Memory loss has to be one of our biggest fears. Names, words, facts and faces, your car keys – nothing is spared. Thanks to the steady erosion of our brain matter: we lose about 0.5% of our brain volume every year. The hippocampus – the region responsible for memory and learning – is thought to weather particularly badly; by the time we are 90, many of us have lost around a third of its grey matter.
Photo by tourist_on_earth
Fortunately, recent research has shown that the brain is not concrete, but certain regions can adapt and grow. In his book ‘Moonwalking with Einstein’ Joshua Foer describes how he went from being a casual press reporter at the USA Memory Championships to competing, with no previous experience, and amazingly ending up winning the competition the following year. What Foer discovered during his year of preparation, is that the brain can be trained and improved through a series of exercises and memory tricks, mainly by using visualisations. These visualisations, which are commonly known as memory palaces, can be populated with certain items placed strategically around an internal image of a familiar structure such as your childhood address or workplace etc.
The Moonwalking with Einstein of the title refers to another system of remembering the order of any number of shuffled decks of 52 playing cards, which must be recalled exactly during the competition after only a short period of looking at each card. He discovered that most people can remember a series of up to 7 numbers or letters quite easily but most of us begin to struggle beyond that. Go on try it for yourself here.
The brain is incredibly adaptable and keeping your mind and memory active will eventually alter the physiology of your brain to cope with whatever you throw at it. In 2000, a study of London taxi drivers, for instance, showed that the 4-year training of London’s 25,000 streets, an ordeal necessary to acquire a black taxi licence and known as ‘The Knowledge,’ showed a remarkable growth in their hippocampus area compared to bus drivers who only learnt a fixed number of routes. The scientists think that, by memorising the maps of London, their brains build many more of the “synaptic connections” that allow their brain cells to communicate with each other. In other words, the good news is that it may be possible to train the brain to compensate for some of the neural decline that accompanies our expanding waistlines and receding hairlines.
Challenging your brain could be one way of preserving your recollections – though the value of commercial brain training apps is debatable; most experiments seem to show that while people may become a whizz at these screen based games, the improvements fail to transfer to daily life. But other, more traditional activities – like learning a musical instrument or a second language can help maintain the synaptic links and help lay down memory in a symbiotic way, so they can be accessed from different directions I.e. a musical note together with a letter or a number may be easier to recall together, rather than singly, at least in our short-term memory. Try this little test for yourself.
Ideally, you should try and keep your brain active throughout your life, well before you begin to approach your dotage. There is lots of evidence showing that we can improve our memory and brain function through exercise and a healthy diet, which is also thought to offer some protection against dementia. As can an active social life – since regular contact with other people is also thought to excite our neurons and preserve our synapses. Also ensuring that you regularly get a good night’s sleep is also very helpful.
Of course, nothing can guarantee health and vitality in old age. But these few simple measures might give you the best possible chances of preserving your wits against those inevitable ravages of time.
Anyway, where was I…?
Although it’s Springtime or Autumn if you live down under, and traditionally a time when we are supposed to feel positive and rejuvenated; this year is really an odd one. I have lost count of the number of friends and acquaintances who are simply not feeling the vibe or are struggling through a bad or even a pretty shit period in their lives. I look back at myself this time last year and remember how life felt like it was unravelling all around me at times and wish that someone, anyone could have said or done the right thing to help me through it. So if you are not feeling 100% today or just don’t feel good about yourself generally here are a few things you might consider doing to make life a little more positive:
Photo by Christopher_Hawkins
1. Eat properly for a start off
I don’t mean that in some naggy eat your greens and cut out the fat way. All I am saying is try to eat a good diet, a balanced diet and most important of all have a decent breakfast. The day is built on the first meal of the day so make sure it is something good like muesli and yoghurt, with fruit and perhaps an egg or a decent shake instead of your usual cup of coffee with a piece of toast and perhaps followed by a cigarette!
2. A confidence boost.
Instead of worrying about things to come in the next week or so, look at what you achieved last week/month, and any problems you may have overcome. Be it a row with your partner or your boss that you managed to get over, maybe something annoying or a lingering worry that you finally managed to move on from. Perhaps you finally reached some goal that has taken you a while to achieve. I promise you, if you look hard enough, there is always something that you can be proud of.
3. Get some quality You time.
You don’t have to spend every night with your loved one. Set aside an evening here and there where you can do what you want to do. Do something you don’t need the consensus or the agreement of others before you do it. Also think about treating yourself to a duvet day every once in a while, so you can stay in bed, watch a movie or listen to some music. Do whatever it takes for you to completely relax. You will be surprised just how much this re-charges your battery before normal life takes over once more.
4. Spend wisely.
Try not to blow all your wages in the first week and that way you’ll have a little left over to do something for you. Treat yourself to a massage, a new haircut or maybe go out for a meal with friends and socialise. Surveys have shown that people who spend their money on socialising with friends or their partner, do not regret wasting that money as they have got an experience out of it. Also try not to waste it all on clothes you don’t really need – if this is you, could there be something missing from your life that helps you keep those expensive shops in healthy profits?
5. Plan a break or a holiday.
We all need a break. Even if it’s just a long weekend away. A change of scenery gives you a well deserved boost, time to relax and something to look forward to. So get searching for those cheap online deals!
6. Keep tidy.
Yes, I know more than most how hard it can be to find the time to keep your home tidy. But making your bed every morning, cleaning the dishes and picking up your socks from the middle of the floor, will save time when you get in from work, so you can just relax without wasting your evening picking up clutter or feeling guilty about it. Also think about clearing out your wardrobes once in a while – do you really need all these clothes – chances are if you have not worn something in a year you probably won’t again. Get rid of it or better still give it to a Charity shop. Having control of these little things in our lives, helps you feel much more in charge generally.
7. Be kind to a stranger.
Is there someone standing on the bus or train because there are no seats left? Offer them yours! Are there homeless people that you walk past every day, without giving them a second look? Give them your spare change, or if that’s beyond your principles buy them a coffee or a sandwich! Most people will appreciate your generosity and it will put a smile on your face as well as theirs.
8. Put your health first.
Every now and then, swap that chocolate bar for a piece of fruit, that glass of coke for water or that glass of wine for a spritzer. Also if you drink a little too much, try knocking off a beer or two from you nightly consumption. Not only will you feel more energy and see things like an improved complexion in your face, but you will probably be able to shift those stubborn couple of kilo’s you have struggled for a while to lose.
9. Try a gym or go for a jog one evening.
It’s amazing how a workout or just going for a run can put you in such a good mood. Yes it’s hard if you have never done it before, but start slowly and push yourself, and you may come back aching, but feeling like you have done something worthwhile. Then you can sit back and relax when you get home and feel good about yourself.
10. Get moving.
If the gym or jogging is a step too far try giving yourself a good shake once in a while. When we are stressed out, the neurones in our brain are messed up, but if you can shake yourself about just a bit, it will trigger a relaxation response. So dance around to your favourite song! Bounce around, and shake your arms and legs! I promise you it will have a positive impact!
11. Get some fresh air.
Get out there and take in the colours and smells of the season – be honest: when was the last time you stopped and smelt a flower or even appreciated a sunset? Go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be long one as getting just 20 minutes of fresh air will help to clear your mind.
12. Keep a diary/ journal.
I learnt a long time ago that many of us are more prone to remember negative things more than the positive ones. It is such a shame. However, now I keep a journal I almost always remember and record the good things that sometimes get lost or forgotten with the passage of time. This will help you remember these times so when you are feeling down you can look back through it and see that things are often only temporarily bad and that there really have been many happy periods in your life.