Did you know that the human brain shrinks once a person hits the mid-30s to 40s? It’s still gradual at this point; however, the shrinkage seems to hasten by the age of 60.
That size reduction, in turn, often comes with a decrease in the power of the human memory.
Still, that doesn’t mean everyone will lose a good chunk of their memories. At the same time, there’s no guarantee that people can retain all the things they know and learned over the years.
Fortunately, some habits and strategies might help you maintain your mental edge. It all starts with the knowledge of how your brain works to create memories.
So, in this guide, we’ll cover the basics of how memories form in your brain. We’ll throw in a few tips that can help keep your gray and white matter healthy, too, so be sure to read on.
The Three Primary Stages of Human Memory Processing
The human memory is a combination of acquired, stored, retained, and retrieved information. Making memories, in turn, involves three stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Without one of these phases, the brain won’t make memories, or it may forget what and how to recall.
Encoding is the first step taken by the brain to create a memory. It involves one or more basic senses, such as hearing, sight, smell, taste, or touch. Through these senses, your brain picks up details of what you’re experiencing.
For example, let’s say you went to the Canadian Horseshoe Falls for the first time. As you’re gazing in awe at the 2,200-feet wide falls, your brain forms memories of how massive the falls are. It does so through your visual system (sense of sight).
At the same time, your brain is processing the deafening sound of the water crashing onto the basin below. In this case, it’s your auditory system (sense of hearing) that captures this detail of your trip.
Your tactile system (sense of touch) may also play a part in your memories, such as if the water has left you soaking wet. Your brain will pick up on this experience, forming part of your memory of the falls.
All the bits of information your brain has encoded then go into different areas of the brain. At this point, the neurons, the brain’s nerve cells, come into play. Scientists estimate that there are about 86 billion neurons in the brain.
You can think of neurons as messengers, passing information to each other. For example, they send chemical signals and electrical impulses to the brain. They also transmit details to other parts of the nervous system.
Part of what your neurons “talk” about with each other is the things you perceive. They then use these perceptions to form either temporary or long-lasting connections.
Temporary memories are those your brain regards as necessary only in the short term.
Let’s go back to your trip to Canada, where the staff at the hotel you stayed at told you breakfast was ready at 7 AM. They also said you could break your fast at the restaurant on the second floor of the building. Your brain may think of these details as temporary since you won’t need to recall them forever.
As for long-lasting connections, these are the memories you hold on to for days, years, or even life.
For example, suppose you were with a special someone during your trip to Canada. As such, your brain may consider your moments with that person worthy of long-term storage. So, your neurons process these details and then turn them into long-term memories.
Retrieval is the process of recalling stored information, such as memorable events. To do this, the brain “takes a trip” down the nerve pathways created during the formation of a memory.
Despite the brain’s power, you may not recall all details in the exact way they happened, though. That’s because, according to some scientists, the present affects your recollection. Your emotions may affect how you remember that event, resulting in a bias.
What and Why Memory Loss Happens
As incredible as the brain is, it can sometimes fail to save information. A common reason is overworking the brain, also known as information overload. If you force the brain to learn and store too much info in one go, it can cause your working memory to exceed its limit.
Memories can also interfere with each other, making it hard to retrieve them. This can occur when you try to remember something, and it’s similar to another memory you have.
Some people also actively try to forget things. Some researchers say this can occur by down-prioritizing unwanted memories. As you can imagine, this often has an association with trauma or negative experiences.
Finally, there’s the loss of memory that occurs due to the brain failing to retrieve stored data. This usually has to do with health conditions affecting the brain. Amnesia and dementia are some examples.
Is It Possible to Prevent Memory Loss?
Scientists have yet to answer that question because, as of now, there’s no guaranteed way yet. However, experts are also learning more about the brain and its memory-making processes. So, little by little, researchers are finding ways that may help keep the brain in good health.
With that said, here are some of the things you can do that may help keep your memory intact.
Don’t Underestimate the Power of Sleep
Sleep is essential to good health; for one, it helps heal and repair heart and blood vessels. On the other hand, lack of sleep heightens a person’s risk of heart and kidney diseases. It also seems to play a role in high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and stroke.
What’s more, experts believe it’s during sleep that long-term memory processing occurs. They think it’s at this time that the hippocampus replays the day’s events for the neocortex. The neocortex then analyzes and processes the memories for long-term storage and recall.
As such, sleep deficiency may hurt your ability to remember things in the long run. This may also help explain why late-night cramming for tests rarely works. On the contrary, it usually results in low test scores.
With that said, tuck yourself in bed earlier starting tonight so that you can get at least eight hours of sleep. This way, you can let your brain do its job, and at the same time, allow it to rest and reset.
Listen or Dance to Music
Some researchers believe that the brain has a particular spot reserved for music. They call this the musical memory area (MMA).
According to them, the MMA isn’t part of the hippocampus nor the temporal lobe. By contrast, these two are the areas affected by amnesia or dementia, such as Alzheimer’s.
That may be why people with memory disorders respond to music they know.
That may also help explain why music is often a part of memory care for Alzheimer’s, dementia, or amnesia. Listening or dancing to music may be therapeutic for people with memory problems. At the very least, it can be entertaining for them and may even be an excellent way to work out.
Other researchers also believe that music can help with memory retrieval. Some say that this has to do with the rhythmic pulses of music. They also think it can help stabilize brain disorientation in people with dementia.
Stay Connected to People Who Matter
There’s a lot of evidence that people with social networks have a lower risk of dementia. In addition, the more people in their network, the better their cognitive functions seem to be. All these highlights the importance of staying connected to people you love.
Even if you can’t see them in person, a quick call to check in on each other can already do wonders to your brain. Moreover, it may help stave off loneliness, depression, or stress. These three, in turn, are risk factors in cognitive decline.
Stay Physically Active
Regular physical activity can lower your risks for chronic health conditions. Moreover, it may boost memory by improving the flow of blood to the brain.
Aerobic exercises like jogging, dancing, and running are good ways to work out the mind and the body. You can even start by walking at a brisk pace for 30 to 45 minutes a day.
Help Your Brain Retain All those Positive Memories
The adult brain may only weigh three pounds, but it carries the weight of all memories, bad or good. The human memory, in turn, is a crucial part of each person’s unique identity. That’s why it can be devastating to lose even just bits of your short- and long-term memories.
So, as early as now, it’s best to develop healthy habits and kick harmful ones. While doing so may not cure memory loss, it may help your brain stay in great shape longer.
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