A look into the Intricacies of the Brain’s vast data bank

You get to hear people especially elderly people complaining about their memory lapses -' these days I hardly remember what I walked to the fridge to get, what’s more I am losing my keys, misdirecting auto drivers and taxi drivers and often dialing wrong numbers and to top it all I even forget where I have stored all the snippets of information which I need for writing my articles and waste hours looking for them all over the place’ . One wonders, is an elderly person's mind too saturated with stuff to remember simple day today things? After all brain is often compared to a switch board wired with billions of neurons that connect into a vast network of neurological pathways. So is there any chance that with advancing age the brain gets overloaded?

The good news is that according to scientists Overloading of the human brain is virtually impossible. The human brain could be fed ten new items of information every second over an entire lifetime and still can be less than half full. You may forget things simply because the busier and more rushed you are the less attention you pay to information which is not stored properly. And according to studies except for the rare individuals who have photographic memory, everyone else's memory is about the same. When variations do occur having a better memory for a particular kind of information usually depends on our specific interests or the work we do. Every time someone speaks to us we have the ability to understand each word, sentence and also trigger some other memory through an association technic which may trigger some more memories and this could go on and on which means that our brain is accessing an immense data base at a rate no computer can ever match!

It is also hard to use one word 'memory' to cover the many complex processes involved in storing and matching information in the brain, which is apparently capable of filing an encyclopedia 10 billion pages long !The various devices that make up the memory system of our brain help in the functioning and storing data with efficiency when dealt with in a proper healthy manner.

brain power 

The complex system of storing and remembering

Sensory memory

For starters there is Sensory memory , which is a screening device that temporarily holds the enormous amount of information that bombards our senses every second. It prevents our short time and long time memory from being crammed with irrelevant information by filtering it out. If we think about something for a few seconds it checks into our own short term memory, but not for very long similarly it can check out in seconds too. Sensory memory processes information superficially until it is discarded or transferred into long term memory, which enables you to remember those information several minutes, hours, weeks or sometimes even months later. Just to give an example our short time memory retains a phone number just long enough to write it down. Only repeating the information mentally or verbally over and over again can we keep it in short time memory for a longer period of time.

Long term memory

Whereas, Long term memory of our brain relates to our vast capacity for storing what we learn or pay attention to, in a compressed form. When we forget something it tends to be due to our failure to retrieve the information from long term memory. But does this mean that it is gone forever? If the information did not enter our long term memory bank in the first place, then chances of retrieving it are extremely remote. If it was stored then getting it back relies on having the right kind of recall. It is similar to that of having cash in your bank account which you have access to when the account has money credited to it.

Context Specific memory

This is when you get a whiff of aroma that wafts you back to your grandmother and her kitchen where she used to be busy preparing sweets for festivals like Dasara and Diwali. Even a song or a flower or a scene you see in a film , or a particular road or a house you come across while travelling can make you feel nostalgic about some events in your life that happened long back, but with this little jolt those memories becomes as fresh as it is happening now. This is like going through the archives of your memory bank and bringing out old memories.

There are times when we forget a name, it will be on the tip of our tongue but refuses to connect however much we try, with our brain desperately playing hide and seek. The best thing to do under the circumstance is to stop trying since your brain gets tired and muddled after going through the exercise. After a while the cue process in our brain will plop it back after it has relatively calmed down.

So, the question is how do we glavanize our memories into action?

Memory is cue sensitive and seeing and hearing a cue that jabs into that particular content of your memory data makes it available again. Here is an example : You walk into the kitchen to get something and suddenly your memory freezes and you wonder , why did I come here ? This can only be blamed on our unpredictable short term memory and the secret to reignite our memory is to put ourselves back into the relative context we were in, before we forgot. In other words we have to go back in our mind to where we were before we went into the kitchen. This kind of reconstruction helps us remember our immediate past. If for some reason you cannot remember even after trying to reconstruct, go back a little further into your past which might help you remember through various association of action and memory.

However, no one can say for sure just how memory works, or where in the brain is it located , or if it has a precise location at all ! The many different kinds of memory also present a puzzle to researchers. Certain memories like riding a cycle, driving a car or walking to your school, college, work place or market remain with us forever, apparently even after a brain damage and these are referred to as Procedural or Kinesthetic memory!

