By Laura Weldon | You have everything you need to keep you informed. Technology provides you with answers to almost any question instantly. If you need reminders, you can program devices to prompt you to remember your appointments and to-do list. Yet, you keep forgetting things. Right now you may not be sure where you put your BlackBerry charger or whether you took your vitamins that morning. You also may not be sure if it’s your turn to pick up the kids today.
While technology saves us the burden of remembering endless details, it also adds to our memory problems. In part, that’s because we need to remember random codes like passwords, logins and user names. These strings of numbers and letters become useful as codes precisely because they are confusing and meaningless. But that’s also what makes them hard for our brains to access.
Memory works best when it interconnects. We create neural pathways in our brains as we connect a new piece of information with sensory details, recollections and knowledge — forming a meaningful memory that we can easily retrieve. For example, you may be standing outside and notice a bird you haven’t seen before. Someone tells you the tiny songbird is a barn swallow known as a traveler. It flies hundreds of miles a day in search of food, and each year migrates up to 14,000 miles. You may feel a sudden kinship with this energetic creature since your life keeps you constantly busy as well. When and where you hear facts, how you feel at the time, and the way you link the details with other information in your mind — this all plays a part in memory. Chances are you will remember the sunny warmth of the day when you first saw the barn swallow and the insight gained as you thought about your own life ‘on the fly.’
Another problem with technology is the obvious way that it interrupts us. Details are locked into our memories when we pay careful attention to them. That makes them more easily retrieved as well. How often do you have a full half hour, let alone a full five minutes to concentrate on any one thing without email, text messages or other distractions? Yet without concentration, recall is challenged. A meal is much more memorable at a new elegant restaurant because of the attention paid to it and the time devoted to it. You are fully aware of the novelty as you savor each mouthful, and thus remember the experience. Contrast that with a meal eaten at your desk while finishing a project. The food you ingest is hardly tasted let alone memorable. A few weeks later you can recall one meal while the other has been completely forgotten. It isn’t the food eaten quite so much as the attention you paid to it that made the difference.
We also have to admit that technology removes some of the mental discipline that every generation before us had to practice. We may be weakening ourselves over time because we don’t have to do the work of memorizing information, navigating roads or keeping track of upcoming events now that digital devices handle those tasks for us. What evidence do we have? Technology not only affects the way we process information, taken to an extreme it may also diminish memory. In the book, “Carved in Sand: When Attention Fails and Memory Fades in Midlife,” author Cathryn Jakobson Ramin says that there’s a name in Japan for those who constantly click away at keypads. They’re called “oyayubizoku,” or “thumb tribe.” Researchers at Japan’s Hokkaido University School of Medicine studied a group of oyayubizoku whose lives are consumed by electronic organizers, cell phones and laptops. They found that about ten percent of them had lessened the brain’s capacity to learn and store information. One neurobiologist commented that these individuals had “lost the ability to remember new things, to pull out old data or to distinguish between important and unimportant information.”
Of course, when you are concerned about your memory you’re often told that the remedy is more technology. To some extent that may be helpful if you use reminder and calendar functions. As baby boomers approach the geriatric decades, the market is filling with technology promoted to enhance memory. Video “brain games” are said to guarantee results in a few minutes a day. There’s not much solid research to back up these claims. Some of these products are engaging and could do a passable job of stimulating thinking, especially if used more than a minute or two. But building mental fitness requires the same kind of practice and dedication as physical fitness. Long-term use of such games may be useful, yet there are many other ways to improve your memory without spending time and money on mental gymnastics.
It’s common to notice an occasional lapse in memory, after all, forgetfulness isn’t something you appreciate. You may even begin to humorously identify yourself as someone with a failing memory. But when you highlight these very normal mistakes, you aren’t helping the problem. That’s due to what psychologists call “self-talk,” the ongoing internal conversation we have with ourselves. If your self-talk includes the idea that you have a “brain like a sieve” or “error — memory leak” is your mode of operation, you will notice more and more evidence that supports this negative concept. Unintentionally you are reinforcing traits like inattention and confusion. Instead, cultivate an attitude of appreciation for your mind and body. Notice the amount of high-level thinking that you do. Adopt a healthier mindset by regarding memory lapses as incidents which are warning that it’s time to slow down and start savoring your life more.
