Exercise Your Brain to Keep It Lively
Some simple, but effective, techniques for putting your mind through some hoops to keep it active and highly functional are presented later in this chapter. But many of the most important things you can do to maintain your memory are really just good habits — things you do every day as a matter of course that keep your brain's neurons charged and firing and your hippocampus fully loaded and ready to dispense information.
What Cabbies and Musicians Have in Common
Mental exercise can increase the size of different areas of the brain, just as physical exercise increases muscle mass. Researchers have long known that musicians' brains are different as compared to those of non-musicians in that they develop unique patterns of brain activity from long hours of specific motor activities required when they practice. And a study of the brains of London cab drivers, reported in March 2000, indicated that specially developed capacities can continue into late adulthood. London cabbies are required to spend two years memorizing all of the streets, back alleys, shops, and businesses in London — information known as “The Knowledge” — then pass a memory test to get their licenses. Researchers found that the brain of a trained and licensed cabbie had a larger hippocampus than those found in the brains of a control group. And the hippocampus continued to enlarge as the cabbie used that knowledge. Cabbies who had been driving for some time — some for over forty years — had a larger hippocampus than their less-experienced colleagues.
When you're trying to memorize or recall something important, eliminate all other distractions. Turn off the television, lower the volume on the stereo, and get to a quiet place where people aren't chattering around you. You'll find you have to put in less time and effort if you are able to concentrate better, and you'll retain the information longer.
Good Habits to Keep You Thinking Clearly
You don't have to build a street map of London in your brain to improve your memory. But you do have to make some effort to “pump up” your memory. Here are a few tips to help you do just that:
Pay attention. The first clue to preserving — or even improving — your memory is to learn to pay attention to what is being said and what is happening around you. Many researchers believe that inattentiveness is a major cause of forgetfulness in people of any age. If you don't learn to really listen and observe, your brain has no opportunity to absorb and store information. And pay attention to your actions as well; the classic lost-keys problem is easily resolved by creating a home-base spot where you always put your keys, for example. Write out lists of important things you must do, read the list out loud as you think about each item, and visualize some image or action that each represents to you.
Rehearse — slow down and repeat information. When you hear a new name or have to commit a list of things to memory, stop, slow down, and repeat the information you have to remember several times. Repeat the name to yourself, and — if you've just met someone — repeat that person's name during the conversation, as in, “Well, Joanne, have you been living in the area long?” Rehearsing ideas and information aloud helps move information from your short term, working memory to your long-term memory.
Flex your brain muscles regularly. Every day participate in some mental activity that requires your brain to remember, reason, and react quickly. Work a crossword or sudoku puzzle, play chess, draw, paint, or write in a journal.
Grabbing a few minutes of TV time may be a nice break from some intensive activity, but it's passive and doesn't challenge your brain to work on its own. Forcing your brain to learn something completely new is an excellent way to keep the neurons firing.