Do You Remember?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because memory is a fickle thing.
By Isabelle Lee
Firefighter Genevieve Hansen tearfully testified at the Derek Chauvin trial about how officers refused to let her administer medical attention to George Floyd. The defense’s response? The stress of the situation may have altered Hansen’s memory. That exchange reminds us of the mysterious science behind what we recall. Join us for a deep dive into the vagaries of memory, innovative ways to improve it, some unforgettable superstars and the future of grasping the past.
Super Recognizers. He’s a criminal’s worst nightmare. British policeman Andy Pope never forgets a face; in fact, he identified 1,000 criminal suspects from watching CCTV footage and riding mass transit from 2012 to 2017. He’s extraordinary but not alone. He belongs to a category of people called super recognizers, some of whom are even beating out facial recognition software tools. Think you might be one? They only make up about 1 to 2 percent of the population, but you can test your prowess by taking online assessments such as this one offered by Harvard University and Dartmouth College.
Never Forgetters. Do you know what you did last summer? What about 41 years ago on Aug. 29? Jill Price, 55, remembers: It was a Friday, and the then-teenager went to Palm Springs with her twin friends, who got bikini waxes. Mind you, this answer came instantly, without a moment’s thought or preparation. She was the first person diagnosed with a condition scientists call highly superior autobiographical memory, and she was just one of about 60 such individuals as of 2017. Scientists hope studying never forgetters could reveal new lessons about memory loss and retention.
Shock Therapy? If you don’t have superhuman memory, never fear — technology is here! A Boston University study found that electrical stimulation of the brain improves memory. Which led an Australian startup, Humm, to conclude it should spend millions to create a wearable patch that shocks its wearer. The startling concept, premised on mild electrical stimulation, helped Humm raise $2.6 million in 2019 to test out the product. Soon we could all be one jolt away from becoming memory geniuses ourselves!
View From Above. Artist Stephen Wiltshire is famous for his panoramic skyline views, which he draws entirely from memory. The autistic savant has a gallery in London and has traveled the world while creating his unforgettable images. He got started at age 8 when he sold his first work — a sketch of Salisbury Cathedral commissioned by former U.K. Prime Minister Edward Heath. Since then, Wiltshire has sold out a number of exhibitions, and his story has been featured in multiple books and documentaries marveling at his memorable artistic feats.
improve your memory
Cut the Sugar! New research from the University of Georgia and a Southern California research group reveals sugar consumption in adolescence can impair memory. While they haven’t tested the theory on humans, the scientists found that young rats that consumed sugar-sweetened beverages daily had impaired performance on memory tasks as adults. So while sugars are increasingly being used to help treat things like cancer, you may want to think twice before overindulging. Read more on OZY.
Back to the Drawing Board. Many educators ban digital devices in the classroom, and it turns out they have solid scientific ground to do so. Researchers at the University of Tokyo found that writing on a physical piece of paper was better for retaining information than typing notes on your tablet or smartphone. Maybe it’s time to add a pencil sharpener to your work-from-home setup. Read more on OZY.
Memory Loss Tips. If pandemic isolation prompted you to take more neighborhood walks, you may be giving your brain a workout too. A recent study showed that going on a brisk walk or getting regular exercise helped middle-aged adults and seniors with early signs of memory loss improve their cognitive abilities. Researchers hypothesized the reason may be the increased blood flow to the brain. Take a hike? Don’t mind if we do. Read more on OZY.
Match 3D. What if you could harness the pleasure of video games for good? Playing games on your phone might just help improve your memory. A popular puzzle app, Match 3D, is one of the top 100 grossing games in the United States (among its fans is OZY Editor-at-Large Christina Greer, who swears by its memory-enhancing properties).
when memory fails
Time Warp. Time has lost all meaning during COVID-19 lockdowns. For some, that translates to relationships that accelerate way too fast, an experience affectionately dubbed “apocalypsing.” For others, it may be the feeling that days drag on while suddenly months of quarantine have elapsed. Recollections formed during emotionally charged, stressful or significant times are called “flashbulb memories.” They often last longer than more typical memories and are more vulnerable to manipulation. The creation of false memories in high-stress situations concerns pandemic researchers, who wonder how we will look back on the events of the past year — and whether we can trust those memories. And what does it say about memory that most of ours are so heavily tethered to pop culture events, from TikTok to Tiger King?
