of the two options was sought.

After their training, Crystal said, the animals successfully completed their task about 87 percent of the time across all trials. The results are strong evidence the animals were employing episodic memory replay.

Additional experiments confirmed the rats’ memories were long-lasting and resistant to “interference” from other memories, both hallmarks of episodic memory. They also ran tests that temporarily suppressed activity in the hippocampus — the site of episodic memory — to confirm the rats were using this part of their brain to perform their tasks.

Crystal said the need to find reliable ways to test episodic memory replay in rats is urgent since new genetic tools are enabling scientists to create rats with neurological conditions similar to Alzheimer’s disease. Until recently, only mice were available with the genetic modifications needed to study the effect of new drugs on these symptoms.

“We’re really trying push the boundaries of animal models of memory to something that’s increasingly similar to how these memories work in people,” he said. “If we want to eliminate Alzheimer’s disease, we really need to make sure we’re trying to protect the right type of memory.”