Your memory has been failing you. It started with small, insignificant things but now you’re all over the place. You can’t seem to remember big events. Birthdays are being forgotten regularly. You are unable to recall where your house keys are kept. Several factors lead to forgetfulness. The most common ones are age, health issues, substance abuse, insomnia among others. Covid-19 has been said to lead to, and aggravate memory loss in addition to increasing the risk of cognitive decline. Whatever the reason may be, a simple technique could help save the day.
The next time you want to remember something, couple it with a positive experience and go off to sleep, according to neuroscientists at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. Sweet and simple, isn’t it? But what’s at play here?
Let’s begin by understanding what drives human actions. “The first thing is a necessity. Anything we perceive as important for survival comes within this category. Some examples are food, water, shelter, sleep, air, and protection from danger. The second is rewards,” says Delhi-based cognitive psychologist Meghna Desai. “We need a strong motivation to remember something. The brain’s ‘reward pathways’ that are responsible for triggering a happy feeling and activating its pleasure centres, give as an impetus to our brain’s memory channels, thus helping it remember events, people and situations.”
Not just the rewards but also the anticipation of rewards affects memory. As a simple experiment, the next time you want to remember something, just eat that delicious dessert or your favourite pizza. “Then the brain will see the food (positive stimulus) as a reward. The brain will now associate the food with the event and you won’t have to worry about forgetting anything again,” says Desai. This technique improves retention too.
The reward system itself works with a powerful neurotransmitter called dopamine—a communicator or a chemical messenger. Your body naturally makes it and in cases that it doesn’t, medication assists this process. In short, dopamine helps us feel pleasure and is an essential component in the reward system. “Dopamine-producing neurons found in the ventral tegmental area of the brain exchange messages with those found in the nucleus accumbens, thus further reinforcing reward pathways,” says Pune-based psychiatrist Dr Metali Ahuja.
This technique is useful to people across the board—employees, medical practitioners, students, children—as it helps in storing and retrieving information. If done correctly, it can especially help the elderly population. If you want them to remember an important event, a significant date, or a person, or even something as simple as remembering to take their medication on time, attach it with a reward. And it doesn’t have to be just food. It could be simple things such as acknowledgement, appreciation, or even turning mundane things into playful activities.
The opposite of this is also true, which is why if there is a negative stimulus such as an accident, loss, tragedy or pain, it gets locked up in our long-term memory, striking back the moment there is a similar event. “Our brains are built to protect us. It’s always in survival mode. It collects information in the form of memory to caution us from a perceived threat,” says Ahuja. With this little brain trick, memory can be your friend.