There are also some funny tricks that your memory can play on you. There is the toe curling or goose bumping deja vu , which in French means ‘ already seen’ that effects many of us. You go to a place for the first time and you get this sudden feeling that you have been there before!! No, this is not a supernatural phenomenon like reincarnation or premonition. It is more to do with anxiety relief or a recognition disorder where a similar past experience gets clubbed into the present one . This could be a spontaneous reaction of the brain which makes you think that you are experiencing something all over again. This may also be due to the fact that the right side of the brain experiences something for a fraction of a second before the left side re experiences it.

An important fact we have to remember is that memory is not infallible like computer data which remains an exact record of input, but our memories and interpretations get distorted and change each time we recall them except the most relevant bit. This is precisely why crime witnesses and press reporters often unwittingly present inaccurate and different versions of the same event. This is because we all focus on different aspects of our experience depending on our own individual personality make up and also because our memories of it alter with expectations, moods and age.

memory and old age

So, does memory get worse with age?

In a word, yes, specifically for recent happenings. Senior citizens can tell tales about their youth to the minutest details but don’t remember what happened last week. As we age we lose brain cells and our neurotransmitter levels decrease. This means that our ability to lay down memories is impaired and the images that reach the memory store may be faulty to begin with ! But scientists feel that such memory lapse in aged people is more to do with poor nutrition and drying off of the grey cells.

As we age digestion slows and stomach cells increase and changed lifestyle like loneliness may cause elderly people to eat unbalanced diets. Without sufficient nutrition we cannot keep neurotransmitters levels up. We may know exactly where we left the car keys but our brain just can’t reach in and grab the information. Another relevant fact is that after retirement people often take it easy and stop exercising their brains and mind and settle into doing nothing. It is said that the best way to stave away the mentally atrophying Alzheimer’s disease is to keep the brain cells kicking by doing cross words , puzzles, mental exercise, searching and gathering information for writing articles or simply to keep yourself up to date .

Incidentally if we are unable to locate the car keys or where we put our notebooks or note pads or even the name of the part time maid, it does not mean that we are potential Alzheimer’s victims since Alzheimer’s patients can’t remember what to do with a key or fail to reognise the maid.

Apparently a gene linked to increased life span (or longevity) through calorie restriction also appears to play a critical role in boosting memory and brain power, this , according to a study published very recently .This protein encoded gene called Sirtuin1 in humans also enhances memory and nerve-cell development in the brain as well, according to the new findings. Scientists have also found that Sirtuin1 which is also called the "longevity gene" helps to slow age-related decline in brain function in older adults to a great extent!

Ten Ways ( tips) to Sharpen our memory

1. Eat for Concentration – Brain activity uses a quantity of all the calories we consume. Hunger makes it difficult to concentrate and so also to remember. Try and Avoid high carbohydrate meals that normally makes you lethargic and instead concentrate more on Protein and nutrients in the form of Vitamins and minerals. This encourages the production of the brains own form of mental stimulant which helps you concentrate on your daily work and remain focused. A balanced meal with lots of greens ,grains and fruits is the best all round diet for us.

2. Get your Omega – Fish really is known as the brain food , since it contains fatty acids which are essential and needed for the development of the brain. Studies have shown that consumption of foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids slows down memory loss also lowers depression and dementia ( loss of intellectual function). Imagine a nutrient that can speed up your brain in two hours. According to researchers DHA short for Docosahexaenoic acid, which is a type of ‘ good ‘ fat which is abundant in fish and sea food. To study the effects of DHA on the brain, Japanese scientists wired 26 healthy volunteers to electrodes so they could measure a type of brain wave linked with memory and learning. Next the volunteers were given either DHA supplements (2.8gm) or Placebo which is an inert pill that has no effect. A mere two hours later, the volunteers were retested and the researchers found no change in the placebo group, but those given the DHA had significantly faster brain waves. The researchers have concluded that DHA appears to be an exciting drug that can definitely improve brain function in healthy persons. Vegetarians can get this amazing nutrient from flax oil, leafy green vegetables, walnuts, wheat germs, Brazil nuts, sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds..

