As we age, our memory declines. It’s an ingrained assumption for many of us, but according to neuroscientist Dr Richard Restak, a neurologist and clinical professor at the George Washington Hospital University School of Medicine and Health in the US, the decline is not inevitable.
The author of over 20 books on the mind, Dr. Restak has decades of experience helping patients with memory issues. The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind, Dr. Restak’s latest book, includes tools such as mental exercises, sleep patterns, and diet that can help boost memory.
Yet Dr. Restak ventures beyond this familiar territory, considering all facets of memory – how memory relates to creative thinking, the impact of technology on memory, how memory shapes the identify. “The purpose of the book is to overcome everyday memory problems,” Dr. Restak said.
Especially working memory, which sits between immediate recall and long-term memory, and is linked to intelligence, concentration, and achievement. According to Dr. Restak, this is the most critical type of memory and exercises to strengthen it should be practiced daily. But boosting all memory capabilities, he added, is key to avoiding later memory problems.
Memory decline is not inevitable with aging, Dr. Restak argues in the book. Instead, he points to 10 “sins,” or “stumbling blocks that can lead to lost or distorted memories.” Seven were first described by psychologist and memory specialist Daniel Lawrence Schacter – “sins of omission”, such as distraction, and “sins of commission”, such as distorted memories. To these, Restak added three: technological distortion, technological distraction and depression.
Ultimately, “we are what we can remember,” he said. Here are some of Dr. Restak’s tips for developing and maintaining a healthy memory.
Pay more attention
Some memory lapses are actually attention problems, not memory problems. For example, if you forgot the name of someone you met at a cocktail party, it may be because you were talking to several people at the time and didn’t pay attention to it. pay attention when you heard it.
“Inattention is the number one cause of memory impairment,” Dr. Restak said. “It means you did not encode the memory correctly.”
One way to pay attention when learning new information, such as a name, is to visualize the word. Having a picture associated with the word, Dr. Restak said, can improve recall. For example, he recently had to memorize the name of a doctor, Dr. King, (an easy example, he admitted). So he imagined a male doctor “in a white coat with a crown on his head and a scepter instead of a stethoscope in his hand”.
Find regular daily memory challenges
There are many memory exercises that you can incorporate into everyday life. Dr. Restak suggested composing a shopping list and memorizing it. When you get to the store, don’t automatically pull out your list (or your phone) – rather grab everything based on your memory.
“Try to see the items in your mind,” he said, and only check the list at the end if necessary. If you’re not going to the store, try memorizing a recipe. He added that frequent baking is actually a great way to improve working memory.
Once in a while, get in the car without turning on your GPS and try to navigate the streets from memory. A small 2020 study suggested that people who used GPS more frequently over time had more pronounced cognitive decline in spatial memory three years later.
To play games
Games like bridge and chess are great for memory, but it’s also a simpler game, Dr. Restak said. For example, Dr. Restak’s “favorite working memory game” is 20 Questions – in which one group (or one person) thinks of a person, place, or object, and the other person, the questioner, asks 20 questions with a yes or no answer. Because to succeed, he says, the questioner must remember all the previous answers in order to guess the correct answer.
Another of Dr. Restak’s proven memory exercises simply requires a pen and paper or an audio recorder. First, remember all of the American presidents, starting with Joe Biden and going all the way back to, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt, writing them down or recording them. Then do the same, from FDR to Biden. Then nominate only Democratic presidents, and only Republican presidents. Finally, name them in alphabetical order.
If you prefer, try it with players from your favorite sports team or your favorite authors. The goal is to engage your working memory, “to hold information and move it through your mind,” Dr. Restak wrote.
Read more novels
According to Dr. Restak, one of the first indicators of memory problems is the abandonment of fiction. “People, when they start having memory difficulties, tend to switch to reading non-fiction,” he said.
In his decades of treating patients, Dr. Restak has noticed that fiction requires active engagement with the text, starting at the beginning and working through to the end. “You have to remember what the character did on page three by the time you get to page 11,” he said.
Beware of technology
Of Dr. Restak’s three new memory sins, two are associated with technology.
First, there is what he calls “technological distortion”. Storing everything on your phone means “you don’t to know that,” Dr. Restak said, which can erode our own mental abilities. “Why bother focusing, concentrating and straining to visualize something when a cell phone camera can do all the work for you?” he wrote.
The second way our relationship with technology is detrimental to memory is that it often distracts our attention from the task at hand. “The biggest obstacle to memory these days is distraction,” Dr. Restak wrote. As many of these tools have been designed with the intention of creating addiction in the person using them, and as a result, we often get distracted by them. Today, people can check their emails while streaming Netflix, chatting with a friend, or walking down the street. All of this hinders our ability to focus on the present moment, which is essential for encoding memories.
Work with a mental health professional if you need
Your mood plays a big role in what you remember or don’t remember.
Depression, for example, can greatly diminish memory. Among “people who are referred to neurologists for memory problems, one of the leading causes is depression,” Dr. Restak said.
Your emotional state affects the type of memories you remember. The hippocampus (or “memory input center,” according to Dr. Restak) and the amygdala (the part of the brain that handles emotions and emotional behavior) are linked. So, “when you’re in a bad mood or depressed, you tend to remember sad things,” Dr. Restak said. Treatment of depression – chemically or with psychotherapy – also often restores memory.
Determine if there is cause for concern
Throughout his career, Dr. Restak has been asked by dozens of patients about how to improve their memory. But not all memory lapses are problematic. For example, not remembering where you parked your car in a crowded parking lot is quite normal. However, forgetting how you got to the parking lot in the first place indicates potential memory issues.
There’s no simple solution for what should be of concern, Restak said. Much depends on the context. For example, it is normal to forget the room number of your hotel, but not the address of your apartment. If you are worried, it is best to consult a medical expert. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times