Our brains suddenly stop working when we have something important to Remember. Can't recall what your boss told you to do this morning? Completely forgot what you're supposed to be doing next? Forgot to take out the garbage! Again? Can't remember the name of that gorgeous guy you met five minutes ago...
Everyone encounters brief memory lapses sometimes - those testing situations as frustrating as they are annoying. And we put it down simply as part of the ageing process. Researchers at the University of Florida in Gainesville say it's time to forget that idea. In fact, age doesn't have everything to do with your brain becoming a sieve. Your frenetic lifestyle and sheer callousness might be bigger offenders.
Why does this happen?
The brain is like a sophisticated computer. If you overload it with tons of information, it is bound to malfunction and crash. In our brain, memories are sorted in the hippocampus, which acts as a gatekeeper, deciding which data needs to become a long-term memory. Important memories are filed away in the cerebral cortex (the outer layer of the brain) and less important thoughts are filed into working memory to be used and discarded.
Researchers believe that sometimes memories fail because the information never gets properly encoded by the hippocampus or isn't filed properly. And at times the breakdown comes while retrieving the memory. According to a number of recent books and studies, a regular assessment - of all that one has 'downloaded' into one's system - and necessary preemptive actions are needed to help preserve memory.
In 'The Memory Solution', Julian Whitaker (MD), writes that "Memory decline is often attributed to ageing when it shouldn't be. The real problem is under- stimulation and confining habits. Like muscles that get soft and shrink if you stop working out, the brain needs stimulation to stay strong and healthy." He adds that the brain is able to store an almost infinite amount of new information. "It just depends on how much you stimulate it."
Scientists at Princeton University created a strain of smarter mice by inserting a gene that boosts the activity of brain cells. This has raised the possibility that genetic engineers may - someday - be able to help humans learn and remember faster. But all that is far off. So is there anything we can do in the meantime to boost our brainpower? The answer is yes.
"Research shows that people can improve their memory performance by as much as 50 per cent if they work at it, challenge it and use the right strategies. You need to use some tricks to help your brain retain and sort all the miscellaneous data it gets bombarded with every day. With a little practice, you'll be able to retrieve exactly the information you want, when you need it", says Dr O C Kashyap, psychologist at VIMHANS, New Delhi.
Here, based on expert advice, are some practical techniques to jog your brain, help flex the mental muscle and boost brainpower.
"Feed your brain right", says nutritionist Ishi Khosla. "A diet rich in fruits and vegetables, chockfull of antioxidants and nutrients does more than just keep your heart healthy, it protects your brain cells too." Dr Shikha Sharma of Clinique d'Rejuvenation says: "Make mono-unsaturated fatty acids (present in vegetable oils, particularly extra virgin olive oil) a major part of your diet. These help maintain brain membranes and protect against age-related cognitive decline."
Dr Sharma adds, "For ironing out memory problems, eat more iron-rich foods, (extra-lean red meat, cooked dried beans and peas, dark green leafy vegetables and dried apricots) as iron helps carry oxygen to the tissues, including the brain. When iron levels drop, tissues are starved for oxygen, resulting in fatigue, and memory loss."
About pills and herbs as memory enhancers, Dr. Sharma says that despite the popularity of ginkgo bilboa - the herb that generates over US $240 million in annual sales worldwide - there's no solid evidence that it helps healthy people concentrate or remember more clearly. Also, because ginkgo thins the blood, some scientists are concerned that taking too much of it could prolong bleeding, or even cause bleeding in the brain.
"People say, 'use it or lose it' about the body. The same advice goes for the brain. In fact, more and more research shows that a combination of mental and physical activities can protect your memory and help keep you alert," says Dr. Kashyap.
What is the connection between aerobic fitness and the brain? "Exercise keeps the heart strong and blood vessels open, which in turn ensures that brain cells get all the nutrients they need for peak performance. That is critically important to brain function. Besides, a vigorous workout triggers parts of the brain related to movement and balance, which can keep neuron connections strong", explains Dr. Sharma. So lace up your walking shoes to improve your alertness and memory.
Research also suggests that mental gymnastics is as important as physical workouts to preserve brainpower. Robert Goldman, MD, author of 'Brain Fitness', thinks that tackling unfamiliar tasks or new ways of thinking can help develop underused brain connections. Some of his suggestions: Take up word games like crossword puzzles and acrostics. Memorize favorite poems or famous passages. Read challenging books or articles that encourage you to expand your interests.
In their book, 'Keep Your Brain Alive', Lawrence Katz (Ph.D), and Manning Rubin have developed a series of brain-pumping exercises called neurobics, designed to keep you mentally fit for life.
If you're right-handed, try brushing your teeth or writing your grocery list with your left hand.
A study in the July 1998 issue of Nature Neuroscience reported that teaching a skill repetitively strengthens horizontal connections in the brain's cortex, where the circuitry of long-term memory operates. Another study in the November 1999 issue of the Journal of Gerontology found that repetition and note-taking boost memory.
An innovative program on similar lines, called Memory 101, a new service of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre (a teaching hospital affiliated to Harvard Medical School) is now gaining attention all over the world. There, researchers custom-make solutions to maximize memory for people of all ages. Their key tool? An 8-by-10 memory notebook in which clients can write everything they need to do each day, the amount of time it will take, and even post pictures and details about friends and grandchildren.
Don't skimp on sleep. Experiments have shown that lack of sleep can seriously affect one's memory and the ability to recall and analyze information. So get your full quota of sleep. To maximize the advantages of sleep, Dr Kashyap recommends a minimum of eight hours every night.
"Being forgetful is a malady but not usually a cause for concern. What is of concern, though, is that people are often too busy to keep their memory healthy and sharp. It is important to jog our brains and keep them fit, and this can be easily done." These are Dr Kashyap's last words on the matter.
Image (c) Gettyimages.com