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Resting our Brains to Improve Memory

Posted Jul 25 2012 8:30am

category_bug_journal2.gif It is, probably, the number one fear old people have: loss of memory. To not remember is literally to lose our selves, the core of our being, the entire definition of who we are.

Although there is not much anyone can do about dementia, we spend a lot of time worrying about memory loss. When we walk into a room and wonder why we're there, is it incipient Alzheimer's, we ask ourselves.

A 74-year-old friend with whom I chat regularly on the telephone is frustrated with how frequently he forgets a word he needs while speaking, something that happens to one or both of us every time we chat.

And here's a convoluted example: I regularly forget that even if I have only three items on the grocery store list, I need to write them down and when I don't, I always forget to buy one and, sometimes, two of the items. On the few occasions I do write them down, I'm as likely to leave the list at home as take it with me.

That's at least a double forget and maybe a triple.

It is for reasons like these that brain training games have become a billion dollar business even without an iota of proof that they work. Study after study fail to show memory improvement from all those hours at crosswords, sudoku and concentration exercises.

None of it ever made sense to me on my personal theory that the brain and memory within it are way too subtle and complex to benefit from games that all repeatedly task the same kind of mental operation. But now there is a study on memory improvement that does make sense :

“...psychological scientist Michaela Dewar and her colleagues show that memory can be boosted by taking a brief wakeful rest after learning something verbally new - so keep the pencil for phone numbers - and that memory lasts not just immediately but over a longer term.

"'Our findings support the view that the formation of new memories is not completed within seconds,' says Dewar. 'Indeed our work demonstrates that activities that we are engaged in for the first few minutes after learning new information really affect how well we remember this information after a week.'"

In times past when there wasn't much everyday distraction but radio, books and what we created for ourselves, I recall looking up from a book now then, staring off into space to give some thought to what I had just read before returning to the text. I don't sense that I or many other people do that often anymore.

These days we live in a world of fractured attention. Email, smartphones, television, Kindles, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, YouTube, Angry Birds all beeping and buzzing at us minute to minute and as soon as we are done with one, we move directly to the next.

With unexpected serendipity yesterday, soon after I read about this research into what might be called mindful remembering, I came across a story in The New York Times about a new movement from the people who invent and prosper from the technologies of our mental distraction.

”The concern, voiced in conferences and in recent interviews with many top executives of technology companies, is that the lure of constant stimulation — the pervasive demand of pings, rings and updates — is creating a profound physical craving that can hurt productivity and personal interactions.

A director in the executive offices of Facebook, founders from Twitter, eBay, Zynga and Paypal along with executives from other technology giants such as Google, Microsoft, Cisco, etc. have, for the past three years, been attending an annual Wisdom 2.0 conference to explore whether interactive technology has addictive properties and if so, what to do about it.

“'We’re done with this honeymoon phase and now we’re in this phase that says, Wow, what have we done? said Soren Gordhamer, [the organizer of Wisdom 2.0], about the pursuit of balance in the digital age. 'It doesn’t mean what we’ve done is bad. There’s no blame. But there is a turning of the page.'”

In one session at the most recent conference, it was debated whether technology firms “had a responsibility to consider their collective power to lure consumers to games or activities that waste time or distract them.”

Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford School of Medicine says that it is becoming widely accepted that our gadgets create a “persistent sense of emergency by setting off stress systems in our brain.”

”'It's this basic cultural recognition that people have a pathological relationship with their devices,' she said. 'People feel not just addicted, but trapped.'”

I don't use my smartphone for much beyond actual telephone calls and damned few of those but just from hundreds of emails a day, I feel a lot like what Ms. McGonigal describes and I don't need an expert to tell me such feelings affect memory.

According to The Times, Google has started a mindfulness movement with its employees.

”Richard Fernandez, an executive coach at Google and one of the leaders of the mindfulness moment, said the risks of being overly engages with devices were immense.

“'It's nothing less than everything,' he said, adding that if people can find time to occasionally disconnect, 'we can have more intimate and authentic relationships with ourselves and those we love in our communities.'”

And, I might add, improve our memories when we are not dashing and darting from one distraction and engagement to the next. I'm just as likely as those Silicon Valley types to spend the day in front of the computer screen, read my Kindle through dinner when I'm alone, read a chapter or two of a book before some TV show I want to watch and this goes from morning to lights out.

No wonder I can't remember a grocery list of three items. I need to give myself more time to let it – and anything else I want remember - settle into my mind. To give my brain the leisure it needs to store the information rather that give it more work to do with brain games.

Michaela Dewar explains that there is growing evidence to suggest that the point at which we experience new information is

"...just at a very early stage of memory formation and that further neural processes have to occur after this stage for us to be able to remember this information at a later point in time."

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Joanne Zimmermann: A Classic Case

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