-- Jodi Picoult, Vanishing Acts
One of the most fascinating and sometimes elusive functions of our computer-like brains is memory. The ability to store and recall information, skills and events is affected by many factors including age, emotions, health and even the mood you were in at the time.
Memories are stored in specific areas of the brain: How to do things is in the cerebellum, facts and events are in the cerebral cortex. We can't remember everything that we experience, nor would we want to. Just think what that overload would do -- so much trivia clogging up the works! We learn to filter out what isn't really important in the long run, and the brain encodes only small bits of information, even about events that were important to us at the time.
When we recall and reconstruct a memory, chances are it will be distorted in some way. The small piece that we have recorded is assisted by the imagination, which adds or subtracts details based on previous similar experiences and numerous other factors. The memory further evolves according to subsequent life experiences and importance. Sometimes it can even be completely false, told to us by someone, or created by identifying very strongly with movies or books. Eyewitnesses to crimes are often mistaken in their recollections.
In the book Improving Your Memory by Fogler and Stern, four general strategies are given to help you be able to recall information easier: Associate what you want to remember with what you already know; visualize a picture of what you want to remember; actively observe and think about what you'll want to remember; and elaborate on the details of the information you want to be able to remember.
Other strategies they give are to write things down, use sound to trigger your memory or change something in your environment so that it jogs the memory. You can give yourself verbal or mental instructions about what you want to remember, devise a story that will connect what you want to remember or go through the alphabet until you connect to the information.
Alzheimer's has been getting a lot of press lately. Memory changes do accur with age, but serious memory loss is not a natural part of the aging process. If you think your memory is bad, it's probably not serious -- but if others are noticing it, there might be cause for concern.
CONTACT JANET BERG to suggest topics for this column: info(at)janetberg.com.