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Build Your Brain: Ways To Improve Long-Term Memory

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By Irshad Anwar
30 Mar'22  7 min read
Build Your Brain: Ways To Improve Long-Term Memory
Synopsis

It is possible to ‘train’ the human brain to remember things better and improve long-term memory. Neuroplasticity, a term that describes how the brain changes – chemically, structurally, functionally – in response to daily experiences and behaviours is also how the brain can be “built” to improve long-term memory and learning. Here’s how. 

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Build Your Brain: Ways To Improve Long-Term Memory
Synopsis

It is possible to ‘train’ the human brain to remember things better and improve long-term memory. Neuroplasticity, a term that describes how the brain changes – chemically, structurally, functionally – in response to daily experiences and behaviours is also how the brain can be “built” to improve long-term memory and learning. Here’s how. 

How do we learn exactly? Why do some of the students learn things faster and more easily? Why are some skills easier to learn and memorise than others? Why do we forget what we learned? If you are a student or a researcher, these questions must fascinate you.

In a classic research-based TEDx Talk, Dr. Lara Boyd, a brain researcher at the University of British Columbia, described how neuroplasticity gives you the power to shape the brain you want. She explained the misconceptions, how the brain can change to support learning and what you can do to build your brain.

Students can use Boyd’s TEDx Talk to improve their long-term memory. Before we explain how, let’s address the basics first. Memory depends on how the brain changes due to plasticity. Our brain is highly plastic and changes occur in it all the time. By the time you finish reading this article, your brain will have changed. The most interesting fact is that it will not change in the same way for every one but differently for each person who reads this.

Misconceptions About the Brain

We used to suppose that after childhood the brain could not change. But that is not true. Earlier, we thought the changes in the brain after puberty only signalled deterioration, that we lose brain cells as we age. That isn’t true either.

Another misconception is that an individual uses only a specific part of the brain at any given time and that it remains idle when you are at rest or doing nothing. This too is untrue. Your brain is highly active even when you’re thinking of nothing.

According to Boyd, “What we know about the brain is changing at a breathtaking pace, and much of what we thought we knew and understood about the brain turns out to be not true, or incomplete.”

Neuroplasticity

Research has shown that our brain is highly neuroplastic and this could be discovered due to the advances in technologies such CT scans and MRI. The most interesting, the most exciting, and transformative discovery to emerge from this exploration is that every time an individual learns a new skill or fact, the brain changes. We call this neuroplasticity.

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Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of the brain to modify by reorganising itself, thus, changing and adapting in response to the experiences throughout life. The brain does so by forming new connections between the neurons.

Studies have shown remarkable reorganisation in the adult brain too. The good news here is that age is not a limiting factor of the brain’s neuroplasticity. In fact, changes in the brain occur all the time and this reorganisation capability of the brain also helps in the recovery of a damaged brain.

Neuroplasticity is greatly variable from individual to individual which means it is highly specific to each person and differs from person to person.

3 Ways Brains Change to Support Learning

The key to each of these changes occurring in the brain is neuroplasticity. According to Dr. Lara Boyd – our brain can change in three very basic ways to support learning:

Chemical Change

The brain functions by transferring chemical signals between the neurons - brain cells – thus triggering a series of actions and reactions. During learning, the brain increases the concentration of this chemical signalling between the neurons. Because this type of change can occur at a very fast pace, this change supports improvement in the performance of motor skill for the short term, what we call short-term memory.

Structure Alteration

To support learning, the brain can change by altering its internal structure. During learning, neurons form new connections among themselves. This change consumes a bit more time as physical structural change is actually taking place in the brain and that’s why it relates to the improvement in motor skills for the long term, what we call long-term memory.

The structural changes in the brain can also lead to integrating the networks of different brain regions functioning together to support learning. It can also lead to certain regions of the brain – important for specific behaviours – to enlarge or change in structure. Let’s understand this with examples: if you are a right-handed person, the motor region of your dominant hand which is on the left side of your brain is larger than the right side. Similarly, in drivers, regions of the brain that are for memorising routes and locations are more developed.

Function Alteration

With the learning process, the whole network of brain activity is changing and shifting – the last basic way of how a brain can change. When you use a region of the brain, it becomes active and ready to use again. The brain shifts its function of when and how they are activated because the brain has areas that enhance excitability.

Thus, the chemical, structural, and functional changes support the neuroplasticity of the brain. These changes can occur in isolation from each other but more often they occur in concert and together support learning. It occurs all the time across the whole brain.

Now you know how awesomely neuroplastic your brain is. An important point to be noted here is that if our brain is so highly neuroplastic then why are you unable to learn something with ease? Why do some students fail in academics? Why do we tend to forget things as we age? Why do some people not recover from stroke or brain damage completely? What facilitates and limits neuroplasticity?

Well, we have all tried to learn some new facts or skills such as playing the guitar, juggling, or a new game like chess. You feel that you are getting better with each session of practice and think, “I have got it”. But when you return the next day, you feel like all the gains you made have been lost. What happened?

In this case, your brain induced more chemical signalling in the short term between the neurons but due to some reasons, this was not enough to induce structural changes in your brain required to support long-term memory. What you see or observe in the short term doesn’t reflect in learning.

So, we can conclude here that a structural change is required in the brain to build memory. The short-term memory is supported by chemical changes while long-term memories need time and are thus supported by structural or physical changes.

What You Can Do?

To learn and build long-term memory we need to prepare the brain for internal change. So, how can you do that?

You can prepare the brain through exercise, robotics, and brain simulation but it cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. You may need types of exercises and activities that others don’t.

According to Boyd, behaviour is the best driver of the neuroplastic changes in the brain. There is a problem with this: learning new motor skills or rebuilding the old one, needs a very large dose of practice – or behaviour – to cause structural changes in your brain and bring it to long-term memory. There is nothing more effective than behaviour or practice. It has been shown by the research that behaviour changes our brain.

During practice, increased difficulty and increased struggle lead to both learning as well as greater structural change in your brain.

As our brain is highly plastic, a change in the brain can function both ways: it can be positive when you learn new or refine any motor skill; it can also result in negative change, such as becoming more prone to addictions. We can conclude that the brain is being shaped functionally and structurally by your behaviour: everything you do as well as everything you don’t do.

Now the question that is occurring to you must be on how many doses of practice or behaviour is needed for learning as some clearly seem to learn faster than others. After knowing the variability and that a single intervention will not work for all, it becomes more difficult to decide what will actually work for you.

The solution is to observe and study the skill in which you are best. Study what you learn best, most easily and how. It may be anything such as memorising the lyrics of a song faster. Repeat those methods and behaviour as they are healthy for your brain. Apply them to new learning and practise. Avoid habits and behaviours that are not healthy. Other factors that may improve your long-term memory include regular exercise or meditation, getting adequate sleep and healthy food. This strategy is meant only for your brain and might not work for others. So, don’t copy the methods and strategies of others as it may be unhealthy for your brain and you won’t be benefitted in any way.

Bottom Line: Build the Brain You Want

By now, you must have a new appreciation for how magnificent the human brain is. Understand that your brain is changing by everything you experience, everything you encounter, everything you do, and as well as by everything you don’t do. You and your brain are constantly being shaped by the world around you. Your everyday behaviours are very crucial for shaping your brain.

Nothing can be more effective than behaviour or practice for learning.

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