The Time Machine: Go Back to Go Forward

I have a hard time remembering names. I spend way too much time looking for my keys or my glasses. So, the dozen documented Highly Superior Autobiographical Memories (HSAM) amaze me. These gifted people can recount what happened on every day of their lives in fine detail: where they were, whom they were with, what they experienced. Name a date and they can play back that day like a movie.  The actress Marilu Henner is one of the documented cases of HSAM. In her book, Total Memory Makeover, Henner guides us through memory research from the University of California, Irvine and practices she follows to develop a better memory.

My first reaction to this phenomenon was that there are many days I don’t want to remember.  Henner’s opening point is that to have a great memory, one first needs to appreciate its benefits. The key benefit of developing a better memory is to allow your past to improve your future. Use memory not to just relive our experiences, but to examine the choices that got us to that place, then recognize these same choices when they are presented again.

Use an  Extraordinary Memory

Convinced there are more benefits of an excellent memory than winning big on Jeopardy, I completed several of Henner’s exercises in the Anticipation, Participation and Recollection categories.  Most were more challenging than learning mnemonics strategies or doing brainteasers because they required deep self-exploration and reflection. Three of the exercises from the book, and my results, are described below.

This is an easy one. Memory is like a muscle; the more it is used the better it gets. One memory exercise is to remember yesterday in great detail, without edits. Play everything back like a movie in your head from the time you awoke until the time you turned in.   Recall your morning routine, your activities, your companions, your conversations and your wind down time. Don’t evaluate – just remember.

The Pro/Con List
This one is not easy. Like everyone else, I’d rather bury painful experiences. That’s the problem. I can’t bury them. My subconscious, like yours, throws everything into a cognitive pile. It pulls up a choice when it recognizes a circumstance, even if it’s a dud. The best and fastest way is to pull the duds into the light of our conscious so we can recognize potential wrong turns.

Henner suggests several exercises to use painful memories to find clues for future decisions. Bring up one memory that you typically avoid. Instead of immediately burying it again, keep it around. Make two columns -pro and con. The con side may be easy- list the negative outcomes from this memory. This is the list you probably think about the most from bad experiences. The pro list is more of a challenge. List what you got out of that experience that kept you in that situation. If we stay in a experience, we’re getting something out of it.  See if any of the outcomes repeat in current circumstances.

My exercise was like a good Patsy Cline song – it involved a man and a bad relationship.  The con list came up easy- I have recited it many times. The pro list was illuminating.  I persevered – If I was patient and understanding enough, something good would eventually happen. I was flexible – I could make “good enough” acceptable. Well, well. Even though I’m with a great man in a wonderful relationship, these beliefs still show up. Do I expect others to tolerate crap so they can hang in for good moments? Do I still rationalize that “good enough” is acceptable? Ouch. Do I have to answer these questions?

Develop Sense Memory
Henner suggests calling up the turning points in life, the ones that taught important lessons, then recall a sight, sound, texture or smell associated with them. Keep this sensory symbol around to remind you of the lesson when you face similar circumstances.

I went way back with this exercise, recalling the first time that I understood something really, really bad happened that no one could fix. It was 1968. My brother was a Military Policeman assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon; I was a grade school student in a small Ohio town. In 1968, people watched something called the evening news to get information.  This evening, Walter Cronkite described a surprise attack on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon resulting in many U.S. casualties.

I still feel the fear from the little family room where I watched the broadcast with my parents. My mother started to cry. My father, who normally took the role of telling me everything was going to be O.K. and “stay in there and pitch,” was silent.

I didn’t know what to do. I was angry that we watched the evening news. I wanted it to be a mistake. I wanted it to go away. The TV remained on as my parents left the room. Not knowing what else to do, I stayed and watched a variety show – The Jerry Lewis Show – that came on after the news. This evening, someone performed the Nat King Cole song Smile. It felt like it was just for me. When you don’t know what to do- smile and keep going.  I could do that! The smiles were forced for the two weeks before the two-word letter from my brother came in the mail: I’m Okay. Then the smiles were real.

I rediscovered this old gem of a song as a result of this exercise. I’ll keep this gift around to remind me the next time I am scared and confused that I am tough enough to come out better on the other side.

I don’t know if my memory will ever get to the point where someone can name a date and I can recall exactly what happened.  Before reading this book and doing the exercises, (there are far more than the three described) I would have just been happier to find my glasses with greater frequency.  Henner’s book has helped me to understand that memory improvement is self-improvement. A better memory can lead to a better future. And that’s worth remembering.


Henner, M. (2012). Total Memory Makeover: Uncover Your Past, Take Charge of Your Future. New York:  Simon & Schuster.

One thought on “The Time Machine: Go Back to Go Forward

  1. Terrific post Susan..and great examples of exercises to make the muscle between our ears better honed. The association of memory with music is a topic in and of itself – and suggests a post that can stand on its own! I am fascinated by people like Henner who are able to recall details, nuance, evocative feelings from the past without skipping a beat. My curiousity is a little tempered when I think of how draining it can be to recall certain events with the same intensity with which they were first experienced..

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