I was trying to remember what I was going to write about this week, but I couldn’t remember. So I decided to write about memory.
Why is it that we can’t recall things at times? Especially when we are busy, under stress, or as we get older. And just what is memory?
There are three stages of memory. The first step is to process the visual, audible, and other information we receive. Another way of saying this is that we need to encode things in a way that gives it meaning and makes sense to us.
The next step is to store this information into our brains as a means of laying groundwork for remembering later. Two types of memory are short-term and long-term.
Short-term really refers to anything we are keeping track of for about 30 seconds. Like when we need to remember what we were going to say or headed to get something in another room. Saying the object out loud helps put it into short term memory.
Some research indicates that we can remember about 7 items at once. It definitely seems harder to remember a phone number when I have to throw in the area code too. But I can typically remember names when meeting a small group of people. This means my brain has the ability to group the letters of each persons name together as one item.
Long-term memory can last for years and even a life-time. This gets stored through repetition, and by how much meaning we give to it. If we make it important enough to repeat a phone number several times or practice saying someones name, our brains will store it for access later.
The last stage of memory is recall. I’ve come to realize that much of what I think of as memory is really about recall instead. This is our ability to draw out information and experiences of the past in order to use them in the present.
Items in short-term memory can often be accessed in order that we remembered them. We can just repeat the list to find the item we want. Longer-term memory is often access by association. Like going back to the thought of a picture or idea we associated with someone in order to remember their name.
There is surprising research that is showing, though, that memories we think represent a particular event in our life are often inaccurate. Even when we are certain. This may be because the process of remembering itself can alter memories.
This is not always bad as this can be a useful tool when we are trying to reframe experiences into something less dramatic. Studies are showing that we can actually interfere with original memories each time we recall them. Memory may be malleable enough that it keeps us from living in the past.
Storing memories in our brain requires adjusting the connections between neurons. And this can happen in several different places in our brain at the same time for each memory. Thus the entire image of a person is actively reassembled from different areas into a coherent whole, including their name.
Each memory can be seen as a synchronous firing of neurons that were involved in the original experience. Not like retrieving a photograph or book off the shelf, memory is more like on-the-fly reconstruction of different electrical patterns throughout various areas of our brain.
Stress hormones released by the body, such as cortisol, can alter our ability at recall. Not getting enough sleep can affect memory.
Our gut health also has an affect on our memory. There is a vast network of neurons in the enteric nervous system located in our gastrointestinal tract. These communicate to the brain through the vagus nerve and can influence blood flow, our immune function, and even how frequently we go to the bathroom.
When gut bacteria get out of balance or are not working well together, the production of neurotransmitters necessary for proper brain function may be reduced. This can affect all stages of memory. Gut microbes shape how well we sleep and react to stress, and this also influences memory.
There are some nutrients that can support healthy brain function, like fish oil, B vitamins, Huperzine A, ginkgo biloba, phosphatidylcholine, curcumin, and acetyl-L-carnitine. But I like to think of the gut as the first place to start. If you stop by, I’ll share more.
Scott Porter, a functional medicine pharmacist, is the director of the Center for Functional Nutrition at Sandpoint Super Drug.