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…?