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Brain gymnastics: advice for exercising your memory

Brain gymnastics: advice for exercising your memory

Forgetting your keys and that appointment with the doctor; you’ll have experienced such situations on more than one occasion. Don’t worry though, there are ways of improving your memory, from word games to taking care of what you eat. Science is going even further, designing implants to facilitate the retrieval of memories.

Would you be capable of memorising a pack of cards by looking at it just once? Could you do it in five minutes? The memory athlete and captain of the Swedish national memory team, Idriz Zogaj, assured us in his TEDxGothenburg conference that anyone would be able to do it, and that no one should have to be defeated by a pack of cards. It’s enough to work on a series of techniques. However, training your memory will not only serve you by turning you into an admirable person. It will also help you to maintain an agile mind on a day-to-day basis, and by doing so avoid those daily episodes of absent-mindedness, such as forgetting to make an important phone call, or not remembering to turn up to a doctor’s appointment. Of course, in order to have a prodigious memory, first of all you need to understand how it works and what value lies in looking after it.

“Memorising is the ability to store a new piece of information. A series of processes occur in our brains that enable us to remember and retrieve the information that we have learned. Memory does not sit in one place; rather it involves many cerebral areas. It is a complex system of interconnected neurones”, explains Montse Alegret, head of neuropsychology at the Fundació Ace. “We can learn in different ways. For example, through repetition or by relating new concepts to others that we already know”, she adds. In other words, it is the ability to acquire, store and reproduce information. Depending on the organisation and planning of the information that we store, our brains will give one response or another. If someone is going to go to Andorra, they will take winter clothing. They know that it is a cold region, and their brain will tell them that they should wrap up warm.

But is it possible to repair memory lapses, both in patients with dementia and in any other healthy person? Biomedicine has spent decades working on this, and there are numerous research projects being carried out on the subject. Some discuss the possibility of improving the expression of neurone genes. For instance, the neuroscientific research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Li-Huei Tsai, has developed inhibitors that enable mice with brain damage to recover lost memories. Other research projects are focused on treating people with Alzheimer’s, such as the one at the University of John Hopkins in the USA that has created a kind of pacemaker for the brain and has carried out a number of pilot tests that make use of electrical stimulation to activate learning and memory. DARPA, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has technology that works along similar lines. They have created an implant that may be able to improve brain function and could help people who suffer memory loss as a result of brain damage.

What can I do to avoid being so scatter brained?

You don’t need to wait for science to evolve, or suffer an illness in order to start exercising your memory. “In general, we all start from a ‘normal’ point and can be more highly skilled with one kind of memory or another. Those who have good visual memory will be better at remembering images, whilst those who have a better verbal memory will be more adept when it comes to remembering telephone numbers or addresses. In any case, we will always be better at remembering those things to which we have paid more attention”, points out Liliana Vargas, geriatrician and neurologist at the Fundació Ace.

Many of the tricks for maintaining an agile mind are based on mnemonics that use word play, for example, to remember complex information. In fact, memory athletes like Zogaj recognise that they use these tricks during their training and at competitions. The majority are based on three points to which the brain responds very well:

  • Images. Putting an image together with a piece of information will help us to better store that information. For instance, the more detailed a scene is, the easier it will be to remember it. Our brains will reproduce all the information in “photographs”.
  • Associations. When trying to assimilate new information, we will remember it better if we relate it to something that we have already learned in the past, or if we link it to something in our lives. For example, if we need to memorise a date, we can think about something that happened that year in our lives.
  • Emotions. This is about giving free reign to creativity and recreating the information via emotional links. This makes sense, because memory makes itself permeable to emotions. In relevant situations, chemical substances are released. These are known as neuromodulators, and they promote the storage of memories. Our brains are better at storing the most intense moments, given that when they receive more stimuli they are more alert.

As well as using these formulae, there is also a series of routines that will help you to avoid day-to-day memory lapses. Alegret comments that you should not be alarmed by these benign episodes of forgetfulness, which mean that from time to time you can’t remember where you have left something; “They happen no matter what your age. You only need to worry if they begin to happen more often than normal”.

  • Keep your mind active. It is advisable to dedicate leisure time to carrying out an activity that you don’t tend to do habitually. “If you are retired and you always used to work in something technical, you should get involved in a more literary occupation, like learning a language. In this way you will exercise a part of the brain that you have never stimulated. In general, people who have had more intellectual jobs show better results in memory in the long term”, Vargas indicates.
  • Do sport. One of the ways to keep our memories alive is to be happy. Physical exercise serves to release tension. When a person is relaxed, they are better and storing and processing information.
  • Take care of what you eat. A good diet influences the health of your mind. The Prevention with a Mediterranean diet study, carried out by the University of Navarra, which publications such as the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry have discussed, proved that the Mediterranean diet helps to avoid mental deterioration during ageing, thanks to the variety of foods that it comprises.
  • Train using exercises on apps. These are an offshoot of the strategies that professionals employ to work with people who have memory problems. The best are those that have been created by designers in conjunction with scientists, such as Lumosity. This is one of the most downloaded apps for IOS and Android, and 60 million people in 182 countries use it. It offers 25 cognitive games to train your memory.

“Society is increasingly aware of the importance of looking after the mind. It is no longer a taboo subject to say that someone has a problem with their memory. With time, it has been shown that it is possible to train it by stimulating different cognitive areas, which is something that serves us in our day-to-day lives and helps us to age healthily”, assures Vargas. Who knows, perhaps these exercises will make you catch the bug, just like what happened to Zogaj in his day, and you’ll end up winning the next World Memory Championships. But in reality this is not the most important thing, our goal should be to maintain a lively memory. At the end of the day, we live off our memories.

Por Alba Casilda