Mind Power: How to Sharpen Our Memory and Intelligence

Janet Stilson
ILLUMINATION
Published in
7 min readJun 18, 2023

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Morpho Butterly Image by Gaby from Pixabay

Galloping on a horse down a rain forest trail, a blur of lush greenery rushed by. I could smell the leather of the saddle, feel the mahogany brown animal breathing hard beneath me. Matching the rhythm of his body with my own, I focused on the pounding of his hooves and the hushing sound of a small waterfall in the distance. My friend Ellie gave me a bright smile from her own horse. And then, and then! We slowed to watch the flutter of blue in the leaves. One, two, then a whole cluster of brilliant blue Morpho butterflies filtered up through the leaves and branches, each one like a dream that was all the more precious because it could not be captured and held.

This is one of my fondest memories. It happened many years ago when Ellie and I were on a retreat to get some work done at an artist residency in Costa Rica. We were rewarding ourselves after several days of slaving away — me on a writing project, she on some arresting visual art. I am so grateful that I can pull those moments out of my memory bank — and that I have a friend who was there and can add to my recollections with her own.

Our brains can be time machines — sometimes imagination machines. And as much as I love science fiction and fantasy, what we have in this world, in our heads, can seem pretty otherworldly too, if we can only remember it.

I’ve been thinking about my natural time machine a lot these days. We can’t assume that our minds will always work the way we want them to, when we want them to. Sometimes, my head seems to be on a 20-minute time delay when I try to recall things. Sometimes a three-day time delay. Which is frustrating.

THE MEMORY KINGDOM

In his book “Walking in Wonder,” John O’Donohue writes: “There is a place where our vanished days secretly gather. Memory, as a kingdom, is full of the ruins of presence. It is fascinating that, in your memory, nothing is lost or ever finally forgotten. We all have had experience of this. Sometimes the needle of thought finds its way into a groove of memory and suddenly an old experience that you no longer remembered comes back. Yet, there is a place where our vanished days secretly gather. Memory, as a kingdom, is full of the ruins of presence. It is fascinating that, in your memory, nothing is lost or ever finally forgotten.”

Maybe that’s true, but can we pull up memories when we truly need them? And as the years go by, will we eventually sink into a state of dementia?

How often do we become so caught up thinking about worries and other distractions that we forget to really think about what we’re doing in the moment? Maybe you wander into the kitchen and can’t remember, for the life of you, what it was you intended to do. Besides eat. I know that certainly is true for me.

Thankfully, we have external means of helping us remember what’s important. Sticky notes and general list making are so critical for me. And I’m a big search-and-replace kind of writer.

I’m in the middle of drafting a sci-fi cyberpunk novel, which is a sequel to my book “The Juice.” A mystery meanders through the pages, with various clues and discoveries sprinkled throughout. Whenever I’ve tweaked certain aspects of the book that were originally written weeks (or months) before, it’s hard to remember all the other places that need to be adjusted.

Sometimes the changes I need to make don’t involve switching out just one word — for example knife for gun. The changes are a bit more complex. By remembering key words that were used in close proximity to where the changes needed to be made, I can search them out and adjust.

I can’t even imagine what some of the great mystery writers went through in the age of typewriters or handwritten manuscripts.

HOW TO TACKLE THE CHALLENGE

External “assists” like notes and software search functions are all well and good. But I want to make my internal mental capacity as resilient and sharp as possible. It’s a matter of how well I can remember, and how quickly.

As a result, I’ve done some research on how we can maintain our memory and do all in our power to make the most of the intelligence we’ve been given. Below are some suggestions based on articles that are readily available on the web, like this one from HealthLine and this one as well. I’m also including what I have found works for myself.

Eat Well, and Make It Yummy: Some foods that are beneficial are also really delicious. I was pleased to discover that eating dark chocolate with a cocoa content of 70% cacao or higher can improve memory. Other foods that help include berries and nuts.

