Retrieving information from the brain

September 20, 2014 by Amran | No Comments | Filed in Learning

Our brain has the ability to store almost unlimited amounts of information indefinitely. We forget because it is the result of incorrectly or incompletely encoded memories, or problems with the retrieval (recall) process. In one of my earlier posts, I have written about how school has reduced learning to the level of trying to recall disparate pieces of information or “factlets”. Yet, school do little to teach stduents to be able to store and recall properly. It is often a hit-and-miss affair. We can avoid this if we understand how the brain works at storing and retrieving information.

pathways Retrieving information from the brain

Engrams are like pathways through the brain’s forest of memories

It is a well-known fact that retrieving information from the brain actually becomes easier with understanding of the meaning of the information. In other words, when information becomes knowledge. Information becomes knowledge when it has meaning to the person. For information to become meaningful it must be placed in the brain so that it becomes linked to other “pieces”of knowledge that already has meaning to the person. This link is crucial for retrieval and understanding of the new bit of information that is being added.

Another aspect of how the brain works is also important for us to understand in order for us to store and retrieve things in our brain or memory effectively. In terms of storage, experts have long divided the kind of memory storage in the brain to two basic types: short-term memory and long-term memory. From the names given to the two types of memory, it is obvious one is retained in our memory for only a short duration. We are more likely to forget things stored in the short-term memory bank after a short time. This is why, for example, if we forget names of people we have just met easily.

As for long-term memory, this is the part of our memory that is retained over the longest period of time due to some consolidation that has been done to that memory. The greater the consolidation, the more that memory is used or repeated. Long-term memories are actually stored in groups that are made ready to be used together in the same pattern that was originally created. It seems also that long-term memory may even be encoded redundantly many times in various parts of our brain. So if one engram (memory trace) is wiped out, there will be duplicate or alternative pathways for the memory to be retrieved.

Therefore, among some of the things that are required to be successful academically, a student will need to be able to efficiently store a lot of information in their long-term memory quickly, and also be able to retrieve them quickly. As mentioned before this is done through consolidation. Consolidation can be done through repetition. But repetition alone may not be the most effective method of recalling (remembering) information. As has been mentioned earlier, one way to consolidate our memory, or to put it in long-term memory, is to seek to achieve understanding. Understanding, which comes about when disparate bits of information is organised in a coherent meaningful pattern, helps in consolidation because duplicate or alternative pathways for the memory to be retrieved are created. These alternative pathways are created because with understanding, bits of information are linked in many ways to other bits of information that has already been consolidated. It is like many pathways have been built to the same bit of information. For example, when we think of “home”, we think of our childhood home, or our own home in adulthood, or that home is associated with safety, or Mum’s cooking and so on. So even if one pathway or link is forgotten, there are other pathways to retrieve that information. The strength of that memory, and its ability to be retrieved, is directly proportional to the number of pathways. This also means that “factlets” or disparate bits of information are less likely to be easily stored in the long-term memory. What all these implies for the student is that he has to seek to reach understanding of what he is learning as far as possible.

However, we know that students today often have to remember lots of factlets. The student therefore has to learn how to store these factlets as quickly as possible into the long-term memory. The way to do so is to create clear pathways that will link with knowledge that is already stored in the brain. This is why memory systems that have been created to help people remember quickly and longer works through a system of links or association. The links are done in a specific way or through a specific path. This path needs to be consciously created and not be left to chance. It becomes easier to remember something when more specific paths are created to that particular piece of information. But note that they are specific paths, not something haphazardly done. To put it simply, to remember and recall something new effectively you need to associate or link that thing with things that you already know well. This linking or association is the basis of all memory systems that has been popularized to improve our memory.

Send an email to me if you want to find out more about effective and successful learning and recall strategies for your children.

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More on intermittent fasting and your memory and intelligence

September 19, 2014 by Amran | No Comments | Filed in Diet

In my last post, I have shared how intermittent fasting can actually improve our memory and intelligence. Much of what I have written is based on the work of Professor Mark Mattson who works for a non-profit organization. His research is in an area that the pharmaceutical industry has thus far avoided because it does not bring the latter profits if nothing is sold but only abstained as in fasting.

Michael Mosley, who interviewed Professor Mattson, has written a “controversial” book, “The FastDiet” which proposes a diet that many have found to be a useful approach to becoming healthier.

On top of that, as Professor Mattson’s research has shown it also improves your brain power and help keep brain diseases, like Alzheimar’s disease or dementia away in your old age.

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Diet and brain power

September 18, 2014 by Amran | No Comments | Filed in Diet

“Humans live on one-quarter of what they eat; on the other three-quarters lives their doctor.”

~ an almost 6000-year old Egyptian pyramid inscription

It has been said that you are what you eat. What we eat affects our whole body health and by this is meant also our cognitive or brain functions. The brain accounts for only 2% of our total body weight. However, the brain is a food-hungry organ. It has ten times the appetite of other organs. It uses up a minimum of 20% of our daily calorie intake for it to function well. This is why poverty can affect intelligence as the nutritional intake can be significantly reduced because of poverty.

dendrites and axons 300x225 Diet and brain power

Neuron structure

On the other hand, for the affluent, where food is usually abundant, it does not mean that an abundance of food is good for the brain either. While we are very aware of the dangers of being overweight in causing diseases like diabetes and other attending problems, few of us know how our food intake can affect our brains.

Today we know that certain types of food is actually good for the brain. Over the past three decades also, there has been a growing body of research that confirms one of the benefits of one of the most ancient practices, that is, fasting.

Fasting is a challenge to your brain and the brain response to that challenge of not having food by activating adaptive stress response pathways that help your brain cope with the physical and physiological challenges. The effects of fasting on the brain is very similar to that of exercise.

It seems that what fasting does is to stimulate the formation of new neurons from stem cells through a process known as neurogenesis. Fasting also stimulates proteins called “neurotrophic factors” like BDNF and FGF which promotes the growth of dendrites and axons, and the formation and strengthening of synapses which allows the brain cells to communicate with each other through electrical impulses. Furthermore, fasting also leads to fat being burned up which leads to the formation of ketones which provides the alternative fuel for the neurons which boost the energy levels in the neurons. The number of mitochondria  in the neurons is also increased by fasting. The increased in mitochondria helps to form and maintain the number of synapses thereby increase the learning and memory abilities.

What all this body of research means is that if we are concerned with improving our intelligence for use in school or at work, we need to look not only at the kind of food we eat but also the amount that we take in each day. Intermittent fasting is highly recommended today. It is the subject of many books. It is not something that is just trendy but a lifestyle that is build on solid scientific research. So do consider including intermittent fasts as part your own or your child’s dietary habits. Our intelligence needs breaks from food.

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