Few simple tricks can help stop the leaks in your faulty memory

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August 03, 1993|By Barbara McGarry Peters | Barbara McGarry Peters,Contributing Writer Los Angeles Times Syndicate

When Jane Lee of McLean, Va., heard about a free memory assessment, she volunteered immediately. Despite her keen mind, at age 66, Ms. Lee has been having trouble remembering names and where she puts her keys.

She also noticed that her mother became more and more forgetful in her early 90s. "Mother had a good mind," she says, "but things didn't come as fast as they used to. Often, Mother would say, 'Give me a chance to think that through.'

"My memory is not a big problem," says Ms. Lee. "I'm not real backward," she quips, "but I'm not methodical at all. Yet, I was always a good student."

At Memory Assessment Clinics Inc. in Bethesda, Ms. Lee took a battery of physical, psychological and mental tests to verify that her memory problems were normal rather than pathological.

Much to her relief, she passed with flying colors.

Ms. Lee's concern about memory is not unusual. Who hasn't been frustrated by a momentary memory blank? Have you ever stumbled over the name of a friend who appears unexpectedly, searched in vain for glasses or keys when in a hurry to get out the door, forgotten to run an important errand or lost a train of thought? Most adults, beginning in their 30s, notice slight memory lapses and start to have doubts about their ability to remember.

How good are your memory skills? Most people, say memory experts, have a better memory than tests show. And their memories improve dramatically after they learn how short- and long-term memory work.

Take this example: When you hear new names at a party, the names go into your short-term memory. The memory lasts about 10 seconds, just enough time to repeat the names after saying, "I'm glad to meet you."

If you do no more, the names fade fast. When this happens, chances are you'll think, "Oh, I forgot again." Not true. Research shows that 50 percent of what we "forget," we actually never learned in the first place. To "encode" information from short- into long-term memory, so you can recall it at will, takes a lot more effort.

Some people might seem to have photographic memory abilities. They might slip up on occasion, but most of the time they capture facts, figures and faces in sharp focus on their memory "film." How do they do it?

Chances are these "human cameras" have a healthy lifestyle. Buoyant health enhances memory. Your diet, stress levels, exercise and sleep habits play important roles. Specialists recommend the following tips: Eat a nutritious diet. Vitamin deficiencies -- especially B-1, B-12, niacin and folate -- play havoc with memory. Control stress with relaxation techniques, regular exercise and sufficient sleep. Prolonged stress weakens memory. Research shows, too, that physically active people have better memories than their sedentary peers. And exercise promotes sound sleep, which makes us more alert.

People with photographic memories also use tricks to engrave facts indelibly on their minds. Here are several you might find helpful.

* Observe with all your senses. "Nothing is in the mind that was not first in the senses," National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) neuropsychologist Mortimer Mishkin quotes from Thomas Aquinas. "It's all the information we take in, store in the brain and then recall when we come across something -- an object, a face, a place -- that reminds us of that stimulus."

We process sensory input in the cerebral cortex, the brain's command center in the forebrain. Each of the sensory systems is organized as a pathway with innumerable stations.

Dr. Mishkin describes our "on-line processing center" this way: The eye opens and passes on what it sees from one station, or large cell mass, to another. As the sensory pathway interacts with the limbic system, important in stimulus recognition and recall, we store traces of information in certain stations along the pathway.

When you store facts in your sound, sight, touch, taste and smell memories, you have more cross-references to draw on the next time you want to retrieve information.

* Be a detective when you meet someone new. Here's what any self-respecting private eye might do: Take in the prominent features of the person's face, color of eyes, marks of distinction, texture and style of clothing; take in the setting -- fragrant flowers on the oak table, books stacked on the desk, chilly air blowing in from an open window, thick bouncy rug beneath your feet.

Details, details, details

When you see that person again and can't place him or her, try to evoke details from the setting where you met. Little by little the picture your "mind camera" snapped that day will start developing, and a name or place will surface.

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