Ask Dr. Gupta: Why Do I Recall Words Better Than Pictures?

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Q: Why do I recall words better than pictures, while my friend's the opposite?
–Ellen Epstein, Washington, DC

A: Some people are just better at remembering in a certain way—even identical twins may vary in that regard—and it can relate to which hemisphere of the brain is dominant. Visual memory (which we call episodic memory) relates to the right hemisphere of the brain, which is associated with intuition. Verbal (semantic) memory is primarily a function of the left hemisphere, which we link with analytical thinking. The difference between the two kinds of memory becomes most obvious when it comes to recalling a deeply emotional event—9/11 or the day JFK was shot, for example. People with a strong semantic memory recall headlines, quotes, and phrases; those inclined toward visual memory retain the pictures and images of the event more vividly.

We all have some of both kinds of memory, and for many people, the two types are pretty evenly distributed. But there are some people for whom one kind of memory is more pronounced. It's also worth noting that people who recollect images well, like your friend, often have a good memory for words as well as pictures, but since strong visual memory is relatively unusual, it stands out.

The really exciting thing we've found is that you can improve the type of memory in which you're weaker. Most people don't work on their memory. But a few seconds is all it takes, and it's not hard—simply take an extra beat when you're looking at something and think, I am going to remember this. You'll be amazed at how well it works. (Try this memory-boosting trick, too.) While we don't know for sure, we think this may affect the structure of your brain by strengthening the connections between the hemispheres. Most important, a better memory can bring you real joy. There's such happiness in being able to recall things that give you pleasure, like the words of your grandson's postcard from camp or the smiling faces at your family picnic.

SANJAY GUPTA, MD, is chief medical correspondent for CNN and a practicing neurosurgeon at Emory Clinic in Atlanta.

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