Answering the memory questions

Alright, here's where I earn my keep. Remember those five questions I posed at the beginning of the memory semester? No? Ok, here they are again:
  • When does memory begin?
  • Do men and women remember differently?
  • Can you erase a memory?
  • What is Alzheimer's? How can you prevent it?
  • Can you improve your memory? How?

Here are my final answers... Lisa deserves all the credit for coaching me through these answers. Thanks to her, I actually feel like I could talk about this stuff a little now, at least to be interesting enough at a cocktail party. And let's be honest- isn't that really the goal of any learning?

When does memory begin?
Do cats remember? I guess we'll never know.
Memory begins in the womb. When a baby is born, she has instincts that guide her to her mother's breast and other simple intuitions. Her ability to do this comes from the area of her brain that stores memory. Other examples of this kind of memory (which starts in the womb) include heart rate and digestion.

But babies can remember other things from the womb as well! Some studies demonstrate that fetuses who hear specific music in the last trimester of pregnancy learned to respond with movement. When the babies heard the same songs after they were born, the were noticeably calmer; they stopped crying, opened their eyes and seemed to relax. This is an example of classical-conditioning of a fetus! While there is a great deal of evidence supporting that memories can be formed in utero, the question remains as to what function this memory actually has. One hypothesis is that these rudimentary, in utero, memories pave the foundation for the learning and memory to come, ex utero.

Certain parts of your brain are more plastic before a certain age. These periods of plasticity are called critical periods. You've probably heard that children learn languages better than adults; that's because our brain is formatted to best pick up languages before puberty. Once that critical period is passed, it becomes much harder to learn a new language or even language at all.

Did you know? If you keep someone blinded until their critical period is over, they may never learn to see. There is some evidence that they can learn to respond to shadows, but complex images are not encoded from to the brain from the retina.

Do men and women remember differently?
There's evidence to support this; the most basic fact being that men and women interact differently in the world since we have different levels of hormones running through our bodies. Women tend to form memories from visual cues, faces and emotions. Men have better spacial reasoning and may use that to form memories.

Can you erase a memory?
Perhaps not purposefully yet, but if you damage part of your brain, you may lose access to the memories that were stored there.

Some hypnotists/psychiatrists try to help people with difficult emotional memories by relaxing them and helping them form new associations. In doing this, the hypnotist/psychiatrist hasn't erased a memory, but has paved over it in the hopes of burying the original connection (and memory).

What is Alzheimer's? How can you prevent it?
Alzheimer's disease is a condition in which cognitive decline occurs over a period of time.  It leads to memory loss and other intellectual abilities that decline enough to interfere with activities of daily living.

Alzheimer's is the 6th leading cause of death in the U.S. A brain afflicted with Alzheimer's shrinks and the ventricles (gaps in the brain) widen. Plaques appear in the brain. All of these affect the way the person fails to access memories, from important events to the ability to swallow food (in the end of their lives).

Can you improve your memory? How?
Currently, there are no drugs that cure Alzheimer's. The drugs that exist and are prescribed are more to slow down the deterioration of the brain.

But you can keep your brain in good shape! Eating well and keeping your brain active are two simple ways to do just that. Engage in your surroundings, read often, do puzzles and brain teasers, stay healthy and active. Nutrition, though, is key! Make sure your diet includes lots of antioxidants (like vitamin C or E) and Omega-3.

Additional fun facts:
* your brain weighs about 3lbs and is made up of two hemispheres. Did you know that each hemisphere controls the opposite side of the body?
* Your brain needs sugar (glucose) to do all of the things it needs to do. People on the Atkins diet have reported feeling a lack of focus and forgetful. This may be because they're taking in too much protein (all meat diet) and not enough glucose.
* Over time, our individual experiences create patterns of neural synapses. These patterns explain how, at a cellular level, our individual thoughts, skills, memories and sense of who we are are coded by our brains.
* A memory is not a cell; it's a network. Making memories does not result in making more cells, but rather creating more connections between cells.

And with that, semester 1 concludes. Thanks for all of your patience during this first semester. I know memory is not everyone's forte, but I hope it's been entertaining at least. Tomorrow launches semester 2... get your SOUL ready!

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