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How Your Brain Stores Trivial Memories, Just in Case

Trivial Memories

Story at-a-glance -

  • Your memories are not fixed; they can be weakened or strengthened by later events
  • Emotional experiences may strengthen or preserve memories of things that seem mundane at the time, and help you recall them at a later date

By Dr. Mercola

The human brain, though widely studied, is still an area of great mystery. In general, the ability to recall a memory gets worse with time, especially if the information was trivial.

Yet, new research shows that even trivial memories may be stored “just in case,” and may be pulled up for later use. The trigger for this memory effect, called retroactive consolidation, is emotion – and may help explain why people are suddenly able to remember minor, mundane details of traumatic events or crime scenes.

Emotions May Turn Weak Memories into Stable, Long-Term Memories

Research is increasingly showing that your memories are not fixed. Rather, they can be weakened or strengthened by later events. In a study conducted at New York University, participants watched photos of objects (tools or animals) and categorized each accordingly.

Next, they viewed similar photos and received a mild shock about half the time.

When asked to recall the photos immediately after, the shock seemed to make little difference. But when asked to recall the photos six hours or one day later, participants remembered more of the “shocked” objects.1

The study’s lead author told the New York Times:2

The emotional experience of the shocks strengthened or preserved the memories of things that, at the time they were encoded, seemed mundane … At least when it’s tested hours or a day later.”

The research provides new evidence that seemingly inconsequential memories can later be “credited as relevant, and therefore selectively remembered, if conceptually related information acquires salience in the future.”3 But as is common with matters of the brain, there are still many unanswered questions.

Researchers are uncertain which memories receive an emotional “flag,” how far back in time those memories can be retrieved or whether certain aspects of a memory are also suppressed, for instance. Professor of psychology Lila Davachi told the Telegraph:4

"These new findings highlight the highly adaptive nature of our memory system and suggest that our memories not only can travel back in time to retrieve events from the past, but that it can update past memories with important new information or details."

Aging May Influence Memory Problems via a Breakdown in Your Blood-Brain Barrier

Your blood-brain barrier, the barrier that keeps toxins and pathogens out of your brain where they don't belong, breaks down with age, according to research published in Neuron.5 The study used high-resolution MRI scans, which showed the blood-brain barrier became increasingly “leaky” with age.

The blood-brain barrier breakdown that occurred during normal aging began in the hippocampus, a brain region critical for learning and memory, and that is known to be affected early in Alzheimer’s disease.

The data suggests that this breakdown in the blood-brain barrier appears to be an “early event” in the aging human brain and may contribute to cognitive impairment.

Living in the North Also Raises Your Dementia Risk

Researchers from Edinburgh University revealed significant geographical variation in dementia rates, with those living in Northern regions having an increased risk.

In Sweden, for instance, twins living in the north were two to three times more likely to develop dementia than those living in the south. Similar results were found for adults living in Scotland. The study’s lead author noted:6

“If this geographical variation in dementia risk is the result of one or more environmental risk factors, and if these could be improved in the whole population, our findings suggest that it might be possible to halve dementia rates."

People living in northern climates are more likely to be deficient in vitamin D, which is essential for healthy brain function. Seniors with severe vitamin D deficiency may raise their risk of dementia by 125 percent.7

Vitamin D has also been shown to improve a number of brain disorders, including dementia in its most severe form, Alzheimer’s disease.8

A wide variety of brain tissue contains vitamin D receptors, and when they’re activated by vitamin D, it facilitates nerve growth in your brain. Researchers also believe that optimal vitamin D levels boosts levels of important brain chemicals, and protect brain cells by increasing the effectiveness of glial cells in nursing damaged neurons back to health.

Vitamin D may also exert some of its beneficial effects on your brain through its anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties, which are well established. If you’re interested in protecting your brain and memory health, be sure your vitamin D levels are not only adequate but optimized.

Simple Ways to Improve Your Memory and Brain Health

The notion of losing your mental capacity evokes twice as much fear among Americans as losing physical ability, and 60 percent of US adults say they are very or somewhat worried about memory loss.9

Fortunately, this is one facet of aging that you can do something about. A healthy lifestyle will support your brain health and even encourage your brain to grow new neurons, a process known as neurogenesis or neuroplasticity.