Nutritional supplements like turmeric and fish oil are also recommended. I’m among those that advocate for lion’s mane mushroom supplements. However, there are many different lion’s mane options on the market, and some capsules need to be taken in quite some number over the course of a day. I go for a powdered form of lion’s mane, which I sprinkle on my granola or add to tea. Fortunately, heat doesn’t seem to minimize the potency of lion’s mane.

I also take a supplement called MagMind, or Magnesium L-Threonate, which supports cognition and brain health. Bear in mind that many of the supplements need to be taken with food in order to be effective.

Get Enough Sleep: I really, really notice a difference in my ability to think clearly if I’m running on just a few hours of sleep. And I don’t dose off easily. Sure, there are sleep supplements available. But in addition, I find that if I don’t exercise enough during the day, both stretching and cardio, my body simply will not turn off when I want it to. I also do guided mediations just before bed to relax.

And if I watch a suspenseful or violent show on TV, I switch to a comedy as a “chaser” and watch for at least half an hour before heading off to bed. Calms me down.

Get Off Your Seat and Exercise: See last section for more on this. Plus, you know the drill: when we get those endorphins activated, it can be a real spirit-lifter.

Practice Living in the Present: Staying attuned to the world around us actually helps the memory! This is not necessarily something that’s easy to do, simple as it might seem. It’s only human to be consumed by the past or the future. So we need to consciously train ourselves, as meditation instructors have reminded me repeatedly.

How many times have I walked down a perfectly gorgeous trail through the woods and never really seen it? (Answer: a lot! Although that Morpho butterfuly experience is certainly an exception.) Oftentimes, instead of paying attention to what’s happening in real time, I’m planning what I want to do in the future or am consumed by what’s already happened.

I can’t remember who it was who advised this (yep, brain freeze!), but someone suggested saying the words: “I am here,” or “I am present” as a prompt. And dang, if it doesn’t clear away the distractions and help me appreciate the beautiful surroundings.

Practice Remembering and Actively Learn New Things: There are ways we can purposely train ourselves to remember certain things. One option is repeating what we want to recall.

That said, an article from a Harvard Medical School publication explains: “Repetition is most potent as a learning tool when it’s properly timed. It’s best not to repeat something many times in a short period, as if you were cramming for an exam. Instead, re-study the essentials after increasingly longer periods of time — once an hour, then every few hours, then every day. Spacing out periods of study helps improve memory and is particularly valuable when you are trying to master complicated information, such as the details of a new work assignment.”

There are lots of other great suggestions for memory retention in that article, so it’s worth checking them all out. Among them is the advice to keep learning. Take a class, learn a new language, travel some place where you’ll open your eyes to history, culture, and different views.

THE MEMORY PALACE TECHNIQUE

Some other provocative insights are divulged in a TedTalk featuring Joshua Foer. He’s a journalist who became fascinated by the U.S. Memory Championship, which takes place every year. He studied the techniques of the contestants, and then put them to use. As a result, he won the competition later on.

Foer points to research showing that people who have great memories aren’t any smarter than the rest of us. It’s what they do, actively engaging their memories on a regular basis, that makes all the difference. The technique that some of the contestants use is ancient and known as the Memory Palace — which involves imagining some crazy and nonsensical situations. You have to delve into the process in order to fully understand the technique. But it looks like fun. That is definitely on my “to do” list.

What I’ve mentioned is by no means comprehensive. There are lots of options to choose from. The important thing about all of this, for me, is to realize that none of this need be difficult. And much of it can make life more enjoyable.

I don’t want the luminous blue butterflies in my mind to disappear into the memory forest and be gone forever. I want to cherish them as long as I can. As Foer put it in his talk, “Our lives are the sum of our memories.” May your own be as big, and as resilient, as you can make it.

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Janet Stilson
ILLUMINATION

Janet Stilson’s novel THE JUICE, published to rave reviews. A sequel will be released in May 2024. She won the Meryl Streep Writer’s Lab for Women competition.