Memory is the ability to store, retain, and subsequently retrieve information. Clearly, this definition comprises 3 functions. First, input to the system is considered (storing), which involves perception and transduction of the perceived images into the “right format” for saving the perceived information in the brain. Second, the inputted information must be preserved for a specific time (retaining.) And finally, the stored information has to be recovered from the brain, following our commandment (retrieving.) In this post we’ll review the nature of memory and a few options to improve it. A healthy memory amounts to a bigger vision of our world.

According to duration of memory retention, we can classify this faculty into three types:

  1. Short-term Memory: This type of memory allows one to recall a few items (3-5) in a short time, from several seconds to as long as 1 minute. An interesting fact about short-term memory is that information is better recalled if it’s organized in chunks. For example, it’s easier to put in short-term memory the sequence 415-353-525, than it’s to remember 415353525. Therefore, we could benefit enormously if we approach memorization by organizing the information into chunks.
  2. Long-term Memory: Unlike short-term memory, rehearsal is often required for long-term memory. By means of this type of memory, we can store much larger quantities of information for potentially unlimited duration. However, the motto “use it or lose it” applies here nicely. Things that impact us tend to enter long-term memory without excessive barriers. But other, mere facts must be reinforced through repetition. This type of memory stores facts like memories of childhood, for example.
  3. Sensory Memory: It’s the memory that allows one to retain impressions of sensory information after the original stimulus has faded. It’s a very short lived memory, and is outside of conscious control.

Physiology of Memory

Physiologically, memory is related to activity of several brain areas, such as hippocampus, the striatum, and the amygdala, for example. Nevertheless, it’s believed that memory and its counterpart, learning, are linked to changes in neuronal synapses. Neurons are electrically excitable cells in the nervous system that process and transmit information. The brain is a highly complex, nonlinear and parallel information processing system. It has the capability of organizing neurons so as to perform certain computations (e.g., pattern recognition, perception, and motor control.) Neurons are the structural constituents of the brain, massively interconnected between them, forming an enormously efficient and resilient structure.

Neuron (image from Wikipedia)

The brain is constantly restructuring the stored information. In this sense, one of the primary functions of sleep is improving consolidation of such information.

Memory Loss

Starting from 20s, we begin to lose brain cells. The body also starts to make less of the chemicals that the neurons need to function properly. The older we are, the more these changes may affect our memory. This is a natural path our cells follow. However, stressful modern lifestyle is known to accelerate this process of cellular degradation. That’s the rationale behind the rising of memory loss as frequent mental problem nowadays. Forgetting some word, a name, the details of a history, where we put the keys… that’s not necessarily a problem: it may be due to a temporal glitch in memory, and we normally recall that word, that name, etc., with time. Troubles begin when oblivion occurs too often, we cannot remember what we want (even after time elapses), and we feel that our memory is not responding the same as before.

Excluding other causes (such as Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, side effect of drugs, and alcoholism), most of the memory problems stem from states of stress, anxiety and depression. Therefore, children and teenagers may also be susceptible to degrading their memorization abilities if they are under huge pressure. Furthermore, in families in which a member has memory problems, typically other member is dedicated to attending the ill familiar (and more often that not, that role is assumed or assigned to a woman.) That may be an excessive burden for the caretaker, and might ultimately lead to her getting sick. In ideal scenarios, the role of caretaker must be rotated among the family members.

Reverting and Preventing Memory Loss

However, in plenty of cases memory loss may be reverted by introducing the right changes to the lifestyle, and by doing some exercises for strengthening memory. The broad idea is to keep memory active in order to reinforce synaptic connections. Additionally, we want to keep brain cells as healthy as possible, without stressing them exceedingly. With regards to this matter, a previous post here in You can’t stop the journey presented a collection of short tips for keeping a young mind. The following recommendations expand or complement the contents of the referred post:

  • Oxygenation: For memory, it’s vital to provide sufficient oxygen to the brain cells. We can increase the supply of oxygen by means of aerobic exercises, walking, swimming, etc. Oxygenation could help to accomplish a better concentration too.
  • Nutrition: By following a right and balanced diet is very important to keep the electrochemical balance of the brain. Free your brain from dangerous toxins which may harm neurons and block oxygenation.
  • Activity: We should strive to keep our minds active and stimulated. Activity fortifies memory encoding and retrieval of information. Mental activities such as reading, brain games, crosswords, sudoku, and some videogames help to exercise the brain, slowing down its aging process. This type of mental activity increases the number of connections between neurons, which is responsible for improved memory. Stay intellectually active through learning (e.g., languages and music), reading and composing (e.g., an essay or a brief narration.)
  • Reinforcement: To remember things and facts, try to link them with other things and concepts. Learn by associating one concept or word with another. To associate is what neurons do best. Keep lists. Follow a routine for those tasks which require a perfect recall (but don’t be too “mechanic” as such robotic approaches truncate innovation.)
  • Sleep: Rest the amount of hours your body requires, and keep sleep time regular.
  • Reduce stress: Breathe. Calm. Go step by step. Socialize. Lowering stress may jog our memory.

A closing advice. Let’s do our best for getting to know ourselves. Each day brings a new lesson. Let’s learn to distinguish our abilities, frailties, and virtues. That way, our brain will organize our memory caring the most for the actually important things.

And remember to be happy.