I read somewhere once that chronic migraines are like mini-strokes throughout the brain. When I raised this point with my neurologist a few years back, he raised an eyebrow at me and made a hmm noise. But it is true that I have had more memory issues during the times when migraines were a daily part of my life. Now that things are under better control I’m finding that some of my mental flexibility and recall is returning as well. But at the time, I literally thought I was losing my mind. One piece at a time.

I did what I always do. I researched memory. I wanted to learn what I could do when my brain and mouth stuttered and slurred over a term that I knew I knew. Or when I looked at the face of someone I had known for years and found their name completely gone. It was very frustrating, embarrassing and depressing to lose command of my brain like this, so I was highly motivated.

I was also rapidly going broke.

At the time, I had left teaching high school full-time to try to get my health issues under control. Alaska’s Teacher’s Retirement System (TRS) doesn’t use the term disability. Instead I spent two very challenging years documenting my “medical retirement”. I was already teaching one class a semester for Kodiak College, the local branch of the University of Alaska, Anchorage as an adjunct. I asked if I could expand my two classes a year to five, include a class on memory, and move everything online.

My department chair loved the ideas. We looked it up in the catalog, found there was such a memory class and got it approved for online instruction. I found the tenured – emeritus – professor who taught PsyA115 Memory: How it works and how to improve it and asked him for advice. Bless his soul, he sent me not only his syllabus, but his personal reading list. From there it was only one short, yet full, summer away from implementation.

I taught this class online for many years. It was an elective for the psychology department. I suggested it as a possible cross-over for the education department as well, but the hoop-jumping that was involved in adding it was absolutely ridiculous, so I never did. (Why make something so obvious so hard? Sometimes Academia makes no sense to me.)

We used two books: Baddeley, Eysenck and Anderson’s Memory for the science and research and Kenneth L. Higbee’s Your Memory: How it works and how to improve it for the basis of our at-home lab experiences and journals. It was an incredible class to teach.

As I’ve said before I learn at least as much from my students as they do from me.

My memory issues haven’t gone away. I still have days when I stutter and slur, or when I sound okay on the outside, but my inside is slipping a gear.  I’ve learned ways to get around some of them – mainly from the experiments that my students undertook and documented in their journals.

The point of the journals was pretty simple. Pick a technique from the current week’s reading of Higbee. Come up with a hypothesis and way to test it on yourself, or your child, husband or willing friends. Try it. Tell what worked and what didn’t. Discuss whether or not you’d ever use the technique again.

Each student did ten total experiments. And unlike the discussion boards, my student’s journals were only shared with me. This, I felt, gave them the opportunity to stretch and be a little more vulnerable.

Everybody liked chunking and mnemonics. Most of us learn some of those in elementary school so that was no big surprise. What was interesting was how students split on the other options. Higbee explains everything from simple techniques such as organization, visualization and repetition to mental filing systems using links, loci, and pegs. Some people found it easy to apply one or more of the mental filing systems but detested repetition. Some loved visualization but couldn’t get the hang of the story system.

It was always a surprise to read the journal submissions. Students would try out experiments on other classes, their jobs, their spouses, their children, their hobbies… and I got to read some amazing ideas about how to apply the techniques that Higbee outlined in his book.

For example, the story system that I mention above became a solution to a serious problem for me. I have friends that live out in the middle of nowhere in Wasilla. I used to always get lost on the way to their house. One person had created a short story of the items her son needed to bring to school each day. That got me to thinking about the route to my friend’s house.

The next time I visited, I had my daughter write down specific landmarks for me as we attempted to follow the GPS as it cut in and out. Odd objects, street names, buildings that I could include – and I put them into a story that night. I repeated it over and over. It was only a paragraph, and was a funny riff off the Wizard of Oz. The next day I had no trouble getting there and have not since. It’s been years – I only visit once a year or so – and I’ve never been lost since.

It was fascinating to see where each individual’s mind went. Some stuck to pretty simple tasks, but many tried out most excellent experiments – stretching their minds and their memories each time. And it was so wonderful to know that people who came in saying “I can’t remember a thing, I have the worst memory,” left my class knowing that memory isn’t a static thing. It takes practice, and sometimes hard work, but it can be changed and improved upon.