Monday, June 11, 2012

Review: Total Memory Makeover by Marilu Henner

...Get it? (via)
Total Memory Makeover by Marilu Henner

Reviewed by Ingrid

Published: 2012

It's about: The back of this book trumpets: LIVE THE UNFORGETTABLE LIFE YOU WERE MEANT TO HAVE! LET YOUR MEMORIES BE YOUR GUIDE! Yep, it's a self-help book about how to improve your memory.

I thought: I was willing to deal with this hyperbolic silliness because I was fascinated by Marilu Henner when I heard her interviewed on the Diane Rehm show. Henner has Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, which means she can remember every single day of her life since she was a child.

Henner's premise in this book is that, if you make a more conscious effort to improve your memory by following the steps she provides, you will better recall past mistakes and successes and thus make better decisions in the future. I found that most of Henner's tips where not that helpful - not anything that you couldn't think up yourself if you were to try to think of ways to improve your memory. Keep a journal. Use all your senses to instigate remembering. Focus on one object from your past and let it guide you to more memories you have buried in your subconcious. Etc. etc.

I kept wondering throughout the book if Marilu Henner is really in a position to offer advice about how to improve your memory. She really doesn't know what it's like to have an imperfect memory! She claims that her memory is a combination of nature and nurture, but how can she really know that? (She can't.)

Ultimately Henner's book left me with so many more questions about memory and how it functions than it answered. Most people's memory is imperfect, including my own. How much does interpretation play into what and how we remember? At times I think that memory is way too subjective to be of much use. How are we supposed to know in the more ambiguous situations of our past whether we were interpreting our actions or the actions of others correctly? Or how can we possibly know that what we are remembering isn't in fact an interpretation of the past that will best serve us in the present?

When I was in Paris for the summer of 2009, a particularly difficult time in my life, I discovered Nietzsche. I remembered while reading this book that Nietzsche makes an argument quite opposite to Henner's which begins to answer some of these questions. Nietzsche argues that, because we have no will over it, thinking of the past can disturb and weaken us. In order to have active control of our lives we must constantly take part in a process "active forgetting," a process of molding our past according to our will in the present. Because the past never follows one clear narrative, it can constantly be reinterpreted to fit our present needs. This process of reinterpretation is not self deception. To be "creators" of our past does not mean that we make up facts to comfort ourselves; it means that we take up our past narrative in a new form. There is never a final, true narrative since we are constantly adding to our narrative through life experience.

Nietzsche explains that active forgetting enables us to cope with the hardships of life by suppressing suffering and bad experiences in favor of good ones. It also gives consciousness a paramount place in one's identity in how he/she relates to him/herself as a thinking, rational, exceptional being. Nietzsche claims that it is the "lower" functions of the body and willing that sustains mankind. For example, we actively suppress our bodily functions and instinctive powers and forget them in favor of deliberate actions and knowledge.

Nietzsche writes in On the Genealogy of Morals, "The man in whom this apparatus of repression is damaged and ceases to function properly may be compared (and more than merely compared) with a dyspeptic [see both meanings of the word]--he cannot 'have done' with anything."

Certainly Marilu Henner would disagree that too much remembering has made her gloomy and pessimistic (or constipated ...). But we must realize that Henner and Nietzsche have different ideals in mind when they make their arguments. Henner's ideal is to gather the largest possible pool of information from which we can draw from in the present - the more, the better. For Nietzsche, the act of favoring certain knowledge and discarding other knowledge works to perfect our will and experience in the world. And, of course, Henner is writing a self-help book and Nietzsche is writing philosophy. So there's that.

Marilu Henner didn't explore memory as much in depth as I hoped, but I don't think her book was completely worthless. I liked how she encouraged the reader to live consciously and deliberately in the present. This, she claims, will help us to better remember the present when it becomes the past. As to how to do that, though, she doesn't specify enough to satisfy me.

Verdict: In between. It's worth a skim but I don't think it will really change your life.

Reading Recommendations: If you want to explore memory more in depth, I recommend digging into some Nietszsche (On the Genealogy of Morals) and Proust (In Search of Lost Time.) Both write extensively about how remembering (and forgetting) can make our lives rich, meaningful, and purposeful.

Warnings: Cheesy humor. Too many pop culture references. Catch phrases.

Favorite excerpts: "Opening up your receptors now will not only allow you to recreate great past experiences; you will also develop new ones with greater detail. When you go through a first date or something equally exciting, you are in a heightened state of awareness, and as a result you will relive it in your mind several times--whether it was good or bad! You will be able to turn a lot of average days into something more special, because you will go into every experience with a more sharpened level of awareness, which will undoubtedly lead to better recall."

What I'm reading next: The Man Who Quit Money by Mark Sundeen