Memory is of vital importance for learning a new language, remembering where you put your keys, recognizing your friends, and finding your car at the airport. We rely on memory every waking moment, but the majority of us rarely pause to appreciate our ability to retain and recall essential knowledge. When memory “slips,” age-related memory issues arise, there is a loss of focus, and learning needs to be enhanced, Ayurveda remains a reliable resource for its complete mind-body approach.
Remembering anything depends upon associations, and there are three major biological processes involved in the process: encoding, storage, and retrieval. In short, this means that an event is transformed into a memory, then it’s stored, and later it’s brought back into awareness. When one or more of these processes malfunctions, we have a “memory problem.” Memory issues can be attributed to an array of causes, ranging from brain dysfunction to short-term stress, and from trauma to insufficient nutrients in the diet.
The most obvious problem with memory is referred to as forgetfulness. You experience something and then do not remember the experience — or you misremember it. You might forget birthdays, anniversaries, car payments, or a range of other items. And you may find yourself forgetting more things more frequently with the passing years.
Over the millennia, Eastern spiritual sects have relied upon memory to recall amazing amounts of religious and philosophical teachings. Buddhist monk and scientist Matthieu Ricard explained that shortly after Buddha’s death, a council was held in which five hundred disciples met to compile a complete collection of his teachings: “You have to remember that the oral tradition has always played a primary role in the transmission of knowledge in the East, and does so even today. Trained Easterners often have an astonishing memory. On numerous occasions I’ve myself heard Tibetan teachers, and students too, reciting texts several hundred pages long from memory, stopping from time to time to comment on the meaning, with an accuracy that always amazed me as I followed the text in a book.”
Memory Supporting Herbs
Long before the ancient texts of India were transmitted through writing, monks and students could rely on certain herbs to boost their absorption of information and ability for recall. Because the Vedas were recorded in hymns, the religious community relied heavily on the power of the mind to memorize lengthy scriptures. As an example, the Rigveda, one of the longest of Vedic recitals, could take more than eight hours to recite, requiring exceptionally clear and sharp minds. Without the use of herbs it is doubtful that the richness of these passages would have been passed down through the generations.
To enhance their power of recall, Vedic scholars who chanted the ancient teachings of India regularly ingested the Ayurvedic herb Bacopa. We now know by way of modern science that Bacopa contains chemicals that help the body produce more GABA — a chemical that supports nerve transmissions in the brain and is essential for memory. GABA slows down the rate at which neurons fire, preventing overstimulation; but when GABA levels are out of balance, the result is mood imbalance, anxiety, neurodegenerative disorders, and aging.
While neuroscientists claim that memories are usually stored in distributed brain networks, including the cortex, the fact remains that science cannot actually “see” memories — mainly because memories are thoughts, and thoughts cannot be measured or observed. At best, neuroscientists can measure the impact, activities, or traces of memories by observing brain waves and neurons when something is being remembered.
This leaves a question as to whether memories exist somewhere else, perhaps in a mind that is independent from the physical structure that we call the brain. In any case, the brain functions as the instrument through which the mind becomes known; and for this reason, a healthy brain is important for memory recall.
Memories are relational in that they work through associations. Just as the internet is built on this model — with one idea that links to another that links to another — certain triggers activate associated memories. A memory of a specific place might activate memories about experiences that have occurred in that location. For example, thinking about a certain teacher you had in college might lead to memories of attending classes, studying, and socializing with your friends. This may even lead to fond memories of drinking a refreshingly cool beverage on a hot day after school, which only seems to be completely unrelated to your educational experience. The network of associations involved in memory are incalculable, and it takes a well-functioning brain for prompt and accurate recall.
Educational consultant Kendra Cherry explains that there are plenty of things that you can do to help improve your memory. Included are intentionally paying close attention, using methods of organization, using mnemonic devices, rehearsing, visualizing, reading aloud, getting enough sleep, and relating information to what you already know.
Medical News Today reports that, while not all memory loss is preventable, you can take measures to protect your brain against cognitive decline as you age. Some helpful steps include meditation, aerobic exercise, eating well and avoiding bad foods (such as those that are sugary and processed), and managing stress levels.
Memory Is Like a Muscle
Akin to any muscle, your brain needs regular exercise to function optimally, and should be kept active and engaged. Increasing blood flow to the brain, for instance, helps keep your brain’s nerve networks healthy. Cognitive exercises have been created specifically for this purpose, in addition to common leisure activities, such as crossword puzzles, regular reading, and engaging in detailed discussions with friends.
Then, of course, there are a number of Ayurvedic nootropic herbs that have been used for centuries to further boost brain and memory power, including Ashwagandha, Turmeric, Brahmi (Bacopa), Shankhpushpi, Gotu Kola, and Guggulu.