For the past decade or so, I have been immersed in the field of neuroscience. Our central nervous system, more specifically the brain, is easily one of the most complex systems within our known universe. Home to an astonishing 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses, this organ is unlike any other.
We tend to go about our day without acknowledging the complexity of our thoughts, behaviors, movements and even memory capacity. Unfortunately, the moment when the majority of individuals do begin to think of their brain, especially their memory, is when something goes wrong.
It’s no secret that cases of dementia are on the rise, as 7.7 million new cases are diagnosed each year. Approximately 47.5 million people are currently living with dementia around the globe, a number that is both startling and intimidating. What can you do today to try and prevent future complications?
The complexity of the brain in relation to memory
As mentioned, dementia is sweeping the globe. Since there isn’t a cure for the most common type of dementia — Alzheimer’s — it’s critical that you take care of your brain starting today. After all, there is no better treatment than proactive preventative measures. Although we still have a lot to learn, research has uncovered key clues that may help strengthen long-term cognitive functioning.
If I were to thoroughly write about the brain and how memory works, you would need to cozy up and read for a few solid hours — so, we’ll sum it up instead. At the most basic level, our memories are formed and accessed based on key connections between the neurons or “nerve cells” in your brain.
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To simplify the whole process, think of a time when you met a new person. Your short-term memory will hold a small amount of information — about seven items or so. As you are introduced to someone, you see their face, you hear them speak and you are aware of the overall environment or social context — you naturally pick up on these details.
From there, the entire event will be moved into your working memory as you filter out what’s relevant. Along the way, certain elements will be lost. As you spend more time with this individual or rehearse their name in your head, the memory itself begins to move into your long-term memory, also known as consolidation.
Overall, humans tend to remember events much easier when they are emotionally relevant or learned within a context that’s well understood. I won’t bore you with the details, but I will recommend some key daily exercises to help you strengthen these connections, potentially helping you avoid cognitive decline in the future.
Try these mental exercises daily, in order to enhance your memory
Just as you exercise to protect your physical health, mental stimulation helps strengthen cognitive functioning and overall brain health. As you participate in daily brain exercises, you will notice an improvement in terms of your short-term memory, long-term memory and basic memory recall — which is the ability to remember encoded events.
Exercise #1: Visualize details before you go to bed
At the end of the day, as you flop yourself into bed, add one more minor task onto your daily routine. Close your eyes, thinking about what you did that day — from start to finish. Although you may group minor sequences, try and slow down, recalling as much detail as possible.
You’ll want to visualize each detail, as research has shown that our thoughts can produce the same mental instructions as the initial actions themselves. As you do, you will also be rehearsing key pieces of information, helping your brain organize what was recently absorbed.
Exercise #2: Doodle
Although doodling was once thought of as a waste of time, research has shown that it not only improves your ability to focus but also improves your ability to retain information. Within one key study, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, it was found that participants who listened to a boring phone message while doodling exhibited a 29 percent improved recall in comparison to those who didn’t.
It is the belief that doodling encourages key variables within a memory, including semantic, motor and visual components. Overall, drawing has been extensively studied and it appears that this activity helps individuals evaluate and consider information in a deeper, more relevant way — leading to enhanced memorization.
Exercise #3: Allow music to trigger memories
There’s no denying our connection to music and based on its power, new research and therapy options are emerging for individuals with dementia. The truth is, far too many dementia patients are prescribed antipsychotics — which are not recommended for those suffering from this condition.
Instead, iPods are being brought into nursing homes, leading to some remarkable results. Music can take us back in time, transporting us to a distant memory. It can evoke emotion and personal connection, allowing these patients to see through the fog, as they reconnect for a brief moment in time.
Of course, music can help anyone spark a memory, but it’s particularly relevant for those who are slowly losing their memories and essentially their identity. If you haven’t already seen the film, Alive Inside, here is the touching trailer in order for you to recognize the sheer power of music therapy.
From brain training techniques to caffeine consumption, there are ways to both strengthen and trigger key memories. Challenge your brain as you retain new information each day. Although key exercises are beneficial, your cognitive health and memory depend on your overall lifestyle.
Also, remember that your physical and mental health are not independent of one another. If you want to enhance your memory, you will need to exercise, get enough sleep, consume a nutrient-rich diet, high in antioxidants, meditate and avoid processed, fatty and sugary foods.
Just as you take care of your heart and skin, be sure to support the most important and complex organ of all — your brain.
— Krista Hillis