The Evolution of Memory

Today’s Washington Post had an interesting interview of Michael Kahana of the University of Pennsylvania. He is working with the US military to develop an implantable device that will help those with memory disorders. However, his bottom line is that those of us with more-or-less normal brains need to go through the tedious task of practice to learn any skill in which we wish to be proficient. The practice is skill specific. So practicing mental exercises on the computer seems to improve one’s skills in those mental exercises. I know that my skills in crosswords and sudoku have improved remarkable in the years that I have enjoyed doing them, but it does not seem to help my ability to remember people’s names.

He implies that the converse, not practicing skills may promote losing the ability to do those skills, is also true. There is a discussion on relying on electronic devices as our memories. I believe in a compromise. Continue to keep up a regular intellectual tasks through a variety of exposures. However, since knowledge increases in such a spectacular way, knowing how to look something up on your electronic device is a wonderful way to further explore new intellectual and cognitive challenges.

Neurofeedback seems to be a good way to put the brain through a series of challenges to remediate or improve memory abilities. It’s utility in helping recovery from traumatic brain injury is well documented. Evidence that it can help stabilize deterioration in dementia has also been described. However, I agree with Professor Kahana that specific practice in the tasks that we wish our brain to perform must be part of any memory improvement scheme. After all, how many people do you know who learned how to speak Chinese by learning to ride a bicycle?