Human memory is a truly amazing phenomenon. It is always a source of wonder that seemingly insignificant occurrences may create lasting memories for one person while other people cannot even recall details of major events in their life. There are many factors that influence this apparent disparity.
It is sometimes said that a healthy brain never forgets anything. Unless affected by injury or disease the brain never loses anything. Forgetting something is actually a result of:
1. Not storing the facts properly in the first place.
2. Failure to store the facts in a manner in which they can be recalled.
3. Inability to recall facts at the time although they are still safely recorded in the brain. Who among us has not had the experience of "forgetting" something only to have it pop into consciousness at the most unlikely time?
Problem 1 can be overcome by concentration. If one is distracted and does not store facts to start with then there is very little chance of recalling them later. Memory has two phases - Short Term and Long Term Memory. It is believed that up to 50 percent of information we receive is lost almost immediately and a further 20 percent vanishes within 24 hours. An example would be a telephone number or other ten digit number. Unless a special effort is made its gone almost instantly. Some of these short term memories go on to become long term memories. For instance your best friend's phone number would have started out as a short term memory but has now become part of long term memory and can be readily recalled several years later. Scientists are still uncertain as to the exact reasons why some facts are lost while others go on to create lasting memories. However, it is safe to assume that some special importance is attached to that information for one reason or another. In the world of information overload we live in there are constant distractions and information competing for attention. Chances of recalling facts are significantly improved by paying attention to those that we need to remember later.
There are several techniques that can be used to ensure sufficient attention to important facts. The most common among them would be repetition. Most of us would probably recall having learnt our multiplication tables in this way. Writing notes and personalizing the facts ie. writing ideas in one's own words also helps. However, it is important not to fall into the trap of relying on notes as a substitute for remembering. Notes should be used to reinforce a memory not as an alternative to it. Writing down facts surrounding and supporting an idea as well as the theory and methodology leading up to certain facts also help in recall. Complex mathematical formulae would be an example. Formulae comprised of abstract symbols and numbers can usually be quite hard to recall on their own. However, if one commits to memory the principles from which the formula is derived the symbols often become a lot easier to recall. Understanding the concepts behind the final outcome makes things less fuzzy. The fuzzier things are the harder they are to remember. Breaking down facts into manageable chunks to concentrate on helps immensely as well as there is a limit on how much information can be assimilated at a given time. Avoiding distractions is another important consideration in ensuring that the facts are stored right - it is a lot harder replace incorrect information than it is to store it right in the first place.
Problems 2 and 3 are closely connected to how we recall information. Memories are made by creating connections - connections with experiences through all our senses. Perhaps you have had the experience of a smell or sound triggering a memory of long ago. The more connections we create the better the chances of recall. This is why mnemonics are commonly used as an aid to memory. The more ridiculous or unusual the association the more likely it is to be recalled rather than fade into insignificance among the millions of other connections. Using mental pegs is another technique that works very well. Associate facts with unusual images or rhymes. For instance to remember names and faces one may look at a prominent facial feature, create an exaggerated version of it and connect it with the name. Say Leon with rather long hair may become a mental image of a Lion with a mane. Lion then quickly converts to Leon making it a lot easier than simply trying to recall the name of the guy with long hair!
Unfortunately as we age our brains begin to degenerate and memory deteriorates along with it. There are 4 main reasons for this degeneration.
1. Reduction in Neurotransmitters, especially acetylcholine causes decline in brain function.
2. Reduced blood circulation. The brain uses a significant proportion of all blood. Any impediment to blood flow therefore has a huge impact on brain function.
3. Effects of Cortisol. As a response to stresses cortisol is produced in the brain which damages the cells in the Hippocampus. The Hippocampus is instrumental in converting short term memories to long term ones. The damage in the hippocampus also triggers further production of cortisol setting off a ever increasing cycle of cell damage.
4. Free radical damage. Free radicals are atoms that have an electron imbalance and are constantly seeking to steal an electron to make itself whole. This process of stealing electrons from cells causes cell damage. Brain cells are no exception and brain cell damage also occurs due to free radical activity.
There are many common sense approaches to limiting and preventing brain degeneration:
* Proper diet - limit intake of salt cholesterol and fat while eating plenty of fresh fruits and foods high in antioxidants.
* Regular Exercise - avoid becoming overweight.
* Control Blood pressure
* Control and limit stress
* Limiting alcohol intake and not smoking helps reduce free radical damage.
* Increase intake of Omega 3 fatty acids - found in large quantities in fish -helps combat free radical damage.
* Avoid even minor head trauma - When engaging in activities which could result in jarring of the brain use adequate protection. Regular jarring, even minor levels has been connected with higher incidence of dementia.
There are also several not so obvious strategies that have emerged from recent studies into the brain.
Depression can affect the way the brain processes information and retrieves it. Therefore avoiding or minimizing depression can positively impact on brain function in later years. Socializing and involvement with family and community activities is recommended.
Mental exercise. "Use it or lose it". Stimulating your brain with mental exercises such as crossword puzzles, board games or even taking up a new hobby or learning a musical instrument has been shown to increase the number of brain cells and connections between brain cells. These activities improve what is known as "Brain Plasticity".
Herbal supplements such as Gingko Biloba which is credited with improving blood circulation may help to deter the onset of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's.
While aging and its consequences cannot be halted it is clear that there is much that can be done to improve brain health and memory.