Broken Brain. If you feel like you broke your brain, you aren’t alone. When your brain is under duress, multitasking is near impossible. Managing too much makes your memory decline because you are overloading the brain’s executive functioning capacity, experts say. The broken brain feeling is worse for parents. So don’t worry if you can’t remember where your kid left their shoes, or if you’re forever mixing up your children’s names. Blame your overwhelmed brain!
Revisionist History? “Then [David] Letterman asked the question that would destroy Brian Williams’ career.” That’s the tantalizing tease Malcolm Gladwell drops in his Revisionist History podcast episode on memory … and how it failed the NBC News anchor in the worst possible way. Williams went on to tell a war story about being on a helicopter that was hit by gunfire — only, it wasn’t true. But, Gladwell asks, does that make him a liar? Society insists that lapses of memory equate to lapses of character. But the reality may be far murkier.
Brain Fog. Even after people get vaccinated, one of the lingering effects of COVID-19 will be its impact on survivors’ brains. Some COVID long-haulers describe suffering from “brain fog,” in which they experience short-term memory loss, confusion and difficulty focusing. It’s the fourth most common symptom of the virus, and experts are unsure how long it will take for people to recover … or if they will at all.
Story of a Year. When we are stressed, we crave comfort foods. Our spatial brain is partially at fault — blame it on our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Spatial memory developed to prioritize remembering the location of high-calorie foods, making them a lot harder to avoid in kitchen pantries now. From the French massively increasing their cheese intake during the pandemic to the chips calling to you from the cupboard, COVID has tested our willpower … and our belt buckles. Read more on OZY.
the future of memory
If He Only Had Synthetic DNA. The scarecrow can forget all about needing a brain. University of Texas researchers have uploaded The Wonderful Wizard of OZ to synthetic DNA, unveiling a process that allows you to store large amounts of data on strands of genetic material. Reporters from the Verge followed suit, encoding their memories from the crazy year that was 2020. Screw “the cloud.” Pretty soon, we’ll be storing our bank passwords in our cells instead.
Your Hippocampus Speaking. Do you ever feel like you’re on autopilot, even when entering a new situation? MIT scientists have discovered specialized cells that create “event code” living in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. They are activated by new situations in similar settings, such as going to a new restaurant. While you’ve never seen the menu, your event codes kick in, so you know to look for, say, an appetizer list or a favorite entree. Scientists hope to harness such “transfer learning” to prepare people to learn new things from fresh scenarios by drawing on past experience.
Reboot Alzheimer’s. What if you could control-alt-delete the Alzheimer’s gene? While we’re far from deploying it on humans, scientists in South Korea managed to treat mice with Alzheimer’s by using the CRISPR gene-editing tool to edit out the BACE1 gene associated with the disease. Such splicing technology will have ramifications across scientific fields, from creating “designer babies” to crunchy CRISPR groceries. But for now, we’d settle for more easily remembering where we left our keys.
Reversing False Memories. Elizabeth Loftus is a cognitive psychologist specializing in the fickle nature of memory. Her testimonies in several high-profile sexual misconduct cases, including the Harvey Weinstein trial, have been used to discredit recollections of accusers and survivors. Those arguments have helped shape the legality of using memories as fact in legal cases, which could benefit both defendants and accusers. Either way, recent research discovered that false memories can be corrected without harming the true memory’s integrity. That means the arguments by Chauvin’s lawyer in the George Floyd trial — refuting the memories of firefighter Genevieve Hansen — may not be as airtight as the defense team would like to believe.
- Isabelle Lee, OZY Author Contact Isabelle Lee