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I Remember When

I Remember When

Many of the patients visiting the Stone Institute complain of memory problems, especially during the Holiday Season. Most of them relate that their short term memory has become powerless or ineffective. They can go into a room seeking an object or to perform a task and by the time they get there, they have forgotten what it is they wanted or what they were supposed to do. When this becomes a common occurrence, they worry they might have the dreaded disease Alzheimer's. The mere fact they know they are forgetting makes the diagnosis of Alzheimer's remote.

Our brains are capable of two types of memory; short term and long term. Our short term memory is like playing Angry Birds for thirty seconds. In contrast, our long term memory refers to remembering what you had for breakfast, who you went out with two nights ago, the name of the President of the United States, where you went to high school and how many true friends you have. Long term memory seems to have a subpopulation of thoughts that stretch all the way back to your childhood. These are stored in some mysterious archival way separate from your other more recent long term
memories.

Explicit or declarative memory concerns facts and events along with your conscious awareness of knowing them: I am human, yesterday was Friday, my lawyer has a unibrow. Implicit memory is about habits and skills, knowing how to do something like riding a motorcycle, dancing the waltz, making a golf swing; you do these things without being aware of them. Obviously while learning a new skill or activity, you need to use explicit memory to get the sequence of steps correct, but eventually the task turns to an implicit form. I remember trying to drive a car with a standard transmission for the first time. I had to be aware of the motions of the gear shift as well as the friction zone on the clutch pedal at the same time. After forty-two years of driving standard transmission cars and trucks, I shift the gears unconsciously.

Memory can be dramatically disrupted if you force something that is implicit into explicit channels. The golfer Tiger Woods, represents a classic example of this type of disturbance. Years ago, he use to beat the pants off of every golfer he faced. In the past couple of years, he has changed his swing several times and the changes have left him thinking about his golf shots (explicit channels), not just playing golf (implicit channels). He does not have a swing that is near as effective as it was when he graduated from Stanford University and went professional. He can't think and hit the ball at the same time: No one can. And the added stress of not playing up to his previous quality makes his ability to perform at his highest level almost impossible to achieve again.

There are different areas of the brain that are involved in storing memory. One is the neocortex, that large convoluted surface of the brain. Another area, the hippocampus, is tucked deep down inside the brain. The cerebellum is where implicit memory is usually stored. The hippocampus is the first landing area of memory and the memory is passed on to other regions of the brain for short and long term storage. No hippocampus? No memory - because it all starts there.

Memory is stored in networks or patterns of excitation in the brain. These networks are convergent and relate to each other in a vertical, horizontal and diagonal way. We can strengthen our memory by repeating a task or reading or comprehending a fact over and over again. When I went to golf school, my instructor told me that I needed to swing each club sixty times a day for at least a straight three week period to begin to deposit my swing memory into my brain. There are fourteen clubs in my bag. That comes to eight hundred forty swings a day for three weeks straight. If each swing takes 30 seconds to place the ball on the tee, address the ball properly and then take my swing, it would take four hundred twenty minutes or seven hours of practice per day. Needless to say, I never really got very proficient at golf.

Strengthening our memory can last a long time because new synapses are formed in the convergent connections. There are hundreds of neuroscientists trying to unlock the mysteries of how our memory works and how to increase our plasticity (ability to learn new things or rehabilitate old forgotten experiences). It turns out that memory is tied to emotion. The more emotionally stimulating an experience is, the better the chance that it will be remembered, good or bad. This is Flashbulb Memory. Just hearing a traumatic story will initiate the stress response: the sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear and all of the trappings of epinephrine and glucocorticoid release into the blood stream will occur. Beta adrenergic receptor blocking drugs blunt the memory enhancement caused by the release of these stress-related neurotransmitters and hormones. Activation of the sympathetic nervous system indirectly arouses the hippocampus into a more alert state. This activation results in a heightened memory consolidation.

The clear message here is that the brain stores information that is detrimental to the human condition for purposes of avoiding the same or similar situation in the future if it were to occur again. Stress acutely causes the need for more glucose to be delivered to the brain, some of which is used to create or retrieve memories to better cope with the stressor. Short term stress makes your sensory receptors more sensitive. Your taste buds, sense of smell, and hearing require less stimulation to get excited and forward the information to the brain for processing.

Long term glucocorticoid (cortisol) elevations from chronic unrelenting stress disrupts memory as well as elevated glucocorticoid levels from therapeutic adventures (prednisone or dexamethasone) for autoimmune diseases. Stress also disturbs executive function; the understanding of what action needs to be taken given a set of circumstances based on previous experiences. People under chronic stress cannot organize information well or make strategic plans; therefore their judgments and decision making is corrupted. Many times they make poor decisions because they cannot see the forest through the trees. Christmas trees make the worst forests.

Under chronic stress, the hippocampus atrophies or shrinks. In addition, neural networks get disconnected and the birth of new neurons is inhibited. The absolute bottom line, our human bodies were not created to withstand chronic unrelenting psychosocial, emotional or physical stress.

During this holiday season, find time to spend a moment or two just sitting peacefully or experiencing something that does not provoke your stress response. Give others the permission to take a time out and try not to be everything to everybody. If stress gets the best of you, you will lose your mind. And a mindless holiday season is probably worse than having no holiday season at all. The question that science cannot answer yet is: If you lose your mind during the Holiday season, will it ever come back again?

Never lose the expression, "I remember when..."

Doc
Posted by Amanda Sanders at 8:34 AM
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