This is the place to check things out if you’re not sure of the meaning of a word or a technical term that you’ve come across on this site. I’ve tried to keep the definitions and explanations as sensible and accessible as I can, i.e. as clear and as exact as possible without getting into too much detail. We need to know all we can about the brain and what can go wrong with it, but not necessarily to the extent a neurobiologist would. Knowing a little about Alzheimer’s and aneurysms and dementia can help to give us a clearer picture of the magnificent work the brain does, and how delicate it really is, but we don’t need to spend several years in medical school to learn every detail.
The brain and its mechanisms
It’s one thing to just practise memory techniques, but it’s better still to also develop a clearer understanding of the brain and its mechanisms. The more knowledgeable we become about the brain and its workings, the greater our respect grows for the memory and the other mental faculties that we so easily take for granted. A simple knock on the head could potentially result in brain damage that could possibly be irrepairable. I don’t want to sound morbid, or put anyone off taking the normal risks inherent in sports and other activities, just to urge caution – the brain is such an amazing thing that it really needs to be taken care of.
The functioning of the brain can result in some amazing phenomena. A good example of this is the self image. The self image is simply the brain’s own blueprint for itself, in effect. Over a long period of time it builds up a set of values about itself (you!), and sees it as the true mental representation of the person you are. Then, when you’re faced with a challenging situation, your brain refers to its blueprint (the self image) to see how you should respond to the situation.
The beauty of understanding the self image is that we can then see how it can be changed. A timid person can change his self image to make himself more assertive. A bad speller can change her self image by imagining herself a good speller. Done regularly, this can result in her actually finding spelling comes naturally to her! A slow learner can spend a few minutes a day visualising himself an A grade student, and pretty soon that will probably become his reality.
Better memory comes from better understanding of the brain
We need to take care of ourselves (and our brains!), and learn as much as we possibly can about how to use the brain more effectively. Not that we really know that much about the brain and the way it works, of course. I’m not trying to say we should study the brain because then we’d automatically be able to develop magnificent memories. It’s not that simple! The brain is the most complex biological ‘machine’ in existence, and by its very nature we may never know all its secrets. But as we learn more and more about how it works, and how the rest of the human body works, so we’re better placed to understand how to go about the business of real memory improvement.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. The cause of the disease is not known and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to make a prognosis of its progression since it can affect people very differently. It is progressive though, and there is no known cure.
It mostly affect people over 65, although early-onset Alzheimer’s can and does affect people much younger. Its early symptoms are often thought to be just the effects of ageing. People suffering the effects of it have difficulty remembering recent events and difficulties with various cognitive functions (i.e. their thinking and reasoning faculties are affected). As the disease advances, it can lead to confusion, which in turn often leads to mood swings and irritability.
Since it affects people differently and the symptoms can be mistaken for the natural effects of ageing, people often go undiagnosed for years. The incidence of the disease is increasing at an alarming rate and research for a cure is ongoing.
Loss of memory. The term ‘amnesia‘ covers every form of memory loss, from absent mindedness to total loss of memory. Retrograde amnesia is the term for loss of memory of the past, in other words the person cannot remember details of his or her earlier life. Anterograde amnesia is the opposite, in that the subject cannot form new memories. With anterograde amnesia the subject would act as though he had never met a person before when in fact he might have met him many times. Each time would, in effect, be the first time, as far as the subject is concerned.
An antipsychotic is a psychiatric medication primarily used to manage psychosis, which is a mental state of confusion whereby the person loses touch with reality. This presents as having delusions, hallucinations (either auditory or visual, or both), disordered thought patterns, and so on. Psychotic patients are sometimes prescribed antipsychotics to curb aggression or anxiety, or to calm the patient down. Unfortunately, these drugs are not without side effects.
An aneurysm (or aneurism) is a localised area of a blood vessel that is bloated and bulging, like a balloon overfilled with water. The surface area of the blood vessel in the aneurysm is stretched and attenuated to a dangerous degree and can eventually burst. If this happens in the aorta (the main blood vessel from the heart) it will very likely result in almost immediate death through blood loss. If the aneurysm happens in a brain capillary, the loss of blood nourishing that area of the brain can result in brain damage.
An anxiety attack, though similar to a panic attack, is usually due to excessive and prolonged worrying. The symptoms are usually less extreme than in a panic attack, but anxiety attacks often build up over a long period and can be very persistent.
