Memory. You can’t write your memoir without it. It’s the one aspect that defines who you are. Most of us take it for granted – that is, until it starts to show gaps or fails us at critical moments. But what is it and how does it work?
When we think of memory, we tend to see it as a series of video images or computer files – the clarity of our recollection being dependent on how important the specific event was and how good we believe our memory to be, but this is false reasoning. When we recall an incident, our brain rewires the neural connections each time we do so, either weakening or strengthening the physical structure of those connections.
All Memory is False
All memory is erroneous, based on how many times we’ve recalled it, and how clearly we’ve imprinted the details during the initial incident. We are literally rewriting it every time we remember it, not unlike we edit the story of our memoirs to make it better, stronger, more exciting or more “memorable”.
Over time, the memories we recall most frequently create stronger and deeper “ruts” in our brains, resulting in unshakeable beliefs and an inability to change our minds about the issues which have become important to us. In turn, these create the habits and personality we show to the world. Behaviour and attitudes are determined by our memories, so that we repeat successful actions and avoid ones which caused us pain or disappointment. Recent scientific research in neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to build new pathways) indicates that we can re-write our memories to eliminate negative associations.
Types of Memory
Long Term Memory – Long-term memory stores, manages and retrieves information. It consists of anything we can recall which lasts more than a few minutes. It depends on how well we processed the information initially – if we clearly recorded all the sensory impressions (sound, sight, smell, taste, touch), it becomes easier to recall them at a later date. Poor memory is based more on the brain’s inability to record accurate memories, than an inability to remember them.
Short Term Memory – Short-term memory is the few minutes that we can keep something in mind before either transferring it to long term memory or forgetting it. It’s responsible for storing information temporarily until we decide whether it’s worth keeping in long-term memory. Information such as a phone number we look up just long enough to use it, would be kept in short-term memory, but unless it’s important, won’t be transferred to long-term memory.
Why Recalling our Past is Difficult
It’s normal for us to become more forgetful as we age. Our short-term memory stores information for shorter and shorter periods of time as we grow older. Stroke and other conditions can inhibit the brain’s ability even further. This memory loss due to aging means that we have even less time to move important memories to long-term memory, so that we’re far more likely to forget the recent past than those events which happened earlier in life.
Sleep and Memory
Recent studies show that sleep is important in the recording and consolidation of memory. When we’re deprived of sleep (both REM and non-REM sleep), our ability to learn new skills and processes is impaired. Even a quick nap after learning a new task can help our brain to integrate the knowledge, but it’s critical to make sure we get a good night’s rest to prevent cognitive decline. Similar to the way our liver clears toxins from the blood, sleep is how our body clears waste and toxins from the brain. It’s been found that there are much higher levels of these toxins in the brains of those suffering from cognitive diseases like dementia.
Most people need seven or eight hours of sleep to feel fully rested. Unfortunately, as we age, sleep can be elusive, either because our bladders are weaker and less able to go through the night, or insomnia becomes a constant problem.
Get a Good Night’s Sleep for Better Memory
- Don’t drink alcohol or anything with caffeine – coffee, tea, cola or chocolate after 7 p.m.
- Do drink a glass of warm milk to prevent sleep-disturbing hunger in the middle of the night.
- Go to bed when you’re tired, not when the clock says it’s time.
- Keep your bedroom dark and quiet – no electronic devices or tv.
- Learn deep relaxation or meditation techniques to help quiet your mind.
- Let sleep overcome you. Don’t try to force it.
- If you can’t sleep when you go to bed, or if you wake up in the night and can’t get back to sleep, try reading, writing or doing a relaxing hobby until your eyes get droopy.
- If you’ve had a sleepless night, take a short nap during the day. The benefits of sleep are cumulative.
Physical Exercise for Better Brain Health
- Exercise helps to promote good sleeping patterns and overall brain health. Anything that’s good for your heart is good for your brain, so choose activities that keep your blood pumping. Aerobic exercise is particularly good for both brain and body.
- In the morning, does it take a long time for you to wake up? Try to do your exercise routine before you start your day and you’ll find it makes a big difference. In addition to clearing out the mind fog, it also primes your brain to learn and retain new information.
- Try physical activities requiring hand-eye coordination or complex motor skills, such as pickleball, table tennis, or chair volleyball. These are especially beneficial for brain building.
- During the day, especially in the afternoon, we tend to hit a slump. A short exercise break can get you past the mid-afternoon blahs…a short walk or running in place are all you need to get your brain back on track.
- If you’re spending too much time alone, try to be more social. Join a seniors’ organization, writers’ group or other club with interests in line with your own. Interesting social activities make us happier, healthier and more active.
- Maintain a good diet. Often poor food choices can cause upset stomach, heartburn or acid reflux which can ruin a good night’s sleep.
Laughter is the Best Medicine
- Don’t take yourself so seriously. Share your most embarrassing moments. They’ll make excellent scenes in your memoir.
- Share a joke with a friend. If something makes you laugh, it will make others laugh too. Laughter causes the brain to release endorphins, which promote social bonding. If you laugh together, even within the written word, your reader will want to know you better through reading your story.
- Hang out with people who laugh a lot. Their point of view and joie de vivre are contagious.