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How to Sharpen Your Memory

Knowin’ What to Throw Away, and Knowin’ What to Keep

Bruce Willis’s ex-wife recently posted a video of Willis celebrating his 68th birthday party with family, dancing and singing and mugging for the camera. The signs of his worsening dementia were obvious (at least to me), but it was clear he was in a good mood and surrounded by people who love him.

This scene of ordinary domestic happiness made me think of my father’s slow decline from Alzheimer’s a few years back. Like Willis, dad (also a stocky, openly bald Germanic from New Jersey) could still get laughs long after he lost the words. And could still enjoy our company long after he forgot who we were.

No doubt worse times are ahead for Willis and his family, as they were for my father and our family. It’s a cruel way to go, but the ruthless stripping away of identity can give us a glimpse of something essential. A soul?

What I learned is not to waste time dwelling on what can no longer be communicated or you’ll both miss out. The past slips away for all of us, but the present moment holds far more than we think.


Despite recent promising developments, there is no effective treatment for Alzheimer’s. The best we can do is work to stave it off. While this disease is far from “preventable,” exercising your brain can delay onset and perhaps lessen initial symptoms. And of course, even the most fortunate of us will benefit from staying cognitively nimble.

“If you see that you cannot win, do everything in your power to resist,” said Ding Liren of his recent World Chess Championship victory. Chess, as it happens, is an excellent way to resist the final checkmate that comes for us all. While the Internet has made learning and playing this ancient game easier than ever, something is lost when you risk digital avatars instead of tangible pieces. Ready to make your move? Alabama’s House of Staunton offers a wide variety of made-in-America chess sets, from standard paper tournament mats to beautifully handcrafted works of art.


The ease with which we can outsource remembering to various digital devices and apps can trick us into thinking of our brains as computers, built to retain a fixed amount of information and nothing more. In fact, memory is a faculty that can be trained and improved.

One time-honored way of going about this is to construct a memory palace, a detailed mental image of a space holding specific memories at specific locations. Hard to explain, but it worked for both Hannibal Lecter and Sherlock Holmes. The Art of Memory has more information, as well a practical how-to if you’d like to build your own.


Think of Gordon Lightfoot and you most likely hear “Sundown” and “If You Could Read My Mind,” two pop classics demonstrating the singer-songwriter’s gift for crafting chart toppers from the usual timeless themes: heartbreak, jealousy, regret.

But the Lightfoot, who died Monday at 84, also found inspiration in a less likely source: a Newsweek article about he 1975 sinking of the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior. Released less than a year after the disaster, Lightfoot’s haunting, six-minute folk ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” honors the deaths of all 29 crew members by paying meticulous attention to the facts. The weight of the ore the Edmund Fitzgerald carried or the number of times a nearby church rang its bells the next morning are not essential information, but Lightfoot’s lyrics and melody make us remember them nonetheless. In its accrual of modest yet accurate detail, this unlikely hit lets us grieve a loss the world would otherwise have long forgotten.


When 20-year-old Seaman Apprentice Douglas Hegdahl was captured by the North Vietnamese and imprisoned in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” in 1967, he figured his best option was to play dumb. Would he write a confession of war crimes? He cheerfully agreed — before admitting with regret that he could neither read nor write. His captors bought it, and when attempts to have other prisoners teach Hegdahl basic literacy proved fruitless they gave the man they termed “The Incredibly Stupid One” free reign of the camp.

This allowed Hegdahl to act as a courier, transmitting messages throughout the chain of command; he also managed to sabotage a few trucks by putting dirt in the fuel tank. But it was Hegdahl’s mind that ended up being his most powerful weapon. With training from a fellow prisoner, Hegdahl managed to memorize the names, dates and methods of capture, and other personal information of more than 250 other prisoners by setting it all to the tune of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”

Ordered by a senior officer to accept an early release, Hegdahl returned to the US. In addition to helping account for the missing men, Hegdahl’s heroic feat of recall also exposed Vietnamese abuse of captured soldiers, resulting in better treatment for those still left behind.

Although Hegdahl has spent the last few decades out of the public eye, he did make an appearance at the Nixon Library in 1998. There he amazed the audience by once again reciting the names he’d memorized 30 years before. The name Douglas Hegdahl should not be forgotten either.