What Is Memory and How Can You Enhance Yours? Part 1

by Sandy Chernoff

Memory is the mental activity of recalling information that you have learned or experienced. That very simple explanation defines a complex process that involves many different parts of the brain and serves us in different ways.

First of all, memory can be short-term or long-term. In short-term memory, your
mind stores information for only a few seconds or a few minutes: which is basically the time it takes you to key in a phone number you just looked up or to compare the prices of several items in a store. This sort of memory is fragile, and that is because your brain would soon read “disk full” if you retained every phone number you called, every dish you ordered in a restaurant, and the subject of every ad you watched on TV. Your brain is also meant to hold an average of seven items at once, which is why you can usually remember a new phone number for a few minutes but need your credit card in front of you when you’re buying something online.

Long-term memory, on the other hand, involves the information for which you make either a conscious or unconscious effort to retain; because it is personally meaningful to you.

For example, data about family and friends, the material you are studying for a test, something that made an emotional impression on you like a movie that had you riveted, the first time you ever caught a fish or the day your uncle died. Some information that you store in your long-term memory requires a truly conscious effort to recall: episodic memories, which are personal memories about experiences you’ve had at specific times and semantic memories such as factual data not bound to time or place, which can be everything from the names of the planets, to the color of your child’s hair. Finally, another type of long-term memory is procedural memory, which involves skills and routines you perform so often that they no longer require a conscious recall.

In addition, memory involves communication among the brain’s network of brain cells: neurons, millions of cells which are activated by brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.

Just like muscular strength, your ability to remember increases when you exercise your memory and nurture it with a good diet and other healthy habits. There are a number of steps you can take to improve your memory and retrieval capacity.

First, I want you to understand how we remember. There are three stages that the brain goes through in forming and retaining memories.

Acquisition: New information enters your brain along pathways between neurons in the appropriate area of the brain. The key to encoding this new information into your memory is concentration.Without intent focus on the data, “it goes in one ear and out the other”.

Consolidation: When you concentrate appropriately on the new information, your hippocampus sends a signal to store this in your long term memory. When you already have a basis of knowledge in this area or it triggers an emotional response, it will more likely “stick”.

Retrieval: When you need to recall the information, your brain has to activate the same pattern of neurons it used to store it. The more frequently you retrieve it, the easier it will become to recall it.Besides, we remember things that are repeated!

Here are some tips for memory improvements

If you feel that you have a poor memory, you may just have some less-than- effective habits when it comes to taking in and processing information. Barring disease, a disorder, or a brain injury, you can definitely improve your ability to learn and retain information.

Memory, like muscular strength, is a “use it or lose it” proposition. The more you challenge your brain to open new neuro-pathways, the better you’ll be able to process and remember information.

Novelty and sensory stimulation are the foundations of brain exercise. If you alter your routine in a challenging way, you create new brain pathways. This can involve something as simple as brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand, which activates little-used connections on the non-dominant side of your brain. Or you try to develop a “neurobic” exercise, which is an aerobic exercise for your brain that forces you to use your faculties in unusual ways. For example, like showering and getting dressed with your eyes closed, taking a course in a subject that is new to you, learning a new game of strategy, or trying out some recipes in an unfamiliar cuisine. That is the most effective way to keep your synapses (neuron messages) firing!

In addition to exercising your brain, there are other basic things you can do to improve your ability to both retain and retrieve memories.

Pay attention. You cannot remember something if you have never learned it, and you cannot learn something if you don’t pay enough attention to it. It takes about eight seconds of intent focus to process a piece of information through your hippocampus and into the appropriate memory center. So, no multitasking when you need to concentrate! If you distract easily, try to receive information in a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted.

Tailor information acquisition to your learning style. Most people are visual learners, meaning they learn best by reading or otherwise seeing what it is they have to know. But some are auditory learners who learn better by listening. Those individuals might benefit more by recording information they need and listening to it until they remember it.

Try to involve as many senses as possible. Even if you are a visual learner, try to read out loud whatever you want to remember. If you can recite it rhythmically, that is even better. You can attempt to relate information to colors, textures, smells, and tastes. The physical act of rewriting information can also help to imprint it onto your brain.

Relate the new information to what you already know. Connect new data to information you already have, whether it is new material that builds on previous knowledge, or something as simple as an address of someone who lives on the same street as another friend.

Organize the new information. Write things down in address books, datebooks, on calendars or just on your phone or tablet. Make notes on more complex material and reorganize the notes into categories later.  Try to incorporate both words and pictures when learning new information.

Understand and be able to interpret complex material. When learning more complex material, focus on understanding the basic ideas rather than memorizing isolated details. Try explaining it to someone else in your own words.

Rehearse information frequently and “over-learn”. Review what you have learned the same day you learn it, and then again at regular intervals thereafter. What researchers call “spaced rehearsal” is more effective than “cramming.” If you’re able to “over-learn” information so that recalling it becomes second nature, you will have more success.

