BlogTuesday 08 Sep 2015

The mindful ‘brain breaks’ that could boost your memory and even grow grey matter!

Life in the 21st century can sometimes feel like a daily skills pentathlon: so many tasks, so much information and so little time. Okay, so we’re not in a race for survival like Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. But it sure feels like our brains are expected to perform a million and one things at superhuman standard.

Faced with so much to conquer… and remember… is it any wonder we sometimes experience brain freeze? 

We all know that stress and a busy lifestyle can be detrimental to our memory. 

Losing the car keys for the second time in a week; forgetting that dental check-up; or leaving a bag of groceries behind at the supermarket could all be signs the brain’s inbox is bursting to overload.

And this is not a phenomenon unique to us humans. According to a bizarre university study, the memory of your humble pond snail is also affected by stress. 

Didn’t know snails could think that hard? Well they can. They may even have feelings, but that’s a whole other story… 

In the experiment, snails were deliberately placed in overcrowded conditions and deprived of calcium (which, as we all know, is essential to maintaining a healthy shell). 

Researchers found these stresses blocked the snails’ memory processes, leaving them unable to recall information they had previously learned, such as how to breathe outside water. 

Okay, so we’re a little more complex than pond snails, but it’s food for thought for mammals like us…we need to get a handle on stress.

Mindfulness: the way to a better memory

So how do we reduce stress and get the memory motoring again?

Many health and well-being gurus believe they’ve found a way: mindfulness. 

Basically, the theory is this: while multi-tasking might have been fine in the nineties, it’s now passé. In reality our brains function better when we focus fully on one task at a time. 

GP, author and Australian mindfulness expert Dr Craig Hassed describes it like this: 

““Mindfulness is a whole-body-and-mind awareness of the present moment. It is not a method of distracting yourself or tuning out, it is about tuning in.  It is the opposite of the anxious, stressed or depressed state of mind - which is a distracted or mindless state.” 

Stands to reason: we’re more likely to remember stuff if we’re paying close attention in the first place. 

Meditate to a better memory 

Like mindfulness, meditation is also thought to rally the memory, not to mention provide a host of other benefits such as a stronger immune system, improved overall happiness and greater awareness and compassion.

A recent Harvard study made some startling findings about meditation. In the study, the brains of volunteers were scanned before and after an 8-week meditation program.

When compared, the scans showed meditation had thickened the grey matter in several parts of the participants’ brains, including the hippocampus: an area that is key to memory, learning and emotions. 

Also, the volunteers around 50 years-old were found to have the same sized prefrontal cortex – the region in charge of abstract thinking and thought analysis – as those half their age. 

It seems meditation can help you literally 'grow' a bigger brain

Now, you don’t have to become a Buddhist monk and retreat to a mountain top. Just ten minutes of meditation a day – at your desk or on public transport – could put you on the path to Zen and improve memory function dramatically.

There are plenty of free podcasts on the web offering a range of short and long meditations. 

So if stress is leaving gaps in your memory, why not try adding some mindfulness and meditation to your daily toolkit? These simple techniques, which cost nothing, could be just what the doctor ordered.