My mind is the most cluttered place I know, for which my involuntary memory is solely to blame. Almost everything I see, hear or smell makes me recall something I read, did or didn’t do, all without conscious effort. It’s a very annoying trait because it makes my voluntary memory turn sluggish, making me forget things I need to do to be physically and socially functional, such as shopping for food, walking the dog or remembering my own wedding anniversary.
The problem is that the brain links all kinds of experiences and emotions, related and not, to form memory, which is best described as the ability to store, retain and recall information and experiences. Just as a tinkling bell could condition Pavlov’s dog to drool or start a cascade of Proustian memories of things past among the more gastronomically averse, listening to a song can immediately conjure up a classroom humiliation or a school crush from two decades ago.
Perhaps the best way to describe memory is as a streaming video that is bookmarked, both voluntarily and involuntarily, by facts, people, scenes and thoughts. Last year, scientists used scans to record traces of contextual memory in the brain and suggested that all new memories of — even of abstract facts — are encoded in a brain-cell sequence that also contains information about what else was happening when the memory was being formed, such as India losing at cricket or the rain flooding your lane.
The study, published in the scientific journal PNAS last year, showed the temporal lobe of the brain — an area extending roughly between the temple and the ear — lit up in identical ways when something was being experienced, and then recalled later.
This means that the most effective way to retain information is to remember things in grids and clusters, using a web of links and associations to recall information you want embedded in the flux inside your head. You begin by activating one memory, next comes reactivating a bit of what was happening when it was being formed, and before you know it, you remember it all.
It’s a bit like the runaway-hit Hangover, where you try to reconstruct a night’s activities after a hangover by remembering a fact, then another, and travel back to recall (almost) everything.
Working memory, the part of our mind that stores information temporarily, can also be manipulated to help us recall at will. Students, for example, who learn by reading out loud, drawing diagrams, or writing down what they’ve read even if they never look at their notes again, strengthen retention by forming a visual image that is easier remembered and understood.
Similarly, revisiting a thought or subject after increasingly longer periods of time — once an hour, then every few hours, then every day —can help you form linkages needed to recall complicated information, much like Pavlov’s drooling dogs.
Of course, blocking out repetitive sounds and distractions, self-inflected and from the outside world, is as essential to quiet your mind to absorb sensory information. Since changes in the structures of the brain continue through life and are influenced by what you absorb, eat and do, keeping your brain engaged in the world around you, eating foods loaded with omega-3 fatty acids (found in nuts and fish) and all improve brain function, as does exercise, which nourishes the brain with oxygen, reduces stress and improves memory.
That done, depending on how old you are, you are pretty much set to sit for your annual exams or just grow older without worrying about misplacing your reading glasses.