Studies indicate that people who meditate have an improved outlook and increased concentration. They also have somewhat better memories. Research at Massachusetts General Hospital shows that regular meditation increases blood flow to the cerebral cortex, thickening that area of the brain. It’s thought that this physical change enhances focus, memory and attention span. Meditation allows you to access the stillness beyond your thinking mind, to enter a state of peaceful awareness that simply observes. There are many forms of meditation. Develop a practice that fits into your life and enjoy benefits that go well beyond improved memory.
When we exercise, our muscles generate proteins that enter the brain. These proteins support learning and recall. One such protein is called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which promotes the sort of brain development necessary for long-term memory and higher-level thinking. Exercise also increases blood flow to the brain, essential to thought processes. And we know that an active lifestyle stimulates neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine that are essential to attention, learning and positive emotions.
As Dr. John J. Ratey explains in Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, ” In addition to priming our state of mind, exercise influences learning directly, at the cellular level, improving the brain’s potential to log in and process new information.” That means when we play a fast paced game of tennis or master complex yoga moves, our brains are improving along with the rest of our bodies. So build regular, sustained movement into your daily life. Try varying your activities to keep up your interest level and provide continuing challenges.
Adequate water intake is essential for proper brain function. Take water along in your own water bottle so you don’t need to resort to soda, energy drinks or other less healthful liquids. A healthy diet is also vital. Food containing adequate omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants have been shown to support concentration and recall. It’s best to avoid spikes and dips in blood sugar, as this has a negative effect on brain function. Eating smaller amounts in regularly spaced snacks, choosing whole foods, avoiding sugars and refined grains, paying attention to food intolerances and eating a wide variety of foods are helpful strategies. Some studies have shown that the supplements ginkgo biloba and phosphatidylserine may improve memory.
Each person has an optimal time of day for thinking and functioning. Rob West, director of the Cognitive Psychology Program at Iowa State University, says research has determined that this time period changes as people get older. When younger adults are tested it’s found that their optimal time tends to be late afternoon or early evening. Beginning around the age of 50, this optimal time shifts to a much earlier part of the day, normally from eight a.m. to noon. According to West, one test to assess an individual’s optimal thinking time is the Morningness-Eveningness Scale (http://web.ukonline.co.uk/bjlogie/test.htm) . Be sensitive to when you function best, and perform more challenging mental tasks during that time. You shortchange your abilities if you overload yourself with studies, work or competing obligations exactly at the time of day when you are at the lowest ebb.
Writing supports memory. Yes, writing things down provides a helpful reminder. But it has also been found that the effort involved helps us organize our thoughts. Taking notes, making a list, drawing up an agenda, penning a letter, or keeping a diary stimulates the sort of thinking that is good for memory. When we do this our ideas and feelings are not just a jumble of indistinct impressions, they are clearer and more accessible for recall. Over time, people who purposefully write things down tend to concentrate better. Interestingly, people who write about upsetting events also experience improved function and find themselves more emotionally stable.
Incorporate the habit of writing in your daily life. Keep a regular journal. Maintain a diary for travel and special events. Print out photos and attach notes. Make regular lists and enjoy crossing items off as you accomplish them. Maintain a gratitude log, noting one or more things you are grateful for each day. Write down your comments and impressions as you read a good book and tuck the notes amongst the pages, this is useful when re-reading or sharing the book with others. Revive the art of writing letters and thank you notes, perhaps making a copy to keep for yourself as an ongoing epistolary scrapbook. Consider joining a public speaking group such as Toastmasters to ramp up the challenge of organizing and presenting your thoughts.
Our brains are attracted to novelty. Rote tasks don’t stimulate thinking and memory even when the activities are enjoyable. If you play a game of squash every week with the same friend, chances are very few that these games stand out in your mind. It’s great to keep up regular rituals that you enjoy. But add variety on a regular basis. Doing something different creates new circuitry in your brain. Every day you can make a small change such as taking a new route to work, trying a new recipe or listening to a different genre of music. You can also add bigger challenges that ramp up brain function. Learn a new language, take dance lessons, tutor a student, try your hand at sculpting, take a trip, join a club or volunteer.
About the author
Laura Weldon is a writer with a book called Free Range Learning coming out in 2008. She lives on an organic farm and believes in bliss.