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M. P. Ravindra Nathan
MEMORY: YOUR FRIENDLY NEURONS AND A MILLION POSSIBILITIES
By M. P. Ravindra Nathan, MD, FACC

Part 1

Thanks to the stringent privacy concerns, special security systems with different entry codes have been installed in the critical areas in our hospital. Unable to remember all these, I usually carry the numbers in my pocket. One night, I had to come for an emergency in the ICU but couldn’t remember the code. When one of our good nurses let me in, she asked:

“So, you forgot the code, eh?”

With a subdued smile, I said, “You know Charlie, with so many different codes, it is difficult to remember each and every one. It is such a nuisance. I am going to complain to the administrator.”

“Oh, nonsense, you don’t need to do that,” she said patronizingly. “Just remember this 4-digit number as your wake-up time in the morning and you can enter the ICU any time.”

You know, I cannot forget that number now, even if I tried.

Memory loss is a fact of life, especially as we get older. When you forget the name of the person who was introduced to you at last night’s party, or perhaps couldn’t remember where you parked the car when you came out of the crowded shopping mall, you start worrying. When you misplace your car keys (and the stethoscope too, in my case) and waste a lot of time searching for it till your spouse locates it and hands it over to you with a frown, “there, just where you put it, under the newspaper you were reading,” you wonder, “What is happening to me?” But don’t worry, this doesn’t mean that you are losing it and are headed for Alzheimer’s disease any time soon. Recognizing your own forgetfulness suggests that your mind is still intact.


However, this might mean that you are not focusing on matters which are important to you. Age-related dementia or Alzheimer’s disease is steadily on the increase and nobody is immune to it, including Nobel Prize winners and presidents. Baby boomers and the first-generation Indians are now reaching that age. And dementia may well be the end result of brain aging. “Plaques and tangles” may be forming in the brain earlier than one expected. Often subtle memory and language changes – neurologists call it “middle age cognitive impairment” – may go unnoticed and ignored for many years.

What is memory? It is merely an abstraction that refers to a process rather than a structure. But it is a precious ability, a learned skill more than innate ability, which literally controls every bit of your learned behavior. I have often heard comments such as “Oh, he has a good memory,” or the reverse, “What is the matter with you, you have already forgotten what I said last week?” etc. An essential key to retaining information longer is to organize it, even rehearse it and then actively store it in our brains.

How do you do that? During lunch time in our hospital lounge recently, the subject came up for discussion and I queried a couple of my friends on their techniques for a better memory, if any. One answered, “Man, I just keep a note pad. Without that, I’m lost.” Another said, “My wife thinks I have selective memory loss, I often forget what she asked me to buy.” Well, don’t despair, there are ways to improve your memory.

And how do you do that? In processing any information in your memory bank, you need to follow three steps: 1. Learning or ‘recording it in your brain’. You must first learn the material to be remembered properly. 2. Storage or retention: keeping the material in your brain properly till you need it. 3. Retrieval or recall, finding the stored item and pulling it out when needed.

These three steps can be often referred as the 3 R’s. Just like what you do with a filing cabinet to organize your papers. First, you write out the material or procure the items to be filed, like legal documents or insurance papers (Recording), then file them alphabetically under the appropriate heading (Storage) and finally go back to the cabinet to get it out when necessary (Retrieval). As you can see, retrieval becomes so much easier this way than if you throw them in a haphazard fashion. Ditto for the mental filing system too.

Your memory or mental imagery of what you are trying to remember may be processed in two different parts of the brain – a verbal and a non-verbal location. Put in a different way, information can be recorded either in visual form (pictures, scenes, faces) or in verbal form (words, numbers and names). If you can do both, your recall ability would be better. The old saying, “One picture is worth a thousand words,” also is true for memory enhancement because images are more memorable than words alone.

References/Suggested reading:

“The Memory Bible”: Gary Small, MD, Hyperion, N.Y.

“Your Memory”: Kenneth L. Higbee, Ph.D, Prentice Hall Press

Cardiologist Dr. M. P. Ravindra Nathan lives in Brooksville.



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