Becoming a Memory Champion?

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

This past weekend I had the unique opportunity to participate in the annual USA Memory Championship. But before it sounds like I'm portraying myself as some kind of mental wizard, my participation didn't demand memorizing a random deck of cards in five minutes or quickly learning an extensive list of random nouns as was required by the actual "mental athletes." My involvement was far less cognitively intense; I simply provided the keynote presentation. And while the actual players posses memory skills ranked at the far reaches of the bell curve, nothing about my ability to remember cards for example, would ever blacklist me from a casino.

Watching the memory masters in the midst of committing the order of playing cards to mental storage, I was most impressed by the variation in techniques they each had adopted and obviously honed over years of practice. There were some who simply spread out the fifty-two cards and appeared to be creating a mental map. Others divided the cards into small groups and then, somewhat laboriously, attempted to consume the information in smaller bites.

The fact that these individuals had achieved their skill level using such divergent techniques speaks to the whole notion of how all the rest of us mere mortals are able to commit information to memory. The bottom line is that there are a variety methods we use to encode memory. Some of us of are particularly skilled in the process of storage and retrieval of images; so-called "eidetic" memory. Many of the world's top memory experts are gifted in this process and are able to remember extensive amounts of non-visual information by associating the information with more easily stored pictorial representations.

Others of us, and the memory masters alike tend to store memorized information as a three-dimensional map emphasizing the spatial relationships between objects committed to memory.

But regardless of the endgame, all of us, the top memory experts included, rely upon the functionality of a particular brain structure, the hippocampus for memory function. The hippocampus, buried deep in the temporal lobe of each cerebral hemisphere, was once thought to be the repository of information -- the place where memories were stored. Newer research however has redefined the role of the hippocampus as more of a way station in the encoding and subsequent retrieval of information. Think of the hippocampus as a laptop computer with very little data stored on its hard drive. But this computer is connected to the cloud where vast amounts of data have been uploaded and can be downloaded when the laptop, the hippocampus in this analogy, calls for the information. The cloud, like the cerebral cortex, serves as the vast storage reservoir. As you can imagine, problems would arise if the laptop became less functional. Despite vast amounts of storage space and data in the cloud, it would become less accessible. And so it is with human memory. Declining hippocampal function renders us less able to both encode and retrieve information, manifesting as inability to recall names, misplacing the car keys, forgetting why we entered a room, and things far more sinister. Indeed, declining hippocampal size and function is a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease.

Memory enhancement self-help programs abound and promise improved memory performance by the utilization of any number of seemingly unique techniques focused on the context of how information is encoded. But again, regardless of which technique is adopted, all modalities are fundamentally rooted in the function of the hippocampus. And this is where some new science shines a favorable light on what would otherwise be considered troubling senior moments.

It turns out that another unique feature of the hippocampus is that it one of the few areas of the brain where regeneration is possible. Throughout our lifetimes we are constantly regenerating new brain cells in the hippocampus, a process called neurogenesis. New stem cells are constantly being born in the hippocampus that ultimately differentiate into fully functional neurons. Basically, we are constantly in the process of stem cell therapy and what's most empowering is the fact that we can actually choose enhance this process.

The process of regenerating the hippocampus is directed by a growth hormone, BDNF. The genes encoding for the production of BDNF are powerfully susceptible to specific lifestyle activities including aerobic exercise as well as consumption of the omega-3 fat, DHA. DHA and exercise in this context are termed epigenetic factors, as they modify gene expression. In a recent study, scientists at the University of Pittsburgh actually demonstrated increased blood levels of BDNF, increased size of the hippocampus, and, perhaps most importantly, significantly increased memory function in adults who aerobically exercised compared to those who were simply involved in a flexibility and stretching program.

So while we may decide to give in and spring for one of the popular memory enhancing programs, its crucial to remember that the final common pathway is the hippocampus, and simple lifestyle choices might well make huge difference in preserving and even enhancing memory function, if we remember to make them happen.

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