How to Improve Memory and Relish its Importance in Daily Life

by Dr Angel Adams and Dr Patricia Papciak

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.
(Hamlet Act IV, Scene V)

Rosemary herb plant

From the encyclopaedia we learn that memory is the brain’s ability to store, retain and recall information. It was originally a topic that was studied by philosophers, but in the 20th century psychologists studied memory, and it fell into the field of cognitive psychology or cognitive neuroscience. Memory can be looked at from many angles, but it is the combination of short and long-term memory that we are interested in when we are looking at our own learning progress or hoping for our children’s success.

In 1956 when Educational Psychologist Benjamin Bloom and his team were designing the learning taxonomy that has become the standard for levels of learning, he placed memorization at the lowest level. The recognition, retention and recollection of simple facts is the first process that children use when they begin to learn. For example they memorize the days of the week, the colours, the alphabet, etc.

The ability to memorise varies considerably with children. Many children have no trouble memorising lengthy poems, long pieces of musical composition or foreign languages. Kids with Asperger Syndrome often have phenomenal memory capabilities, even that appear to be photographic. However, for some children, memorising is a most difficult task. I’m sure we all remember being in school and being aware of who the smart boy or girl was who always learned the lesson before everyone else. Some of us were those smart boys and girls, some of us struggled to keep up with those clever competitors and some of us gave up before we began.

Now we have our own children. And lucky for them, much more is understood about short and long term memory and working memory that allows us to help our children feel confident and successful at school. The ability to memorize and recall information is partially a genetic quality. We may have inherited the ability to easily remember both simple data and complex ideas. Memory is also attached to the emotional part of our psyches. We feel emotional when we remember things we especially liked or things that were especially upsetting. We also attribute loss of memory sometimes to physical or emotional traumatic events. With children, sometimes feelings of low self-esteem or anxiety hinder their ability to recall what they have learned.

Adults and children with ADHD often have trouble with working memory. This is the ability to hold information long enough in one’s mind to achieve a specific goal such as keeping a phone number in your mind as you dial it. This is often why children with ADHD in the classroom find it hard to stop from raising their hands impetuously. It’s not just about impulsivity, it’s often because they are afraid that they will forget the answer in the midst of a number of different things occurring in the classroom at that moment in time. They forget to write down their homework assignments, and forget to bring their contact books to and from school.

Just like the body, the brain needs cognitive workouts to keep it fit. The brain needs care just like the body. New scientific research shows that we can improve the health and function of our brains with various mental workouts. In fact helping people improve their memories has become a big business. There are websites such as Luminosity and weekend or week-long workshops where trained practitioners work with great numbers of people to improve their ability to recall information. There is quite a degree of success with these classes as the business has become larger and more widespread. Clients are introduced to methods of helping themselves more easily retain and recall the information that is important to them. Jim Kwik is a top memory expert trainer and has methods to help us remember names of people we meet.

Young woman using a computer

Memory, like all other body functions, is also enhanced by physical exercise, certain kinds of foods, appropriate amounts of sleep and emotional well-being. We must take good care of ourselves first on all the different levels to make sure that we set the ground work for the important functions of our minds and then we are better able to be help our children. We have to “walk the walk”.

Many doctors and dietitians will tell us that fruits and vegetables are on the top of the list for vitamins to keep our bodies in the best possible form. Most important on that list for helping people with memory issues are green vegetables in the cabbage family such as brussel sprouts and broccoli and leafy green vegetables such as spinach and Swiss chard. These vegetables have nutrients called quercetin and anthocyanin that research has shown to help enhance the memory. In the fruit category, blueberries and apples are high on the list with these same nutrients as well as the antioxidants that help keep our bodies healthy. Scientists also believe that the omega3 fats impact our brain function general health, and are important for memory. Salmon is on the top of the list for omega 3 fats but herring, mackerel and walnuts are also high in these important nutrients. See our article for more information: Creating Healthy Eating Habits in Today’s Society—What’s the Bottom Line?

Research from the Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia shows that eating dark chocolate can improve memory by as much as 20%. Chocolate can be addictive as it has sugar in it, thus, be judicious when you eat it. Right before a presentation, exam or recital, a small bar of dark chocolate can give your brain a boost.

Another interesting food related product that seems to help memory is rosemary. When Shakespeare was writing Hamlet in the mid sixteenth century, it must have already been known that rosemary helped people to remember; hence Ophelia’s line, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance”. And in more recent history we have the well known song, by Simon and Garfunkel, Scarborough Fair—“Are you going to Scarborough Fair; Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Remember me to one who lives there. She once was a true love of mine.” This song was originally taken from an old traditional song, author and date unknown, but certainly it came from British origins since it is referring to the Scarborough , originally in north Yorkshire. Some studies seem to indicate that while these different herbs might all be useful to our health, rosemary is on the top of the list for memory. It can be bought as an oil and rubbed on the skin as well as sprinkled in salads as a fresh herb or used as a salt rub on meats.

Medical research teaches us that different regions of the brain are responsible for different kinds of memory. This means that accidents where brain damage is incurred may affect a person’s ability to remember things. We also know that such memory related diseases as amnesia in its various forms or dementia in its various forms are triggered in certain areas of the brain. Changes in synapses, the physiological bridges in the brain that move our minds from one thought to the next, are also partially responsible for changes in our abilities to remember.

A baby

At birth, a baby’s brain already has 100,000,000,000 cells. This is about the same number of stars in the Milky Way. A baby’s brain develops so fast that by age two a child who is developing normally has the same number of connections as an adult. By age three, a child has twice as many brain connections as an adult. Age related memory loss is natural, but there are ways to delay its progression.