Your brain's hippocampus, i.e. the memory center, is especially able to grow new cells and it's now known that your hippocampus regenerates throughout your entire lifetime (even into your 90s), provided you give it the tools to do so. Many of the most powerful interventions for memory are also the simplest.

Among adults, for instance, a mid-day nap has been found to dramatically boost and restore brainpower.10 Proper sleep at night is important too, since certain forms of long-term potentiation, a neural process associated with the laying down of learning and memory, can be elicited in sleep, suggesting synaptic connections are strengthened while you slumber.

Addressing emotional stress is equally important. Higher levels of stress hormones can speed up short-term memory loss in older adults.11 Previous research has also linked chronic stress with working memory impairment,12 so be sure you have a tool for stress management, such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT).

It's an energy psychology tool that can help reprogram your body's reactions to everyday stress, thereby reducing your chances of developing adverse health effects. Exercise also encourages your brain to work at optimum capacity by stimulating nerve cells to multiply, strengthening their interconnections, and protecting them from damage.

Individuals who engaged in exercise have been found to grow and expand the brain's memory center 1 percent to 2 percent per year, where typically that center would have continued to decline in size. To get the most out of your workouts, I recommend a comprehensive program that includes high-intensity interval exercise, strength training, stretching, and core work, along with regular movement (aim for at least 7,000 steps a day).

As noted by Forbes:13 “Neurologists say the single most effective way to boost memory is through regular physical exercise.”

What You Eat Is Crucial for Your Memory

The foods you eat – and don't eat – play a crucial role in your memory. Fresh vegetables are essential, as are healthy fats and avoiding sugar and grain carbohydrates. You can find detailed information about nine foods for brainpower here. For instance, curry, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, and walnuts contain antioxidants and other compounds that protect your brain health and may even stimulate the production of new brain cells. Increasing your animal-based omega-3 fat intake and reducing consumption of damaged omega-6 fats (think processed vegetable oils) in order to balance your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is also important.

I prefer krill oil to fish oil, as krill oil also contains astaxanthin, which not only protects the omega-3 fats from oxidation but also is particularly important to support brain health. Coconut oil is another healthy fat for brain function. According to research by Dr. Mary Newport, just over two tablespoons of coconut oil (about 35 ml or 7 level teaspoons) would supply you with the equivalent of 20 grams of medium-chain triglycerides (MCT), which is indicated as either a preventative measure against degenerative neurological diseases or as a treatment for an already established case.

In addition, there is a close connection between abnormal gut flora and abnormal brain development, and just as you have neurons in your brain, you also have neurons in your gut -- including neurons that produce neurotransmitters like serotonin, which is also found in your brain and is linked to mood.

Along with avoiding sugar, one of the best ways to support gut health is to consume beneficial bacteria. You can use a probiotic supplement for this, but I'm particularly fond of using fermented vegetables, because they can deliver extraordinarily high levels of beneficial bacteria.

7 Quick Tricks to Improve Your Memory

There may be times when you’re looking for a quick way to remember a piece of information or a new skill. The tips that follow, from Forbes,14 are well worth trying to boost your ability to recall information accurately and quickly.

1. Convert the Information into a Picture

Data can be abstract, so forming a picture helps your brain consolidate it. For example, if you park in row D3 of a parking garage, imagine 3 dolphins swimming.

2. Imagine a “Memory Palace”

A memory palace is a place in your mind where you assign pieces of information. Your palace may even have different rooms that you imagine yourself walking through when you need to recall something.

3. Create a Story

Your brain has an easier time remember stories than fragments of data, so try to connect information and put it into a story whenever possible.

4. Do Something Out of the Ordinary

If you have trouble remembering where you put your keys, jump in the air or shout “yeehaw” next time you put them down. When you remember doing this wacky behavior, you’ll probably also remember where you put your keys.

5. Connect Your Senses

If you’re trying to remember a name, involve multiple senses, such as visualization. For an “Edward” with large eyebrows, you might associate the “E” in Edward with the “E” in eyebrows.

6. Make a Point to Remember

Rather than just letting the data go in one ear and out the other, make an effort to commit to memory. You might repeat it out loud. Ask for the data to be repeated or use it in conversation to help you remember.

7. Take Your Time to Memorize Large Amounts

If you’re giving a presentation that requires tapping your memory for a large amount of data, review the data gradually over time instead of cramming for it. Gradual memorization will help the data to be stored in your cortex, which is a more protected, longer-term area of your brain.