About a third of stroke survivors experience difficulty communicating, at least for a while. This difficulty with translating thought into language is known as aphasia. If the patient has trouble with understanding what’s said to him, it’s classed as receptive aphasia. If he has trouble finding the right words to express what’s on his mind, it’s expressive aphasia. If he has trouble matching things with their right names, that’s nominal aphasia.
autonomic nervous system
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the part of the peripheral nervous system that acts as a control system, functioning largely below the level of consciousness, and controls visceral functions. The ANS affects heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, salivation, perspiration, pupillary dilation, micturition (urination), and sexual arousal.
Capillaries are the smallest blood vessels and deliver life-giving oxygen via the blood to even the furthest extremities of the body.
The central nervous system (CNS) is the part of the nervous system that integrates the information that it receives from, and coordinates the activity of, all parts of the body. It consists of the brain and the spinal cord.
The cerebral cortex is the outermost sheet of neural tissue of the brain, and it’s divided into left and right hemispheres. The cerebral cortex plays a very important role in the areas of attention, memory, thought, language and consciousness. The surface is much larger than you might expect, since it is folded in such a way that it forms grooves which give the brain the convoluted look that we all associate with it.
This is a term for a strong sedative, and particularly for the widespread dispensation of antipsychotic drugs in residential care homes to manage psychosis. Antipsychotics are sometimes necessary to curb aggression and other unwanted behaviours, but they should only be prescribed and administered with the greatest of care, and only for as long as absolutely necessary.
This refers to people that have never had sight, i.e. have been born blind due to a genetic condition.
Dementia is not a single illness but rather a set of signs and symptoms, and is usually indicated by a serious loss of cognitive abilities (i.e. the person has trouble with thinking, reasoning, making decisions, etc). The person affected also has serious memory problems, and gets confused easily, even with simple, everyday matters. It’s not ununsual for a dementia patient to not know with any degree of certainty where they are, what day it is, or even what year it is. A person with dementia also has trouble with learning new things, coping with feelings and relationships, and even recognising family members, or remembering who they are.
There can be physical causes for dementia (such as a stroke or a vascular disease), or it can be caused by a brain injury. It can also be caused as a result of another disease, such as Parkinson’s, or as a result of alcohol abuse. Some forms of dementia progress very quickly, while others develop slowly. There are currently no medications that are clinically proven to prevent or cure dementia.
A recognised condition in which reading, writing and communication all present difficulties. It used to be called ‘word blindness’, and dyslexics were thought to be less intelligent than average, but views have changed. Dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence. It is more to do with the perception of written symbols. A dyslexic person will commonly see letters shift around and invert spontaneously.
Dyslexie is a font specifically designed to make reading easier for dyslexics. Subtle differences in the shape and general appearance of the letters make them appear more clearly different from one another. Punctuation is also emphasised so that it’s clear where one sentence ends and the next begins.
Electroencephalography is an electrophysiological monitoring method used to record electrical activity of the brain. It is typically noninvasive, with the electrodes placed along the scalp, although invasive electrodes are sometimes used in specific applications. EEG measures voltage fluctuations resulting from ionic current within the neurons of the brain.
Enzymes are large molecules responsible for the many chemical conversions that constantly occur in order to sustain life. All kinds of metabolic reactions, ranging from digestion to the flexion of muscles to the synthesis of DNA, depend on enzymes acting as catalysts.
A mechanism activated by the autonomic nervous system, which primes the individual for extreme exertion, whether fighting or running away.
Although a valuable survival technique, the fight-or-flight response can be brought into play during a panic attack, with very unpleasant results. Understanding the causes of panic attacks can prepare you to deal with them effectively.
Cards with a word or definition on one side and a brief explanation on the other. Shuffling the cards and reviewing them can be a great memory exercise The modern version is electronic: sites such as Quizlet allow you to input whole batches of data in flash card format (i.e. word one side, explanation the other). You can then review them any time you like, or any of the multitude of sets other people have submitted.
Functional MRI. Scans produced by this type of scanner show the brain actually working, by allowing certain parts of it to be highlighted as it functions.
The fusiform gyrus is the area of the brain specifically concerned with face recognition. In people with prosopagnosia, this area has often been damaged due to traumatic injury.
Technical term for the enhanced memory ability whereby the subject can recall an enormous amount of detail of their earlier lives. This extends to particular days, and those with this ability can recall the meals they ate on a particular day, the weather, what was being reported in the news that day, etc, etc.
This is also known as superior autobiographical memory, or, less technically, photographic memory. It seems to be limited (if that’s the right word) to things that had an impact on the subject personally.
The infralimbic cortex is a region of the prefrontal cortex that plays an important role in habit forming, and habit selection. New habits, it seems, are given preference over old ones. According to research, it seems old habits are best superseded by new ones, rather than just trying to ‘forget’ them.