Secrets of the Brain
Even though science continues to give us ever increasing insights into what memory is, much of it remains a mystery. Researchers consider memory a process, and when you remember you are actually reconstructing the event from bits of information stored in various parts of the brain. But the mystery is, what initiates the reconstruction? Is it, as some suggest, directed from outside the physical body, from the energy body? That remains to be seen. In the meantime, let’s look at what science can tell us about some of the chemical activity in the brain.
The Location of Memory
In the past, it was thought that all memory was in the brain. However, Gazzaniga (1988) reports that memory occurs throughout the nervous system. So every thought you have is “felt” throughout your entire body because the receptors for the chemicals in your brain are found on the surfaces of cells throughout your body. Thus when the chemicals are activated across synapses in the brain, the message is communicated to every part of your body by chemotaxis, a process that allows cells to communicate by “radar” or remote travel using blood and cerebrospinal fluid. In more extreme cases, the body sometimes buries intensely painful memories in muscle tissue so that the conscious mind is spared the depth of trauma. Then when that person receives deep tissue massage or bodywork such as Rolfing, and the muscles are stimulated, the memories can be reactivated, causing the person to experience the repressed emotions. Another example of muscle memory is evident with organ transplants. People who have received donor organs have reported experiencing cravings or emotional reactions to certain incidents that they never had before.
The Biology of Memory
What it comes down to is brain cells, or neurons, communicating with each other through electo-chemical pathways. An electrical impulse travels down the axon or “outgoing branch”. Then the “fingers” at the end are stimulated to release chemicals called neurotransmitters (tiny molecules that send specific messages). The dendrites or “incoming branches” of other neurons pick these up. The space between the axon and dendrites is called a synapse.
Solidifying the Synapse
For learning to “stick”, the synapses need time to “gel”. If the synapse doesn’t “gel” then recreating the event, i.e. recalling the memory is difficult, if not impossible. A research team comprised of scientists from the University of Texas Medical School at Houston and the University of Houston reported the discovery of a new protein – transforming growth factor-B (TGF-B) that acts to solidify the new synapses (Science, March 1997). However, if there is too much protein it can build up and “clog” the synapse, thus reducing memory recall. Usually the neurotransmitter calpain, found in calcium, keeps the buildup of protein down. So, inadequate dietary calcium means that too much protein can build up because there is not enough calpain to keep the synapses clean. Unfortunately, an excess of calcium in the diet also creates a problem because the calpain starts to interfere with proper neural transmissions. A drastic way to remove excess protein from the synapse is by electric shock. Acetylcholine, one type of neurotransmitter, is important for three reasons: it is necessary for activating REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, it keeps neural membranes in tact so that they don’t become brittle and fall away, and it breaks down the excess build up of amyloid protein at the synapses found in Alzheimer’s patients (Robert Wurtham, director of the Clinical Research Center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology).
Stress Erodes Memory
Excessive stress and obesity produce an over-production of a complex set of stress hormones called glucocorticoids (cortisol being one example). Over exposure to glucocorticoids damages and destroys neurons in the brain’s hippocampus – a region critical to learning and memory. One really good way to burn off excess cortisol is through exercise. So for those experiencing particularly high stress levels exercise is not only beneficial, it is necessary.
What are the Characteristics of Memory?
- Sensory – we remember things that involve our five senses. So, the more senses that get activate, the easier it will be to recall.
- Intensity – when something is more intensely funny, sexual, absurd, etc. it tends to stand out in our memories.
- Outstanding – things that are dull and unoriginal are more difficult to remember because there is nothing to distinguish them from all the other memories.
- Emotional – the amygdala – a round, pea-sized part in the middle of the brain - acts as a gate keeper, so when something happens that has high emotional content – positive or negative – the amygdale says, “This is important!” and we tend to remember it more easily.
- Survival – the brain is wired for survival. This means that anything we perceive as important to survival we will remember more easily. It’s not just physical survival. Survival can include, emotional survival, psychological survival and financial survival.
- Personal importance – we naturally remember things that interest us and that have some personal importance.
- Repetition – the more often we recall information, the better we get at recalling on demand.
- First and last – the brain most easily recalls things from the beginning and the ending of any session or lecture.
What are the Keys to Memory?
- Pay attention – often times the biggest problem is that people’s minds are not focused in the moment. Instead, they are thinking about something in the past of future.
- Visualization – create a visual in your mind because the brain thinks in pictures and concepts, not paragraphs.
- Association – find something to connect the information to…similar to word association. Ask, “What does this remind me of?”
- Imagination – get creative when visualizing or making associations.
Why do we forget?
It could be that we never stored the information properly in the first place. It could be because there was not enough emotion or personal importance connected to the information to make it stick. It could be that it was so emotionally traumatic that the mind suppressed it in order to maintain normalcy.
