Watching Christopher Nolan’s magnificent Oppenheimer twice and then reading articles about the “father of the atomic bomb” led me to contemplate the mind and the brain. Although the words differ in meaning, we tend to use them interchangeably. That’s okay for my musings. I admit to being in utter awe of Oppenheimer’s mind, about which biographer David Cassidy writes: “his champagne mind sparkled, fizzed, and sprayed in all directions, yet he still managed to become a superb theoretician, teacher, and administrator.”
An aspect of my ruminations: wondering how the brain processes information, experiences and memories. I want to know why 24 hours after I couldn’t recall the capital of North Dakota, the answer popped, unsolicited, into my brain: Bismarck. And though I’d prefer to remember the endings of whodunnits rather than the degree years of graduates I befriended years ago in my job, the latter minutiae still clutters my brain.
According to Neuro Science News, the hippocampus stores the overall experience; the prefrontal cortex parses and stores the individual details. Exposure to an individual cue activates the prefrontal cortex, which then accesses the hippocampus for recall of the memory. The more we are exposed to an activity the stronger the connections. The less exposure, the weaker the connection, which explains why we may not remember someone’s name after a first introduction.
Neurologist Andrew Budson and neuroscientist Elizabeth Kensinger claim memory has three different phases that must happen for us to access past content. The first is to get the information into memory, a process referred to as encoding. Then, we must keep that information around, called storage or consolidation. And finally, we must be able to bring that information to mind when we need it. Memory failure can result from an error in any of the phases. Often it occurs in the initial encoding phase, when we’re just not devoting enough effort or paying sufficient attention. Their book Why We Forget and How to Remember Better (2023) tells us more about memory and keeping it sharp.
My apprehension of dementia, given the genetic factor of this disease, also causes me to reflect on the brain. Neurosurgeon and medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta writes, “cognitive decline is not necessarily inevitable. Research suggests incorporating healthy habits into your daily life can help protect your brain health for the long term.”
- Nutrition: best brain foods include avocados, berries, coffee, dark chocolate, eggs, fatty fish, green veggies, nuts and seeds, and whole grains.
- Movement: stay active.
- Downtime: engage every day in a relaxing, meditative, enjoyable activity that helps to reduce harmful stress.
- Sleep: adults need at least seven hours a night for our brain to consolidate memory, clear toxins and create new neural pathways.
- Discovery: challenge yourself mentally.
- Connection: “good relationships protect us. They are a secret sauce to a long, sharp life.”
- Hydration: current research advises women to drink 9 cups daily and men 13.
Some experts suggest adding a word a day to our vocabulary also contributes to brain health. I now appreciate that neurodiversity “describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one right way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.” •
P.S. Apparently if we repeat a new word several times, we learn it. “Snollygoster” means someone without principles, especially a politician. In today’s political climate we have many occasions to use this one.