Strong imagination relies on strong memory

Intriguing research and some tips for improving your memory

“I only see clearly what I remember,” as French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau put it.

Some of us can’t even remember what we have seen clearly. Many older adults find it hard to recall past events. A Harvard University study examined how well seniors could create imaginary scenarios. The research found that the lack of this ability is linked to the seniors’ ability to recall detailed memories too.

According to the study, episodic memory, which is our personal memories of past experiences, “allows individuals to project themselves both backward and forward in subjective time.”

So, to create imagined future events, an individual has to be able to remember the details of previously experienced events, extract various details, and put them together to create an imaginary event. This process is known as constructive-episodic-simulation.

The Harvard psychologists supported their hypothesis by using a version of an autobiographical interview in which young participants and older participants each responded to selected cue words with past and future scenarios. When compared with young adults, the researchers discovered that the older adults had a significant reduction in the use of episodic details to describe both past memories and imagined future events.

The results of the study not only reveal that there is a link between age-related memory deficits and future planning in older folks, the results also raised questions about the involvement of other types of memory as well.

Psychologists have known for some time that recalling memories of personal events is harder for older people than for younger ones. Recent brain-imaging studies have shown that people use the same parts of the brain to imagine as they do to remember, suggesting that older folks may have as much trouble imagining as they do remembering.

Remembering facts is called semantic memory. But episodic memories are composed of different pieces of information you recall from the event, what you heard and saw, and how you felt.

When you try to remember these events, your brain has to locate, identify, and reactivate these bits of information and compile them in some kind of event you remember. The section of your brain that has the duty to hunt down these pieces and pull them all together is your hippocampus.

All this certainly doesn’t mean all old people have no imagination. It just means that many have trouble remembering, and therefore imagining, in considerable detail.

Now, for some really strange research involving memory.

Science Daily reported that recently published research came up with the idea that clenching your right hand — making a fist — may help you form a stronger memory of any event or action. And clenching your left hand may help you recollect the event later.

For example: “How do you do, Mr. Smith? You said Smith didn’t you?” Clench right fist. “Well, hello (clenching left hand, the name is remembered) Mr. Smith. I haven’t seen you in quite a while. Nice to see you again.”

Those taking part in the fist-clenching study were groups asked to memorize a list of 72 words, then later recall as many words as possible.

Altogether there were four groups who clenched their hands in this experiment. It was published in April in the journal PLOS ONE by Ruth Propper and colleagues from Montclair State College.

The group that clenched the right fist when memorizing the list, then made a fist with the left hand when recalling the words performed better than all the other hand-clenching groups. This group also did better than the group that did not clench their fists at all. The difference, however was not “statistically different,” Propper acknowledged.

The findings suggest “that some simple body movements — by temporarily changing the way the brain functions — can improve memory.” She said future research will examine whether hand clenching can improve other forms of cognition, for example verbal or spatial abilities,” Propper said.

Tips for improving memory

The Mayo Clinic offers some fairly obvious but sound tips for memory retention in its Healthy Aging Advice.

“Everyone forgets things occasionally, you’re not alone,” says Mayo. “Still memory loss is nothing to take lightly.”

Consider these 7 tips to improve your memory, Mayo suggests:

1. Mentally stimulating activities keep your brain in shape. Do crossword puzzles. Read a section of the newspaper you normally skip. Take alternate routes when driving. Learn to play a musical instrument. Volunteer at a local school or community organization.

2. Socialize regularly. Get together with loved ones, friends, and others — especially if you live alone.

3. Jot down tasks, appointments and other events in a notebook or electronic planner. Keep to-do lists current. Set aside a certain place for your keys, wallet, and other essentials.

4. Focus. Don’t try to do too many things at once. It might help to connect something you’re trying to remember with a favorite song or other familiar concept.

5. Eat a diet with focus on fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Choose low-fat protein sources such as fish and lean meats. Not enough water and too much alcohol can lead to memory loss.

6. Include physical activity in you daily routine. This may help keep your memory sharp. At least squeeze in a few 10-minute walks a day if you don’t have time or strength for aerobic exercise.

7. Follow your doctor’s treatment recommendations for any chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure or depression. If you’re worried about memory loss, see your doctor. He will check your physical condition and can give you a memory test.