Memory Matters

If you would lose your memories you would cease to remember your family members, your house address, and how you even come by this article. But most importantly, you would not even know your name or who you are.

Our memories are often taken for granted as we struggle to survive and be successful in the things we do in our everyday life. The recent development in medical science and technology such as the MRI has enabled us to study for ourselves the many wonders of the brain and more importantly how memories are created, kept, and sometimes deleted.  With this advancement in technology, we are slowly solving more and more puzzles that have dazzled human beings since time immemorial.

However, human memory is yet another Pandora’s Box that we have yet to open completely. We come to realize that the more questions we are able to answer about human memory, the more new unheard (and unbelievable) questions pops up thereby making it impossible for science to catch up with human curiosity.

            The brain controls almost all the body’s functions from head (and shoulders) to toe. It is now common knowledge that the left side of the brain deals with the linear reasoning functions of language (grammar and words), mental arithmetic, understanding and application of mathematical concepts, and pattern perception while the right side of the brain is concerned with holistic reasoning functions of language (intonation and emphasis), abstract-oriented mathematics, perception of shapes and motion, and spatial perception.

 Contrary to popular believe, our memories are not controlled by any single part of the brain. Instead, our memories are dispersed and stored in different areas in our heads. However, the hippocampus located in the inner brain plays an essential role in the consolidation of memories (turning short-term memory into long-term memory). Any damage to the hippocampus would result in almost complete loss of the ability to remember new information.

The hippocampus is not something to be toyed with. Take for example the unfortunate case of H.M. (in neuroscience, patients are often referred to by single names or initials to preserve their privacy), an individual who lost the ability to form new memories when both his hippocampuses were destroyed by radical surgery in the 1950s. As an old man, H.M. miraculously still thinks himself as a twenty year old man and is shocked every time he looks into the mirror. What was wrong is that H.M. could not turn his short-term memory into a long-term one.

The process of memory works in a few simple steps from receiving information through our senses followed by encoding it into our long term memory whereby it is either forgotten or laid dormant until we need to retrieve it. When you are reading this article, what you see and understand is kept briefly as short-term memory (if asked what you are reading, you would say “memory matters” spontaneously). After a few seconds of reading, the hippocampus begins to encode short-term memory into long-term ones (this process may happen unconsciously or sometimes it does not happen at all).

Human beings are not born with a fix capacity in terms of memory. Daniel Theyagu compares memory to a knife that needs to be used often and sharpen to maintain its razor sharp edge. One of the most famous feats of memory power comes from Greek poet Simonides of Ceos. Simonides was the sole survivor of a tragic accident involving a roof collapse in a banquet hall in Thessaly. According to Cicero, the bodies of the victims were mangled beyond recognition but Simonides was able to remember and to identify each individual simply by remembering where each guest was seated in the hall.

Peter of Ravenna an Italian jurist and author of a renowned memory textbook of the 15th century was said to use the same ‘placing method’ as Simonides to memorize the entire legal canon of the Bible, 200 of Cicero’s speeches, and 1000 verses of Ovid by heart.

Tony Buzan (2003) further describes memory as a chain link that enables us to memorize an endless list of items through association, imagery, and location. The stronger the link between two items, the easier it is to remember one through another. This enables each and every one of us to remember hundreds of items by simply linking them with one another either through creativity or imagination.

            Recent studies on human memory do not only include how and why we remember but also how and why we forget. Dr Matthew Wilson of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory in Cambridge, Massachusetts has stated that memory is like everything else in biology.

In other words, our memory has evolved to serve a purpose which in this case is to react appropriately to challenges by drawing on previous experiences to increase the chances of our survival. Take for example how the elderly are notorious for their ability to remember their personal experiences during World War II but are unable to recall what they did last week.

Dr Wilson justifies that this is due to the fact that the elderly, who already have a vast reservoir of experiences do not waste precious storage capacity on adding things that will not aid their survival. Therefore forgetfulness for the elderly might be in some sense an evolutionary adaptation rather than a sign of waning memory.

Should this be true, our ability to remember is governed by how important a particular memory is to our survival rather than what we ‘think’ is important for us to remember. This of course is consistent with why more effort and attention usually leads to better outcomes in memorizing things as we are artificially putting emphasis on the items that needs to be memorized.

            It is inevitable that we become more forgetful as we age but recent studies have shown that exercise may be able to help preserve our ability to remember. A survey in the United States of a child’s physical abilities against a statewide (Illinois) standardized test have shown that as a whole, kids with the fittest bodies were the ones with the fittest brains, even when socioeconomic status were taken into account (Stephen Hawking would obviously disagree).

            The equation is quite simple, as exercise helps the heart pump more blood to the brain. More blood means more oxygen that would eventually lead to better nourished brain cells. The National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A., Columbia University also gives positive evidence supporting this theory. According to their research, when new nerve cells form in the brain, their growth is accompanied by the creation of new blood vessels.

            Researches found that exercise increases the blood volume in the hippocampus implying that new cells were forming in the area. From the result of these studies, we see a positive correlation between physical and mental health. The only catch of the story is that mental fitness is hard to maintain. Furthermore, if you would wait until you get a brain disease (like Alzheimer’s) before you start to exercise, it is probably too late. 

Before registering to the nearest gym after reading these findings, one must also take note that memory and intelligence should not be confused with one another. Even though memory is an individual’s single most valuable asset, having a better memory do not guarantee higher intelligence (although better memory may help a GREAT deal).

            One could memorize a whole textbook on the subject of management but fail to become a better manager. In the same way, better results at school do not guarantee success in life (although it dramatically increases the chances of being successful). In the end, it all boils down to how we apply what we have already memorize.

 References

1.      Daniel Theyagu (31 January 2008), Use It or Lose It, The Star Newspaper, (Metro) pp1

2.      Dr Milton Lum (2007), Brain Stuff, The Star Newspaper, T15 (Health Startwo)

3.      Joshua Foer (2007), Memory, National Geographic Magazine, November 2007, pp42-43

4.      Newsweek, Stronger, Faster, Smarter, Health for Life,  April 9th 2007, pp28-35

5.      Reader’s Digest (25 July 2005), 101 Ways to Improve your Memory, Reader’s Digest Association Far East Limited

6.      The Economist, Dreamweavers, A Survey of the Brain, December 23rd 2006-January 5th 2007, pp7

7.      Tony Buzan (2003), Master Your Memory, BBC Worldwide Limited, pp25-31 

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