When on holiday in Christ Church, Oxford, I attended the course ‘Human Memory and the Brain’, tutored by professor Gillie McNeill, who did an excellent job in making the subject matter both digestible and enjoyable. I drew a whole bunch of cartoons during class – something I would be chided for in high school but which is encouraged now, fortunately!
When we memorize things, for example a telephone number, our brain can use a variety of strategies.
It may visualize the thing it wants to remember, which is called iconic memory:
Or we may repeat the thing we want to remember with our inner voice, which is called echoic memory:
Also, we can remember something by the way it feels to the touch, which is called tactile memory:
A whole different kind of memory is the way in which we store how we physically do things, such as riding a bike. This is called procedural memory or muscle memory:
Of course we talked about famous brain scientists, such as dr. Pavlov, who experimented with his own dogs, conditioning them to salivate when they heard a bell ring, which they had come to associate with dinner being served:
Then we also looked at how the brain is actually built. I didn’t know that the biggest part is actually like a crumpled up sheet – if you could unfold it the brain would look like a weird-shaped balloon, something like this:
The thalamus is where all the information from our eyes, ears, nose, taste and touch goes first, before it’s sent on to other parts of the brain where we make actual sense of it:
A huge role in memory is played by the hippocampus, which is called like that because it looks a bit like a seahorse:
The brain is made of nerve cells called neurons, which process and transmit information in the form of electrical currents:
Each neuron is in touch with huge numbers of other neurons, each passing on information:
The place where neurons almost connect is called the synaps. Here the information is transmitted in the form of neurotransmitters, which are received by receptors in the membrane of the next neuron:
I also learned that it is a myth that the brain has a fixed number of neurons and that we lose millions of them every day as we get older – in fact, every day our brain makes new neurons! We can stimulate the growing of new neurons by getting new information in, in other words: by learning in the broadest sense of the word.
Here are some things that are recommended if you want to keep your brain healthy:
(Stuff like eating fish – omega 3 – is actually a bit overrated, although it can’t hurt either)
And oh! I almost forgot! SLEEP is very good for the brain too, as it needs that down time to process all the input and embed memories.
This finally gives me a scientific excuse for my habit of sleeping in late and taking catnaps in the afternoon.
Another important thing about the brain, that I didn’t make a cartoon of, is that it is fueled by sugar – and if it’s low on that, IT WILL EAT YOUR MUSCLE TISSUE! It won’t touch any of your fat reserves, no, it goes straight to where you keep your physical strength. So if you consider something drastic like crash dieting: DON’T. You’re just undermining yourself and your ability to think straight.
In short: what you need to do to keep a healthy brain is learn, sleep and eat your breakfast.