Learning and memory is one of my favorite topics in neuroscience and today I get to write a blog about it. Hooray!

Let’s start with some definitions. Learning is defined as the process by which an experience changes our nervous system and behavior, and we refer to those changes as memory.

Did you know that there are physical changes to the structure of your nervous system every time you learn something new? It’s true! For many decades neuroscientists have been researching what happens at the cellular level when an organism learns something new and subsequently remembers. Many years ago, Donald Hebb’s groundbreaking research found that the cellular basis of learning involves strengthening of the communication between the cells of the brain through a process called long term potentiation. Subsequent decades of research have identified the exact way that long term potentiation occurs, and more recent research has identified a series of transiently activated genes called immediate early genes that are important for learning and memory. Immediate early genes are fascinating. They only exist in a subset of regions in the brain that do learning and memory, and they are only activated transiently when the memory trace is first being made.

At the anatomical level, we know that the hippocampal formation and all its inputs and outputs are an important part of the memory making factory. Some people call the hippocampal formation a “relational” structure because its design is perfect for forming links or relationships between memory traces. The whole relational factory must be working well for a memory to form, or else memories either get formed poorly or fade quickly, or in some cases cannot be easily retrieved without a prompt or reminder.

The structures in the brain that are essential for learning and memory are primed and ready when you wake up every day. Throughout your day, as you encounter new things, your neurons are directly changed by experience. We know that there are some neurologic conditions that damage to the hippocampal formation or its inputs or outputs, but even in those situations there are things that can be done to support brain health and allow that hippocampal formation to work most efficiently:

  • Get regular exercise using a program that is doctor approved. There is very compelling evidence that exercise improves the health of the hippocampal formation.
  • When you are asleep your brain is actively working on many different things, one of which is consolidating memories. If you struggle with periods of insomnia, talk to your primary care physician. Your hippocampus will thank you!
  • Use one calendar and one main to-do list strategically. Keep it in one place and check it as a part of the daily routine.
  • To enhance the quality of the memory, spend extra time with the material that you’re learning by repeating information in conversation, using phrases like “that reminds me of…” or “the last time we talked about that was…,” and visualizing future events. Take the time to envision yourself doing that task, making that phone call, arriving at the appointment. This isn’t just common sense. It supports the links that your hippocampus is already trying to form between your daily experiences.
  • A stressed-out brain forms poor memories. Tend to the sources of stress in your life and you might notice improvements in the ease with which you learn and remember.
  • Did you know that some vitamin deficiencies and thyroid problems can cause memory dysfunction? Talk to your primary care physician if you think you might have one of these conditions.

Here at Community Neuropsychology we evaluate and make recommendations for learning and memory problems every day. The recommendations above are for folks who have a milder level of memory disturbance, but we also frequently design behavioral interventions for individuals with more severe memory disturbance (amnesia). We’re happy to consult if there is a concern in this area.

Happy memory encoding,

Jennifer Geiger PhD ABPP-CN