Ramesh (37 years old) had been coming for therapy for depression for a week now. One evening he came for the session really frustrated. He asked tentatively whether loss of memory could be due to his depression or the related antidepressants that he was given by his psychiatrist. He then went on to explain that he had excellent memory as far as numbers were concerned, so much so that as a child he could remember almost all 49 children’s marks in the class as the teacher called them out aloud before handing over the papers. Yet the previous evening when he had to give his new office number to his very important client he could not just get it right. It almost cost him his contract as the client got offended.
When I asked him when he started noticing this forgetfulness in him, he mentioned that a little before his divorce 3 years ago he had been noticing his forgetfulness but had been too emotionally wrapped up to pay further attention to it. He now realizes that the forgetfulness has been increasing over the years. Initially he thought that he was preoccupied and later brushed it off as a sign of early ageing and even hereditary. But yesterday’s incident was disturbing him.
First and foremost any physical disorder needs to be eradicated. Secondly causal factors as well as the mechanism of forgetting need to be understood. Usually mental decline begins by the age of 40 or 50. However people who are undergoing high emotional stress for an extended period of time also experience these symptoms as early as in their 30’s. Some of the stressors one cannot do away with given the stressful and competitive environment we live in, however we can counter them with certain changes in lifestyle. Health conscious people interested in living quality life introduce yoga/ physical exercises to their routine along with dietary changes. Similarly for mental health one needs to introduce what is called Neurobics in their life, a mental gym. Also contrary to popular belief, the mental decline most people experience is not due to the steady death of nerve cells. Instead, it usually results from the thinning out of the number and complexity of dendrites, the branches on nerve cells that directly receive and process information from other nerve cells that forms the basis of memory. Dendrites receive information across connections called synapses. If connections aren’t regularly switched on, the dendrites can atrophy.
The function of memory is primarily carried out by the cortex and the hypothalamus in the brain. Hypothalamus is the emotional seat of the brain. Anything which is emotionally laden is usually easier to recall, however if there is a flood of emotions it leads to confusion however if this flood continues for extended period of time, it can even cause atrophy in dendrites. This reduces the brains ability to put new information into memory as well as to retrieve old information. The good news is that aging brain, however, continues to have a remarkable ability to grow, adapt, and change patterns of connections. Therefore establishing associations and new pathways for connection have a healing effect on the brain.
The exercise program calls for presenting the brain with nonroutine or unexpected experiences using various combinations of your physical senses—vision, smell, touch, taste, and hearing—as well as your emotional “sense.” It stimulates patterns of neural activity that create more connections between different brain areas and causes nerve cells to produce natural brain nutrients, called neurotrophins, that can dramatically increase the size and complexity of nerve cell dendrites. Neurotrophins make surrounding cells stronger and more resistant to the effects of aging. Also, using multisensory approach, retrieving from the memory becomes easier with a web of associations supporting the matter. More often than not, adults don’t exploit the brain’s rich potential for multisensory associations. Think of a baby encountering a rattle. She’ll look at it closely, pick it up, and run her fingers around it, shake it, listen to whether it makes a sound, and then most likely stick it in her mouth to taste and feel it with her tongue and lips. The child’s rapidly growing brain uses all of her senses to develop the network of associations that will become her memory of a rattle. Adults miss out on this multisensory experience of new associations and sensory involvement because we tend to rely heavily on only one or two senses. As we grow older, we find that life is easier and less stressful when it’s predictable. So we tend to avoid new experiences and develop routines around what we already know and feel comfortable with. By doing this, we reduce opportunities for making new associations to a level that is less than idea. Simultaneous sensory input creates a neural “safety net” that traps information for future access.
Social interactions are also non routine and therefore socializing has similar effect. However we find more often than not that people who are undergoing emotional stress / depression want to be left alone and withdraw from social contacts. Is it any wonder why Psychiatrists suggest going for a walk rather that doing a fitness workout alone in your gym? Going for a walk allows one to experience all 5 senses and also provides the brain with social nutrients necessary to heal the brain.
Here are some of the ways in which you can use mental gym to improve on your memory:
1. Involve one or more of your senses in a novel context.
By blunting the sense you normally use, force yourself to rely on other senses to do an ordinary task. For instance: Get dressed for work with your eyes closed. Eat a meal with your family in silence.
Or combine two or more senses in unexpected ways: Listen to a specific piece of music while smelling a particular aroma.
2. Engage your attention. To stand out from the background of everyday events and make your brain go into alert mode, an activity has to be unusual, fun, surprising, engage your emotions, or have meaning for you. Turn the pictures on your desktop upside down. Take your child, spouse, or parent to your office for the day.
3. Break a routine activity in an unexpected, nontrivial way.
(Novelty just for its own sake is not highly Neurobic.)
Take a completely new route to work. Shop at a road side market instead of a supermarket. Normally, placing a key in a lock uses vision and “motor memory”—an unconscious “map” in the parts of our brain that control movement—which provides an ongoing feedback that allows us to sense where parts of our body are in space. (This is called the proprioceptive sense.)
Neurobics is recommended as a lifestyle choice, not a crash course or a quick fix. Simply by making small changes in your daily habits, you can turn everyday routines into “mind-building” exercises. It’s like improving your physical state by using the stairs instead of the elevator or walking to the store instead of driving.
Ramesh worked on these mental gym exercises for about 6 months and started regaining confidence in himself and also noticed his stress reducing, life feeling more meaningful, increase in interest and involvement in routine as well as novel things and social interactions and in general an elevated mood.