Staying Wakeful and Relaxed

We have invented gadgets to help remember things, people, and events. But technology has its limits. We’ve also developed mental technique to bolster our memory by training and challenging our mind to remember and retain mass amounts of information – cross word puzzles, Sudoku, breathing routines, regular exercises, and myriad of stress relieving techniques are abound.

A study by Michaela Dewar and her colleagues discovered a simple, yet powerful practice that helps memory last over a long term.

“All they really need to do to cement new learning is to sit and close their eyes for a few minutes.” Dewar and her colleagues show that memory can be boosted by taking a brief wakeful rest after learning something verbally new and that memory lasts not just immediately but over a longer term.

Dewar explains that there is growing evidence to suggest that the point at which we experience new information is “just at a very early stage of memory formation and that further neural processes have to occur after this stage for us to be able to remember this information at a later point in time.” The process of consolidating memories takes a little time and the most important things that it needs are peace and quiet.

The best part of this study is not the discovery that peaceful and quiet time helps increase our memory’s capacity, but the fact that this technique has already been practiced from time immemorial by our ancient civilizations. For instance, taking brief periods of time off from the stressful chores of the day and dedicating a few minutes to meditation rejuvenates our mind – giving our mind some quiet time where it can process the information.

It appears that we might be re-inventing the wheel when it comes to mind-healthy techniques and practices. Still not convinced that meditation techniques bolsters memory? Benefits of meditation is not a mere belief or a myth anymore. We all wonder if there is any evidence to support it outside of our own minds. With scientific advancement, we now have evidence to prove it. Here is one for you:

Professor Jim Lagopoulos of Sydney University, Australia, the lead researcher of the joint study between his university and researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). According to this meditation research, electrical brain waves suggest that mental activity during meditation is wakeful and relaxed.

“This default activity of the brain is often underestimated. It probably represents a kind of mental processing that connects various experiences and emotional residues, puts them into perspective…”

A mind that is wakeful and relaxed is the key here.

This practice of letting your brain rest for brief periods spread over two or three times a day gives your brain some time to better process the information it receives throughout the day. Now we know that there is a purpose to those rituals and practices that our ancestors laid down in our traditions. In the name of scientific advancement and modernization, we tend to dismiss some of the beneficial techniques our ancestors have shown us. So, the next time you dismiss a ritual or practice as nonsense or absurd, try to see the logic behind it.

Memory – Not too Much, Not too Little

What happens if you cannot remember events? What happens if you remember too much?

Ordinarily memories change, deteriorate or fade away over time.  Imagine if time had not modified these memories. With a pleasant experience, recollection with vividness is desired. But what if it is a terrifying event?

Begin by understanding how memories are created and stored up. Then you can follow the steps laid down to help control your memories. First understand the scientific basis and then re-analyze the same concept in simple language.

How memories are formed and stored

When you experience an event, the information from your sensory organs is first sent to a little organic pulp in your brain called the thalamus. This information is processed and directed to two nearby areas called the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. Once the information is sent it takes the amygdala just a split second to make a quick assessment. If this stimulus is considered dangerous, the body’s stress response is triggered. At the same time, if the prefrontal cortex (which is responsible for higher mental functions) decides that the threat is not serious, it instructs the amygdala to calm down. If the threat is perceived as real, then the prefrontal cortex allows the stress response to go ahead. In response to a perceived real threat your brain is in high alert. This stress response includes a raise in heart rate, blood pressure, tensing of muscles and several cascade of biological changes to prepare you for a fight or flight response, which throws you into a predator mode. That little bubble in your head suddenly explodes into fear and aggression.  Re-experiencing similar events can create an endless succession of events and can set off a vicious loop. People experiencing circumstances over which they have no control eventually become conditioned to thinking of themselves helpless even when circumstances change.

Memories are not permanent

Memory involves multiple pathways and connections of nerves and their effect on hormones. The bottom line is; memory is not an entity stored in a single place.  It is quite intriguing to even begin to contemplate how these feedback loops are executed let alone comprehend how all these areas of the brain are given their respective “roles”. There is a marvelous contingency plan built in an intricate cooperative venture. Even more mysterious is that when this loop is once formed this ‘pathway’ is somehow stored in a virtual memory bank. This loop is also dynamic. This means that it is changeable and allows it to be overwritten literally rewiring itself in response to the environment. In other words nothing is permanent in our memory bank.

Current prescription therapy

Now imagine that you are introducing a chemical (in the form of a drug) into your brain at one or more levels. How can you measure the innumerable effects of this chemical at different levels of the brain and its effects on the entire body? If you think psychotropic drugs were a great invention consider this fact; ‘despite advances in our understanding of mind and its illnesses, the current treatments leave patients no better off today than they did almost half century ago’.

Why popular psycho therapies have little success?

Common therapies involve desensitization with repeated stimulation or replacing one thought with another through self-control. But what if the next event that causes stressful memories is different from the last one? You customize treatment for each troubling experience, essentially becoming hostage to therapy clinics.

Putting it all together

With this basic understanding simplify the concept without the scientific terms: ….sensory information that is perceived as threat is sent to different parts of your brain and processed at different levels to activate your fight-flight response. If you re-experience a similar event, you are wired to reactivate this pathway but not in a threatening way. Over time, memories fade away and new pathways are made. This is a cooperative venture with various parts of your brain and other areas of your body. So no single drug or single therapy is effective. This is the essence of the entire process. If you are having problems letting go of the unpleasant memories the first impulse may be to run away from the issue or suppress the thoughts by using some prescribed drug or some therapy. As a society we are increasingly relying on drugs and therapies instead of looking into the core of the problem.

Action Plan

Step one

When there is an unpleasant memory of events the first thing to do is to not run away or resist the thought. Instead of rationalizing the thought process, be consciously aware of your mind and its effect on the body. Your heart may be racing and muscles tightening. Try to stay with it. If you are reading the entire article you will know that your reaction to the experience is biologically and environmentally wired to help you deal with various life events. Remember it is only a memory. When this memory or thought passes away watch the silence, the space between two thoughts. Abide in that silence for as long as you can. Be a witness to this entire process. Over time you will get to a point where you could oversee the whole forest while counting the branches. You will be a witness not a victim to the experience.

Step two

Once you understand the mind and its various effects on the body while laying down memories shift your attention to two more actions that will complement your effort.  We as humans operate on an inherent internal rhythm in relationship to everything from biological functions to emotional responses. The two important aspects that will help you in this process are restful sleep and rhythmic breath. Make sure you get enough sleep. The blankness of deep sleep is due to the lack of specific memories. Restful sleep has healing qualities. Regulate your Breath. Breathing is the bridge between our inner and outer selves.  It is the only major function of our body that is controlled by both the voluntary and involuntary nervous system. Other vital functions like heartbeat, blood circulation and digestion are all involuntary. In the initial stages of this evaluation and exercises if you do not see the desired effects, it is impulsive to think of yourself as having “depression” or an “anxiety disorder”. Resist the temptation to succumb to prescription drugs or therapies. Give yourself enough time to see the effects.

Here are few other activities that will immensely complement your efforts:

  1. Take a break from your using routine- go on a retreat.
  2. Try to be in the company of people who have a positive outlook in life.
  3. Most important – dedicate 5-10% of your time and/or money helping others. This is the most powerful of all the tools.