Sunday, January 13, 2013

Improving Your Memory

       One of the most common complaints I hear from the people around me is that they have trouble remembering important information such as names, dates and even in the process of doing household concerns from room to room (i.e. I came in here for something but now I can't remember what it was). I occasionally have trouble remembering people's names if I don't purposely use my secret device for memorizing. It's so easy almost no one would think it works. When I first hear a name I repeat it in my mind and try to associate it with someone of a similar or the same name. Then I make up a sentence in my mind using that person's name and if it rhymes, all the better. Then I make sure I repeat the person's name before I leave their presence and it reinforces my being able to repeat it when I need to say it the next time I see them. The reason why it works is because you engage different parts of your brain in the process of engaging your memory resources. You'll find it is not so complex once you try it but consciously making an effort to go through the process of remembering requires practice just like everything else. Some people are referred to as having a lazy mind if they don't utilize these efforts. To me, it's just making memorizing a good habit.
     Last year I came across an article written by Madonna Behen who also has a systematic way of improving memory. Her seven points are good and even seem a little unconventional which may help or hinder you depending on the way in which your brain memorizes data and images. Her technique is the result of interviewing experts on cognition and aging but much of the following has more to do with tapping your brains resources than trying to beat the clock on a so-called aging brain.
     Her first point was basically to paint mental pictures. She interviewed a self-proclaimed world memory champion by the name of Ed Cooke to tackle remembering names. His advice was to make the memorization process as vivid as possible. The examples were the following:
        To remember the name Andrew Bush you can picture a bush with lots of hands in it. To memorize the name Martin Van Buren you could visualize a Martian in a van that's burning !
     Rather flamboyant ways work for some but not for everyone. It may be worth a try for yourself. Get back to me on that !
     Her second point touches on learning large bodies of text that you may need to take tests with or it's crucial to keep the details well in your mind. In this case she says to switch things up which means to convert the reading material into a typeface that you don't necessarily use much or even like. The reasoning behind this tactic is that by being a little more difficult or challenging to read it will make you focus better on the actual material. Apparently a study done by psychologists at Princeton and Indiana University did various studies with adult groups divided into two. One group read in a popular typeface and the others in fonts that were unfamiliar to them. The latter mentioned group did significantly better on tests of the material than the first group.
     This may not work at all for people with dyslexia. Apparently, it's enough of a challenge reading plain, ordinary text because of their visual to brain disorder so the preference for plain writing may be crucial to understanding at all. If you have any reason to suspect that this is a problem you may want to be tested for dyslexia.   
     Thirdly, verbalizing data such as names can also be extremely helpful- as I mentioned in my own technique- because it aids in strengthening the neural connections in our brains. She quoted a Pomona College psychologist by the name of Deborah Burke:
     "The reason names are so problematic is that there's no way around it, while with other words you can usually substitute something else."  She cited rehearsing the persons name and speaking it out loud as a way of reinforcing memory.
     On the fourth point she used an old adage of use it or lose it. Exercising the brain in other ways than the norm and making it a challenge can help immeasurably. One way to do so is by taking up learning new languages- not just one other. If you are bilingual, adding another language is optimal and increases your overall use of language in the same way playing a game of scrabble can increase your use of one. This also helps strengthen connections in our brain.
     Her fifth point chocks up a notch for social media especially if it involves one-on-one communication. Book clubs are extremely beneficial but she also mentioned online communication, which obviously involves texting rather than oral communication, such as Twitter and Facebook. I have amazed myself a couple of times IM'ing to people in quite a few different languages. Even though I am not verbally fluent in Portuguese I have had no trouble with online chatting with my friends in South America. It's clear that there's something to this which no one has made obvious. Apparently, though, written communication, according to Madonna, increases language production.
     The sixth way is something no one would even guess. It's simple. Go for a walk. Backed by Gary Kennedy of Montefiore Medical Center in New York, Madonna wrote that exercise helps the brain sprout new connections between neurons, simply put. It is especially true in the part of the brain called the hippocampus which controls the working memory and it is the part that is most susceptible to problems from aging. Studies have suggested that regular exercise might slow or prevent memory deterioration. The University of Pittsburgh study for adults in their 60s basically took brisk, 40-minute walks three times a week and scored better on memory tests than the same age group who were sedentary. 
     Lastly, the best deal was getting a good night's sleep. If you do such things as cram for tests you may be doing more harm than good for your education. The backfire to this sort of stopgap scholarship is that it can leave you fuzzy minded and unclear in your thinking. The other problem is that interrupted sleep can also impair your abilities and cause other problems physically. Getting a full eight to ten hours of sleep was not nearly as effective as less sleep time without interruption.
     In a sidebar to Madonna's article there was a special comparison list to determine if you or someone you love may be experiencing the beginnings of Alzheimer's disease. On a split between true signs of the disease and normal age-related changes it lists Alzheimer's characteristics as:
        Poor judgment and decision making, consistently.
        Inability to manage a simple budget.
        Losing track of the date or the season constantly.
        Difficulty having  or following a conversation.
        Misplacing things and being unable to retrace steps to find them.
     Typical age-related changes would involve occasionally making a bad decision, missing a monthly payment but rarely, forgetting which day it is and remembering it later. It is also normal for those approaching advanced age to forget words or which word to use, specifically and losing or leaving personal effects behind occasionally. My own criteria involves seeing anything unusual in the behavior that would indicate a drastic change. My mother used to call her own children by each others names sometimes crossing into the other genders! She might call me by my sister's name but my brother could also be called by her name as well and she was a young woman at the time. She was the typical absent-minded, artistic genius. She never did cross over into Alzheimer's but many of the things she did and encountered in her life would have indicated that she had early Alzheimer's. At any rate, getting lost just walking around the block should make bells go off.
     I hope this was helpful and if you have any other suggestions or ideas feel free to put them in the comments.
The Castle Lady
with the latest advice !


Janice said...

I remember reading that article. If all Madonna's memory boosting tips fail us, we can always rub some fresh rosemary herb in the palm of our hands and sniff. My aromatherapist friend swears that works wonders for recall.;) And for your readers is a great way to practice your foreign language skills.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tip on the language web site. I'd never heard that about rosemary but I love that herb and I think I'll try that the next time I'm having serious memory lapses. Thanks for the great comment !