Why do we remember negative events?
Whenever emotions are activated, especially strong emotions, the information or experience is entrenched into memory. Often times we tend to dwell on it, thereby rehearsing it and entrenching it even further. It is also easier to recall negative memories when we are in a bad mood. Why? Because we remember things in the state that we learned them so whenever you are feeling angry you will more easily recall other situations in which you were angry.
The subconscious remembers everything
If we were to compare the conscious mind with the subconscious, the conscious would measure about one foot long and the subconscious would be the length of a football field. The potential is enormous. So everything we experience can be stored. However, the conscious mind would get overloaded trying to process all the incoming bits of data on a daily basis. Instead, all the information goes into the subconscious for storage and we may never deal with it, except if the mind chooses to process it at night through dreams. Or, if we go for clinical hypnosis, through which a therapist assists in accessing information or memories the conscious mind has “forgotten” or repressed.
1. Your brain loves color. Use colored pens – good quality, not gel pens – or use colored paper. Color helps memory.
2. Your brain can effectively focus and concentrate for up to 25 minutes (adults). Take a 10-minute break after every 20-30 minutes of studying. Go do some chores: rake the lawn, iron a shirt, vacuum. Come back after 10 minutes and do another focused, intense session.
3. Your brain needs to be rested to learn fast and remember best. If you are tired take a 20-minute nap first otherwise you are wasting your study time.
4. Your brain is like a motor: it needs fuel. You wouldn’t put dirty fuel in your Lamborghini (if you had one) or you wouldn’t put low quality fuel in a rocket, would you? Well, your brain is a much more valuable, intricate machine than either of those so feed it properly. Junk food and imitation food and all the chemicals and preservatives weaken both your body and your mind. In fact, a recent study in England showed that your IQ is affected by your diet.
5. Your brain is like a sea of an electro-chemical activity. And both electricity and chemicals flow better in water. If you are dehydrated you just don’t focus as well. Drink enough water (colored liquids – pop, juice, coffee, etc. – are not the same). Often times headaches are connected to dehydration, too.
6. Your brain loves questions. When you come up with questions in class or when reading a book, your brain automatically searches for answers, making the learning faster. A good question has more than one answer.
7. Your brain and body have their own rhythm cycles: there are times during the day when you are more alert than others. You will save time learning if you study during your peak periods. If you have a part-time job that happens during your peak period you may wan to reconsider if it is wise to be giving your employer your best learning time.
8. Your brain and body communicate constantly. If your body is slouched down, the message the brain gets is that “this is not important” and so it doesn’t pay as close attention. In any learning situation, sit up and lean forward to help keep your mind alert. Buy a good quality, adjustable office chair.
9. Your brain is affected by smells. Use aromatherapy to keep your brain alert. Peppermint, lemon and cinnamon are good ones to experiment with.
10. Your brain needs oxygen. Get out there and exercise.
11. Your brain needs space. Be sure that you are not trying to study in a small cramped area.
12. Your brain needs your space to be organized. One recent study showed that kids who grow up in tidy, organized homes do better academically. Why? Because by being trained to organize the outside environment, the brain learns to organize the internal knowledge…which makes recall faster. Buy a 4-drawer legal-sized filing cabinet.
13. Your brain cells in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that deals with putting information from short-term to long-term memory, are destroyed by cortisol, which is created when you are stressed. So, yes, stress affects memory. How do you get rid of cortisol? Exercise.
14. Your brain doesn’t know what you can’t do until you tell it.
What are you telling it? Listen to your self-talk. Stop the negativity. Replace it with more positive, encouraging talk.
15. Your brain is like a muscle: it can be trained and strengthened, at any age. No excuses. Stop being a mental couch potato. Professional athletes practice every day; you can practice homework everyday. If “you don’t have any”, make some up for yourself. Read ahead, review…do SOMETHING.
16. Your brain needs repetition. It is better to do short frequent reviews than one long review because what counts is how many times your brain sees something, not how long is sees it in one sitting.
17. Your brain can understand faster than you can read. Use a pencil or finger to “lead” your eyes. By doing so you help your eyes move more quickly.
18. Your brain needs movement, especially if you are mostly a kinesthetic (body movement) learner instead of a visual or auditory learner. You might find your productivity go up if you have a standing desk. Buy one or make one by raising your desk/table on blocks. This allows you to move more easily and stay more alert.
19. Your brain seeks patterns and connections. When you are learning something, ask yourself, “What does this remind me of?” This will also help your memory because it connects the new knowledge to something you already know.
20. Your brain loves fun. We learn in direct proportion to how much fun we are having. Learning is life. Live it up!