Memories Are Made of This

I addressed a variation on this theme a while back “Fun With Synapses.” Revisiting the topic because I’ve been encountering more and more people complaining about their inability to remember names, dates, and the location of their keys, the names of their kids – well, that last is a bit of an exaggeration but I’ve heard mothers run through the litany of names before arriving at the right one.

And I’ve been doing it myself lately: I’m upstairs and decide I need to retrieve my coffee cup, which is downstairs. I get downstairs and stand in the middle of the kitchen, sometimes staring right at the cup without having the vaguest notion why I’m there. Or I put the cup in the microwave, push 30 seconds, wander away, come back an hour or so later and spend fifteen minutes searching upstairs and downstairs for the cup. These events almost always occur when I’ve got a million other things on my mind, which is most of the time.

Of course Isis does humans one better. She will often walk into a room, the kitchen, for example, and look around as though she’s never seen it before. I’m not sure of the brain operation that eventually leads her to conclude, “Ah, place where my humans serve me food and water.”

Here’s the NYTimes’s  fancy and complicated explanation for lapses.

Yahoo!has a simpler approach. The post offers some good suggestions for improving memory. I especially recommend relaxation, sleep, and diet. The biggest memory problem for people lacking an actual cognitive impairment is that they fill their brains with clutter and don’t have room for the important stuff. Empty out the file drawers before you try to stuff in more stuff. (This works well for actual physical file cabinets, too.)

Oxygen is the best memory booster. If I want to really focus, I take a few deep breaths, then follow the instruction in the Yahoo! article about paying close attention. Even better, go for a brisk walk and then sit down to focus.

On a related score, the article recommends yoga. I recommend meditation, with or without the exercise. It was more than ten years ago when I started attending group meditation. After about six months, I noticed that I could read longer, write longer, focus longer, and remember better. I’m not sure why meditation works that way. It may have to do with the parts of the brain that wake up in alpha state, or deeper. This article isn’t written all that well, but it gets the point across.

I don’t think the type of meditation matters, just the regularity of practice, but integrative body-mind training offers some intriguing potential. If it can help regulate emotions and impulses, the collateral benefit of improved memory will likely follow. I’m not going to China to find out but once it arrives here I may well sign on.

Remembering people’s names seems to be a challenge for many. I skip all that business about associating the person with an animal. This practice just adds another piece of information that needs to be stored. When I meet someone, I shake hands and repeat the name out loud. If I want to lock it in, I might repeat it to myself a couple of times. Of course I’ve had a lifetime of practice through work in journalism, but I’m still not as good as most politicians, who really do seem to be born with the ability to recall names and faces years after a single encounter.

Stretching one’s memory helps, too. If I have just a few items to buy at the grocery store, I skip the list. Here I will use a mnemonic: cat food, carrots, cranberries, chips, etc. If I’ve got more than five or six items, I’ll make a list but leave it home (not always on purpose). Even when I haven’t intended to perform my brain-stretching exercise, I find I remember 95 percent of the items. What I forget is usually what I don’t need, like those chips.

Post-Its are my friend around the office, but I do find that the most important stuff stays in my brain, though I don’t always get to it on time.

Here’s another fancy article from a couple of years ago, which reinforces the idea that movement may help retain information, though I’m not sure about waving one’s arms.

And for improving concentration I’m still doing Sudoku. See the next entry, “Liz’s Addiction.”

Moral of the story: Follow your own advice!

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