Posts Tagged ‘memory’

Memory Part 2: what's old and what's new

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013
Her's one way to remember things.

Her's one way to remember things.

In my last post I wrote about what I call short-term memory and my own issues with remembering; I also mentioned typical aged-related memory problems. Now I'd like to delve into ideas for improving our own recall.

I leave myself notes on things to do and I tend to use acronyms or short phrases to remember names. For instance, I had noted a diminutive lady on the recumbent bike next to mine in our health club. She was about my age and was in the gym almost as often as I was. I finally introduced myself and found out her name and, eventually, that of her husband. She's Allison and I quickly decided that my mental picture of her was hurrying to follow a rabbit while she was carrying an umbrella and wearing a short skirt, i.e., "Allison Wonderland."

I tend to be be bad with remembering names, but hers is certainly fixed in my mind.

I also use acronyms. Her husband's name is David, so together they became a court room scene with the acronym "DA." David is the prosecuting district attorney and Allison is there because she jaywalked following the rabbit.

Another person I frequently encounter there is perhaps 15 years older than I am and his name is Jerry...I rendered that as "Jerryatric."

But there are other ways, some of them quite old, to hit the memory bullseye

But there are other ways, some of them quite old, to hit the memory bullseye

Reading about the varied approaches to memory over many years, I became aware that prior to there being a generalized ability to read written language, people were able to memorize long segments of epic poems. I'm unsure if this was training from a young age or the use of a particular system for memorization. One possibility that has been explored came to my attention from the fictional character Hannibal Lector.

His method of memorization led me to a 1966 classic, The Art of Memory, The author, Frances Yates traces the history of systems of memory; one was the Memory Palace of Mateo Ricci, supposedly utilized by Lector, in which a well-visualized structure can be utilized to place objects.

For instance you could visualize your own home or the rooms of a building that you visit regularly. We tend to be good at remembering places we know well. The concept of the "Memory Palace" is just a metaphor, one that can be as complex or simple as you like, perhaps being a visual map of the places you saw walking to school or driving to work. Whatever the place that you choose, you then have to have it well-visualized because you're going to "drop" memories at a particular corner or on an object you see in your house every day.

I thought this wouldn't work for me, but I just memorized a shopping list of ten items (bacon, eggs, wine, batteries, bubble gum, milk, envelopes, spinach, coffee, tomato) using the technique of mind pegging, the basic start to this concept for remembering a number of items.

When I decided to utilize this method on my list I pictured myself sitting at my kitchen table planning an omelet (bacon and eggs) while drinking a glass of wine. Then the lights went out.

I had to put new batteries into my flashlight and used it to look for additional items in my refrigerator to add to my creation, only to first find I had stashed bubble gum (I've done similar things before) next to the milk.

I still wanted to write down ingredients for my omelet, so I looked for paper and found the most accessible source was in a drawer where I keep envelopes. I made a list adding spinach while I drank a cup of coffee and then finished my recipe with a tomato.

It really worked! I may have to try a similar approach the next time i really do plan to go shopping.

Let's skip to what's current advice and research in the field.

The March 12, 2013 edition of The Wall Street Journal  had an article titled, "The New Power of Memory." It referred to a recent publication in the journal Cerebral Cortex  by Daniel Schacter, the Chair of the Department of Psychology at Harvard, and colleagues.The WSJ article had an illustration that tied in with my exercise in using a visual link to a list of objects. In this case someone was planning a party for a friend. If they relied on hunches and assumptions about their pal (this step was called "access the past"), then continued in this manner with guesswork in piecing together the image of their friend's personality and imagining their mindset, the end result was a dud, a failure.

If, on the other hand, they remembered specifics about their buddy's past likes and dislikes, as well as incidents that revealed their personality, then used those to imagine their likely mindset, the end result was a hit.

Dr. Schacter was quoted as saying, "using past experiences to anticipate future happenings" lets people weigh approaches to a coming situation without needing to try out the actual behavior.

In other words, if you hone your recall skills until they are sharper, you may be able to avoid a party that's a dud or even prevent a business decision that's a catastrophe.

I'll have to use this approach more often.






