Memory Maximizers: Saving Info Frees Up Memory Space: Foreign Language & Cognition

Here's the latest research to help you keep your brain sharp.

Saving Information Frees Up Memory Space

Saving information you have learned by jotting it down on a note pad, recording it on your smart phone, or preserving it in some other manner may clear your mind to take in and remember newer information, a study published online Dec. 9, 2014 in Pychological Science suggests. Researchers asked a group of young adults to study the words listed on one computer file (file A) for 20 seconds, then close that file and spend 20 seconds studying a different word list on a second file (file B). Immediately afterwards, participants were asked to recall the words in file B, and then the words in file A. To test whether saving the older information in list A would help participants better recall the newer information on list B, the scientists had told half of the participants to save file A on the computer before they switched to file B. The other half of participants were told simply to close file A before they switched to file B. In tests measuring participants’ ability to recall both lists, those participants who had saved file A were better able to recall the words on the file B list, suggesting that saving the older information had enabled them to put more effort into learning the newer information, and indicating the essential role of forgetting in supporting the functioning of memory and cognition. “The idea is pretty simple: Saving acts as a form of offloading. … We can re-allocate cognitive resources away from maintaining that information and focus instead on remembering new information,” the study author explained. He also pointed out that saving previous information might help free up mental resources for creative ideas and solving difficult problems.

The study indicates that using digital devices or other means to record information may help improve memory functioning overall. The following list includes some of the forms you might use to record information and help free up memory space:

  • Written notes
  • Journals or diaries
  • Calendar entries
  • Computer files
  • Smart phone entries
  • To-do lists
  • Cameras
  • Answering machine entries

Learn a Foreign Language to Preserve Your Cognition

You don’t have to sign up for costly computer training and brain exercise programs to stay sharp in older age. Tackling a foreign language may be at least as effective in keeping an aging brain agile, with the added benefit that you can use your new skills when you travel to foreign countries or encounter visitors from other countries. Authors of an extensive review of strategies for building cognitive reserve and promoting brain plasticity in older adults have hypothesized that learning a new language might be an especially effective way to keep the older brain sharp. In a paper published in the December 2013 issue of Neuroscience & Behavioral Reviews, the authors suggest that language learning engages many of the same brain functions that are most often associated with age-related decline, such as working memory, inductive reasoning, sound discrimination, speech segmentation, task switching, rule learning, and semantic memory. They also point to research indicating that older adults maintain the ability to learn new languages, and that language-learning is associated with measurable growth in the volume of the hippocampus, a key memory region, and in the cortical thickness of the left middle frontal gyrus, inferior frontal gyrus, and superior temporal gyrus—areas associated with higher cognitive functioning. The researchers suggest that becoming fully fluent in a language is not a prerequisite for positive brain effects. Simply making a serious long-term effort to learn a new tongue—with regular practice and review—appears to be associated with increased brain plasticity and growth.

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