Health is wealth

3. Plant food is the best – Most doctors say don’t forget the ABC and E of your diet. All the required nutrients and antioxidants are available in plant food especially in brightly colored vegetables and fruits. The B group of vitamins produce acetylcholine, a vital memory neurotransmitter which is most essential for memory power. Eating a balanced food giving due importance to nutrient rich foods is still the best way of retaining and enhancing our memory power and capacity.

4. Keep moving – Any movement and activity is good for your body as a whole – good for your physique and good for your mental faculties. Vigorous exercise like aerobics boost the amount of oxygen, a vital brain fuel –per unit of blood. It has been discovered that there is an increase of blood flow to the brain during mental activity. The more aerobically fit you are the better your memory function will be. In older people too , if not aerobics any other exercise routine and taking a brisk walk has the same positive effect.

5. Relax – Too much stress, too many thoughts and concentrating on many things at the same time change the frequency of brainwaves to ones that are not conducive to memory. A hormone called Cortisole gets released when we are stressed which is toxic for the nervous system. High levels of cortisole inhibits the brain cells from using oxygen and glucose, so they literally end up starving. The best way to keep stress from battering your memory bank is to give your brain some time off. Take up activities which help you unwind and relax totally like Deep breathing, Yoga and Meditation. What is needed is clearing the clutter on your mind so that you can organise your thoughts better and concentration becomes easier.

6. Stop any kind of substance abuse – Tranquilizers , Alcohol and other drugs have a way of altering the neurological functions of your brain thereby impairing your memory. They also depress the central nervous system which in turn impedes the way chemical messenger in your brain works. Like for example – you may remember what happened before you took any of the drugs but may not be able to remember what happened later since the memory does not get stored correctly in the way it should be.

7. Repeat yourself – Like the time we were children and learning tables by repeating it everyday memorising it and that memory stayed with you for life. So similarly repeating a certain event is the best way to help the information pass into the long term memory by deepening the neurological tracks. It is very much like walking over the grass each day on the same path and after a while it creates a path. So when you come across new people or new information make sure that you hear the facts correctly and then repeat it out loud several times, also mentally repeat it several times so that it gets stored away.

8. Making Connections – This is another technique which is helpful in sharpening your memory power. Information goes into your mental filing system more easily if you link it to something that you already know. You can make up a rhyme or visualize a picture in your brain. For example, you can think of a name easily when you associate it with something else, Bhaskar or Ravi is another name for Sun and Lily is the name of a flower and so on..You can even connect people and places through some events or function where you met them.

9. Being inventive and doing something new – Taking up a hobby is very helpful in not only boosting your memory power but also keeping yourself engaged positively. It could be anything that is different from your routine and regular activities which become dull after a while. So keep reinventing yourself by doing something new within the spheres of your life. Read a good engrossing book, write an article about it or try to give a new look to your old furniture by changing the upholstery, go to a pottery class. Doing cross words even picture puzzles help your brain stimulate the creativity within you. This cause and effect relationship is very helpful for the brain since it gets stimulated and works well and keeps your mental faculties and memory bank functioning well.

10. Plan – Planning is a very important aspect of our life. Every night before you go to sleep , go through the day’s events and tick off all the activities that you had in mind and have accomplished , also make a mental list of all the things that needs to be done for the next day. Keep at it and you will see that you are able to achieve things without having to be reminded or forgetting those tasks that have a time limit like paying bills or calling up people and wishing them etc. However, don’t forget to consult your mental list from time to time. You can also make a list on a sheet of paper in case you have difficulty in remembering all the things, but once you get used to making your mental list you will not need a list on hand, it all gets stored in your memory bank.

See your Doctor

Finally, to conclude when you have done all the above but still don’t see much improvement in your memory power the best and the only solution available is to see your doctor. Your physician can spot any reversible causes that may be there in your memory bank – it could be due to the side effects of certain medication, or a serious health condition or a vision and hearing problem. So make sure that you consult a doctor -

  1. When your memory has worsened steadily over the course of a year or more.
  2. You have been experiencing significant mood or perception changes along with the weakening of your memory power.
  3. The memory lapse is interfering with your day today activities so much so that you are unable to carry out your day's activities without consulting others.
  4. You feel that your memory power has weakened because of a change of place or change of residence which can be psychological due to some mental block.

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