Memory issues Part 1: Is it Alzheimer disease or something else?

Saturday, March 9th, 2013

'Alzheimer's disease', under 'Alzheimer's'A while back I read an article in the Wall Street Journal with the intriguing  title, "Detective Work: The False Alzheimer's Diagnosis." The story was that of a man who developed problems in the memory and movement arena, was treated for Parkinson's and eventually found to have normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH), a buildup of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that surrounds and helps protect the brain and spinal cord.

Hydrocephalus, sometimes called "water on the brain," can occur at any age, but is more commonly seen in infants and seniors. When it is present in the very young, often due to a birth defect in which the spinal column doesn't close properly, it puts pressure on the brain and skull usually resulting in an abnormally large head and a bulging of the fontanel, the soft area on the top of the baby's head. It's treated, in many cases, by insertion of a shunt, a tube placed in one of the brain's ventricles (these are a communicating set of cavities filled with CSF). The tube has a one-way valve and is tunneled under the skin of the patient and usually empties into the abdomen.

The other age group in which hydrocephalus is seen more commonly is the over 60 age group. But it can certainly happen to younger adults as well.

One morning in 1990, when I was forty-nine, my wife noted I was having considerable difficulty with a particular kind of memory; the ability to recall something that was just told me was impaired. I turned out to have a benign mass in the center of my head (the technical term is a colloid cyst of the third ventricle) and had it removed by a neurosurgeon. Although the pathologist said it was benign, its location in that crucial area could have resulted in major brain damage or even sudden death.

If that were to happen today, it could be removed via endoscopic neurosurgery (an endoscope is a tube, usually flexible, for visualizing the insides of a hollow organ; it typically has one or more channels to enable passage of forceps or scissors). That procedure takes 45 minutes to an hour, is done via a one-inch incision and the patient goes home in one or two days.But, as you can see by clicking this link and then the photos in the article, colloid cysts have fairly large draining veins and they need to be most carefully attended to.

An MRI can guide the neurosurgeon's path

An MRI can guide the neurosurgeon's path

In my case, prior to the advent of the neurosurgical endoscope, the mass was removed the typical old-fashioned way by making several round holes in my skull and then the cyst itself. One of the veins leaked and I had a major seizure in the recovery room. That left me with a good-sized scar; on an MRI it's more of a cavity in the front part of my brain.

The scar impaired my short-term memory. I've managed to compensate, writing reminders and keeping a calendar, but I developed an interest in Alzheimer Disease and related memory issues, many of which are age-related and some of which are reversible.

The article on "False Alzheimers," notes that >100 medical conditions can present with memory loss, confusion and personality changes. Medications, or drug-drug interactions should be high on the list of things to rule out. An April 2012 article on autopsy studies of over 900 patients thought to have Alzheimer disease found over a sixth had been misdiagnosed.

The prevailing opinion is that NPH is the cause of five or six percent of all patient felt to have dementia. Adult-onset hydrocephalus is different in many respects from that which happens in the very young. It results from a gradual blockage of the conduits that normally drain CSF. It's not uncommon for the person with NPH to think that their symptoms are typical for the aging process.

But difficulties in focusing your eyes, an unusual series of headaches, personality changes, seizures, leg weakness and/or sudden falls should be investigated; it's wise to see your physician if  any of these occur, especially if there are associated memory problems.

Then there are, as Dr. Daniel Schacter, the former Chair of Harvard's Psychology  Department calls them, "The Seven Sins of Memory ," age-related memory issues that we all will likely encounter as we grow older. Being absent-minded, blocking the retrieval of a piece of information (It's on the tip of my tongue), or not remembering a complex chemical formula you learned for a college freshman course fifty years ago all can be totally normal. His book on the subject book revolves around the theory that "the seven sins of memory" are similar to the proverbial "seven deadly sins," and that if you try to avoid committing these sins, it will help to improve your ability to remember. Schacter, on the other hand, argues that these features of human memory are not necessarily bad, and that they actually serve a useful purpose in memory.

My comment over the years has been, "Whenever I put a fact in the front of my mind, one falls out the back."

So don't assume the worst if you forget something; on the other hand, don't ignore memory problems if they are persistent.