How does your memory work?
9:00am Saturday 28th September 2013 in News
MEMORIES can be wonderful, but they can also be very strange.
Why, for example, do you find yourself walking down the street and, out of nowhere, you think of a teacher from primary school?
Why do you smell freshly cut grass, and you're suddenly transported back to being a child, playing in the garden on hazy summer nights?
Then there are those agonising moments in exams or work meetings, when facts you once learned completely vanish, or when you bump into someone at a party but, however hard you try and however much you nod along, you can't recall their name.
Everyone knows what these nostalgic and frustrating moments feel like, and everyone knows they're related to our memory, but how, and why, do our memories actually work?
"Basically, memory is very sensory," explains Steve Tromans, of London-based Neuro-Linguistics Planning clinic, Just Be Well (www.justbewell.com).
The part of the brain responsible for storing memories responds instinctively to smell, sight, noise and even touch, so if we sniff, see or hear something we might have experienced at an earlier time, we automatically link the two and remember that former experience.
"Sometimes, even without realising it, you see something and your brain responds to it," Tromans adds.
It could be a painting in a corner of a room that has the same colours as your teenage bedroom wall, prompting a memory of growing up.
"Or perhaps when a child was young, its father always raised his left eyebrow before telling him off; as it gets older, it'll instinctively link someone raising their left eyebrow with their father being angry and will re-live the same feeling of anxiety that went with it."
This link between memory and emotional state is also the reason we remember certain things in our lives, and not others.
"Memory's very dependent on your emotional state," explains Tromans.
"If you were experiencing heightened emotions at a certain point, you'll remember that instead of a time you were very calm or distracted."
This explains why you recall a birthday meal from six years ago, but not what you had for dinner last Thursday - you were (hopefully) happy at your birthday, whereas on an average week-day evening you probably experienced no extreme emotions.
This doesn't mean memories can't change over time, though this isn't really related to the 'rose-tinted spectacles' people often blame.
"Each time we remember something, it'll become slightly altered by the emotional state we're in at that specific time," Tromans says.
While the smell of grass may be what prompts you to remember playing in the garden, if you smell it when you're in a rush to get somewhere, the next time you remember playing in the garden, you'll remember it being more active than it probably was.
The fact memory is so based on your feelings is something you can use to your advantage if you're trying to learn something new, like a language. Before you start your class, take a deep breath and make sure you're calm. Then, when you try to recall something from the lesson at a later date, by once again ensuring you're in a calm state, you'll find remembering it much easier.
This works for those ever-annoying moments when you're about to say something, then you're interrupted and the flow of thought completely crumbles.
"Stress scrambles memory," Tromans explains. "If you relax, things will come back to you."
The power of memories is not always about remembering though - strange as that may seem; memories can also help you forget bad experiences or bad habits.
"You can't delete things, but you can train yourself to see yourself apart from them," explains Tromans.
For example, if you have a fear of public speaking, instead of seeing yourself 'in' a memory where you spoke in front of people and it went wrong, visualise yourself standing far away from that memory.
"It's like seeing something on the cinema screen or on a small iPod screen - which is more scary? The big screen, of course. In the same way, view something in your past on a smaller, more distant scale, and it'll seem less frightening," Tromans adds.
"You'll realise what matters is not where you came from, but where you're going in the future."
:: Top tips to improve your memory Cognitive neuroscientist and psychologist Dr Lynda Shaw (www.drlyndashaw.com) suggests some simple tricks to help bolster your memory.
1. Do more than one thing at once
As we get older, our brains becomes less efficient at multi-tasking. Try combining activities like jogging while listening to an audiobook, or cooking while listening to the radio, and force your brain to do two things at once.
2. Learn new words
When you pick a new word to add to your vocabulary, also investigate their linguistic origins. Recalling difficult words is easier if you understand their background and context.
3. Don't just look; see
Next time you leave a room, try to remember the exact location of certain items in it. This trains your brain to focus on your surroundings, and instead of just glancing at things, you'll really see what's in front of you.
4. Get a map
Sat-navs are unavoidable nowadays, but relying on something else to guide you means you're losing a key brain skill. Using a map exercises the part of the brain responsible for understanding spatial relationships.
5. Use your non-dominant hand
If you're right-handed, use your left hand (and vice versa) for everyday tasks like brushing your teeth. This stimulates interaction between the two hemispheres of the brain, creating new neural pathways.
6. Try 'neurobics'
Getting dressed with your eyes shut or listening to music while smelling flowers means you combine your senses in a different way and make your brain work harder.
7. Mentally rotate
When using tools or playing a board game, our brains 'mentally rotate', which means moving things around in your head. To practice, picture an arrow pointing right, then turn it around so it points left.
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