Be motivated and keep a positive attitude. Tell yourself that you want to learn what you need to remember and that you can learn and remember it. Telling yourself you have a bad memory actually hampers the ability of your brain to remember, while positive mental feedback sets up an expectation of success.

Mnemonics are clues of any kind that help us remember something, usually by causing us to associate the information we want to remember with a visual image, a sentence, or a word.

Common types of mnemonic devices include:

Visual images – a microphone to remember the name “Mike,” a rose for “Rosie.” Use positive, pleasant images, because the brain often blocks out unpleasant ones, and make them vivid, colorful, and three- dimensional so that they will be easier to remember.

Sentences in which the first letter of each word is part of or represents the initial of what you want to remember. Millions of musicians, for example, first memorized the lines of the treble staff with the sentence “Every good boy does fine”, representing the notes E, G, B, D, and F. Medical students often learn groups of nerves, bones, and other anatomical features using nonsense sentences.

Acronyms are initials that create pronounceable words. The spaces between the lines on the treble staff, for example, are F, A, C, and E: FACE.

Rhymes and alliteration: remember learning “30 days hath September, April, June, and November”? A hefty guy named Robert can be remembered as “Big Bob” and a smiley co-worker as “Perky Pat”. You just have to come up with something that works for you.

Jokes or even off-color associations using facts, figures, and names you need to recall, work because funny or peculiar things are easier to remember than mundane images.

“Chunking” information means arranging a long list of data into smaller units or categories that are easier to remember. If you can reel off your Social Security number without looking at it, that’s probably because it’s arranged in groups of 3, 2, and 4 digits, not a string of 9.

“Method of Loci” is an ancient and effective way of remembering a lot of material, such as a speech. You associate each part of what you have to remember with a landmark in a route you know well, such as your commute to work or a regular walk or run that you take.

Healthy habits also improve memory, treating your body well can enhance your ability to process and recall information.
Regular exercise Increases oxygen to your brain.
Reduces the risk for disorders that lead to memory loss, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Generally releases helpful brain chemicals and protects brain cells.

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Managing stress

Cortisol, the stress hormone, can damage the hippocampus if the stress is unrelieved.Stress also makes it difficult to concentrate.

Good sleep habits

Sleep is necessary for memory consolidation.
Sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea leave you tired and unable to concentrate during the day.

Not smoking

Smoking heightens the risk of vascular disorders that can cause stroke and constrict arteries that deliver oxygen to the brain. Lower oxygen levels impact negatively on rational thought and memory.

Good Nutrition

You probably know already that a diet based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and “healthy” fats will provide many health benefits, but such a diet can also improve memory. Research indicates that certain nutrients nurture and stimulate brain function.

B vitamins, especially B6, B12, and folic acid, protect neurons by breaking down a particular amino acid that is toxic to nerve cells. They are also involved in making red blood cells, which carries oxygen. The best sources for the B Vitamins are spinach and other dark leafy greens, broccoli, asparagus, strawberries, melons, black beans and other legumes, citrus fruits, and soybeans.

Antioxidants like vitamins C and E, and beta-carotene, fight free radicals, which are highly reactive and can damage cells, but antioxidants can interact with them safely and neutralize them. Antioxidants also improve the flow of oxygen through the body and to the brain. The best sources are blueberries and other berries, sweet potatoes, red tomatoes, spinach, broccoli, green tea, nuts and seeds, citrus fruits, and liver.

Omega-3 fatty acids are concentrated in the brain and are associated with cognitive function. They count as “healthy” fats, as opposed to saturated fats and trans-fats, because they protect against inflammation and high cholesterol. Best sources are cold-water fish such as salmon, herring, tuna, halibut, and mackerel; walnuts and walnut oil; flaxseed and flaxseed oil.

Because older adults are more prone to B12 and folic acid deficiencies, a supplement may be a good idea for seniors. An omega-3 supplement (at any age) could be beneficial if you don’t like eating fish. But nutrients work best when they’re consumed in foods, so try your best to eat a broad spectrum of colorful plant foods and choose fats that will help clear, not clog your arteries. Your brain will thank you!

Memory and aging: Several factors cause aging brains to experience changes in their ability to retain and retrieve memories.

The hippocampus is especially vulnerable to age-related deterioration, and that can affect how well you retain information.

There’s a relative loss of neurons with age, which can affect the activity of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters and their receptors.

An older person often experiences decreased blood flow to the brain and processes nutrients that enhance brain activity less efficiently than a younger person.

However, in healthy older adults, these changes represent more of a slowing in the ability to absorb, store, and retrieve new information, not a loss. The factual information you’ve accumulated over the years remains largely intact, as does procedural memory. You can make and recall new long-term memories; the process just takes a little longer.

Of course, some older adults do develop more significant problems with memory that are the result of diseases such as Alzheimer’s or stroke; injury; poor nutrition; other physiological issues; or emotional problems.I hope the tips offered in this article will be helpful in improving and preserving your memory.

Take care of yourself and your brain will be healthier, too!

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