As parents, we can find many kinds of games where children can enjoy the process of enhancing their memorisation skills. Some of these games come out of a toy or game boxes, some are regular shows on television and some are computer games and website. This is a link that helps kids with a ADHD or memory problems to practice their skills by gradually increasing the number of tasks they are given.

Here are some ideas for parents with children who are likely to forget rules and instructions and have a poor sense of time.

  1. Externalise time by using clocks, calendars, egg timers or any other reminders that are visible, audible and measurable.
  2. Put a timer on your child’s desk so he/she knows how much time they have to complete their homework assignment
  3. Use visual reminders or cues can that can be placed throughout the house ( e.g a sticky note that says brush your teeth on the bathroom mirror) .
  4. Involve them in games and teach them songs with repetitive lines. Songs that spell out words and games that sharpen their memory retention are effective
  5. Make up mnemonics with your children so they can make links between something new and something you already know.
  6. Use techniques like mind-mapping.

Endel Tulving, a world-renowned experimental psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist, did pioneering research on human memory. He states “My special interests are still focused on episodic memory–the kind of memory that allows us to ‘mentally travel’ in time, and thus recollect our own past experiences, events we have observed and participated in”. Episodic memory is also called autobiographical memory and is like the story teller in us. Furthermore, it allows us to update information critical to deal with meaningful changes in their world. It helps us to:

  • Recollect positive outcomes that follow hard work
  • Recollect prior recovery from difficulties & setbacks
  • Review past decisions & their impact
  • Recount shared positive experiences
  • Recall similar experiences for empathising
  • Make decisions based on intuition
  • Review to avoid making future mistakes
  • Develop future goals.
  • Realistically appraise time and difficulties

Some children see the world in a negative way or have problems recalling positive events. Parents can help by teaching them to make some positive memory books. Small photo albums are great for sharing and revisiting special moments and fun times. Parents can use photos on large walls or big monthly calendars to highlight moments together. They are great for going back to revisit the joy, not so much in the event itself but in the fact that two or more people shared the same moment, the same surprise, the intrigue or the laughter. While a child may memorise “Monday 27th of September, 2010, we walked in the park and picked up autumn leaves that had been coloured by Mr Frost (along with all the other dates). What a delight when you can take turns with your child at a later stage, sneaking in and changing the pictures and dates around. “This is the Sunday morning you dropped me off at school late and you still had curlers in your hair mum!”

“Memory, the warder of the brain.”

– William Shakespeare Macbeth Act

Parents can help their children to staple a string of photos together from a weekend family experiences. They can dangle in tattered fashion from the child’s backpack zipper. Peers are likely to make queries as your child shares her stories. With today’s tech (digital, DVD, ‘mobile phone pictures’ and so on) the possibilities are endless. Remember to keep people and emotions the focus. Parents can encourage their children to make a “Fun book” a Holiday book, a Playdate book, a Our Picnic book, etc, to remember the happy times.

Research studies indicate that chewing gum can improve short-term and long-term memory. Some researchers found this even with sugar-free gum, and therefore, it is not the sugar. Rather than chewing gum constantly throughout the day, save it for times when you need to perform well mentally. (Throw away the gum when you are giving the speech!) But when studying, reading, or taking an exam, chewing gum might give you that extra mental boost . We suggest the sugar-free variety only.

How about some good news for the older person who may worry about cognitive decline? Based on a longitudinal study of aging and Alzheimer’s disease funded by the National Institute on Aging — More than 600 nuns from 75 to 106 years of age, many of them from the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato, Minnesota, donated their brains to research upon their deaths as well as a study of autobiographical essays the nuns wrote in their 20’s. Information gathered from the research suggests that “keeping a positive outlook, regular physical and mental exercise, reading, walking, and regular scrabble games are likely to be high on the list to keep the plaque and tangles in the brain at bay caused b this disease. In summary frequent pleasurable brain and physical exercise is associated with improvements in memory.

Memory in animals has always been a curiosity for people and scientists. We all love our dogs or cats that do things which make us feel that they know us and remember us. And we know stories such as the recent movie, Hachi which was based on a true story. When his master dies unexpectedly, Hachi goes to the train station every day until his death, almost ten years later, to wait for his master. These kinds of stories are very emotional, and we see the loyalty of animals. But at present scientists still have not come to any conclusions that animals have what we call episodic memory. They certainly can learn and all of evolutionary science tells us they can adapt, but there is no indication that they can travel in their minds back in time to make decisions for the future based on remembering what has happened in the past.

An interesting article about scientist Nicola Clayton from Cambridge doing studies with scrub jays and their abilities to hide food can be found in National Geographic (August, 2003) Some scientists believe that animals may have a kind of developed memory that has different qualities than the kind of memory humans have, but present data does not indicate exactly what that entails. For example, the sea lion which can remember letters and numbers years ago! This is a skill that experts think helps sea lions recognise different types of prey that only appear at certain times during the year.

In conclusion, We need to take great care of this precious capability of human memory , both ours and our children’s. There are cases, of course, where memory is not pleasant and can overwhelm us, such as trauma. However, memory for the most part, enhances our lives. Most people find great pleasure in reminiscing about old times, and children usually love to hear stories about their childhood antics. Isn’t it delightful that we we can reflect deeply on the amazing and wonderful experiences we have? We encourage you to take time to love and be grateful for what you experience in your everyday life. You can see how your mindful experiencing self, and the story teller ( your remembering self), can merge into into an interconnected self that can bring great joy into your life.

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