Whether it is a name, date or directions, there always seems to be something new to remember. Yet you probably feel like there's just not enough room in those little brain cells of yours to cram the latest tidbit. And unfortunately you have no external hard drive. But don't despair. Several recent studies reveal how memory works and what you can do to improve it.
Don't want to forget what you learned today? Sleep on it. Naps, ideally 90 minutes long, help you register the happenings and how-to's learned during the day. Then when you catch your z's at night, your brain creates memories of the day's events. But overload your brain with long-term memories and you may struggle to remember recent events. Scientists once thought that memory improved when new neurons were created in the hippocampus, the region of the brain that forms memories. Instead, a better memory may be possible in brains with less new neurons developing in the hippocampus. Recent studies also found that migraines, music, habits, zinc and thinking like a child each improved individual memory.
Doctored photos can skew how you perceive the past, according to a recent study using images of well-known demonstrations. The first was the well-known picture of a man blocking a row of tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989 with a crowd of spectators added to the original. And the second photograph showed a 2003 anti-war protest in Rome, with both riot police and a masked protester added to the picture. Those who viewed the altered images recalled more violence and damage than actually occurred, compared to those who saw the original snapshots. People who looked at these altered images also felt less inclined to participate in future demonstrations than those who viewed the original photographs. These results should not come as a big surprise. Participants of previous studies also thought their imagined images were real. Other detriments to achieving total recall could include catching a cold, smoking a joint, playing football and being a guy, research shows.
Partially due to the decline in hippocampus function with age, the elderly suffer from a loss of episodic memory. This impairs their ability to recall more vivid memories - what was seen, heard or felt during a previous event. And because we use the same parts of the brain to imagine and to remember, older adults may not only become forgetful but also struggle to picture hypothetical situations. But some seniors have staved off memory decline by maintaining active social lives and simply believing that they still have a good memory. Interestingly, the risk factors for dementia - obesity, hypertension and high cholesterol - coincide with those for cardio-vascular disease. Scientists found that having only one of these three risk factors doubles the chance of getting dementia. And suffering from all three risk factors makes dementia six times as likely. Controlling for these three factors can save both the heart and brain. But the factors of genes and age cannot be denied. The elderly may improve their memory in a few weeks by eating well, exercising and keeping mentally sharp. To prevent drops in blood glucose, seniors should eat five meals daily. These should be high in whole grains, antioxidants and omega-3 fats. And the golden years should consist of brisk daily walks, stretches, relaxation exercises, brainteasers or other mental stimulants. Consistent mental exercise has been shown to cut the risk of dementia in half.
Educated individuals often have more knowledge at their disposal. Studies show that the more you know, the easier it is to learn about related topics. And the degree-holding older crowd outperforms its less educated counterpart on mental-status tests. But the ability to remember what was learned seems to decline at a faster rate. Granted, the more one knows, the more one has to forget. But don't expect the springs of your education to feed the fountain of youth against memory loss. Those with a higher working-memory capacity sacrifice this advantage when sweating bullets during pressure-filled situations. For example, worrying about potential mistakes on an exam squanders brain activity that could otherwise be devoted to recalling a synonym for "fastidious" or calculating the surface area of a sphere.
Poignant events have a more lasting impact compared to lackluster experiences that usually don't stay in the brain's long-term storage unit. And our recollection of events that triggered a bad memory are more likely to be accurate than memories from more uplifting times in our lives. This is because these trying times compel the brain to focus on a specific detail. Trying to forget a bad memory is possible, but will likely require many attempts. If successful, your brain will first negate the sensory aspects of the memory before removing the actual memory. And don't forget that from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that traumatic times have a long shelf life. The survival of a species is enhanced by its ability to remember threatening situations and then avoid them when they happen again.