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Effective leaders are more efficient with a healthy brain, including the structures which handle memory. Recalling information quickly is essential when making decisions on the fly. By improving overall physical and mental health, leaders can increase performance with improved memory. While we can ‘Google’ many facts in a few seconds, being able to recall people, processes, feelings, and other pertinent information is critical for success in a fast-paced business world.
Memories can mean many things, and some memories can be deeply personal to each of us. A smell from childhood, a colour that reminds you of young love, or a favourite food item that has always brought comfort and a feeling of home--all of these are memories.
But we also process information about our external environment. We use our senses to detect and monitor all the things going on around us. We learn and remember things at school, home, and work. Our brain controls our internal environment (inside the body) and keeps things in relative harmony as often as possible.
Quickly accessing the information stored in the brain is important for everyday life. Much of the information we process during a typical day is not stored in any kind of long-term memory. So, how do we control what our brain ‘forgets’ and what we store forever? And, what is the limit to the human brain?
Even before we could study the brain in a lab, we did see evidence of memory--or the lack of memory. Older people could tell stories of the past but struggled to remember the names of people they’d just met.
People have marvelled at how children seem to soak up knowledge, but the saying, ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,’ has made its way into our everyday lexicon. Many have also observed the effects of diseases like Alzheimer’s, which seem to erase memories and thoughts of the people we know and love.
The study of memory from a scientific standpoint traces back to Hermann Ebbinghaus. He studied his own ability to memorise and then recall nonsense syllables for up to 31-day periods. He noticed he had a ‘first fleeting grasp’ of some of the bits of information but that he might not be able to recall them later on.
As technology progressed, so did the demands on memory. Telegraph operators (dating back to the 1850s) had to learn and use what became Morse code. These dots and dashes could convey whole conversations, but only to those who knew how to interpret them. Then telephones were invented in 1876. Now, phone operators had to learn telephone number systems to route calls properly.1
As our jobs started requiring more memory, scientists naturally became more interested in this type of research. Even though we have been peering into the brain for over a century, many of its secrets are still elusive.
As advanced as our understanding of the brain is, the reality is that we really don’t understand everything about how memory works. When we speak about memory, we must realise that our understanding is incomplete, and even as we learn more, we often produce more questions than answers.
First, let’s become acquainted with the terminology to understand how memory works. There are three types of memory; short-term, long-term, and working.
Short-term memory is typically very brief and quite limited. It is also susceptible to interference, where new things that happen can overwrite or interfere with other items we are keeping in short-term memory.
Long-term memory is our storage system for memories. The exact mechanisms for transferring information from short- to long-term are unknown. However, several theories may explain how this process occurs.3
Depending on whom you talk to or what papers you read, you might believe that short-term and working memory are actually the same, or you might believe there is a clear distinction between the two.
When we talk about the limits of the human brain, we first need to understand some of the terminologies. The numbers get large very quickly, so we have practical ways of describing these numbers.
A study in 2008 found that we are exposed to around 34 gigabytes of information daily.6 A study in 2017 found the number was 74 GB and that each year the number was growing by 5%.7 The older study also estimated that the average American adult was exposed to 100,000 words per day.
Compared to literature, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is around 122,000 words, and the entire seven-volume Harry Potter series has just over one million words. As these estimates are over a decade old, we are undoubtedly seeing and processing even more data each day.
Because we are inundated with information, facts, opinions, pictures, etc., each day, we don’t pay attention to everything around us. Instead, we pay attention to the most important things, and everything else drops into the background to be ignored or unnoticed. Selective attention means we focus on what we need to and filter out everything else. As our data consumption grows, learning how to filter out the information we don’t need successfully is an important skill to improve performance.8
Since we know we are exposed to incredible amounts of data, what can we really store? Research published in 2010 estimated that the brain can store around 2.5 petabytes (2,500,000 gigabytes). This equates to three million hours of television shows in our memory.
However, these calculations are challenging because estimating how much space one memory takes up is difficult. Plus, not all memories are equal; for some, we store more or less information.9
And as the years have passed, the time has grown longer. The sad truth is that what I could recall in five seconds all too needed ten, then thirty, then a full minute - like shadows lengthening at dusk. Someday, I suppose, the shadows will be swallowed up in darkness.
Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood
Exercise has been shown to improve our memory. When we exercise, we increase circulation. The brain is a very ‘hungry’ organ, so improving circulation means we increase blood flow and deliver the nutrients the brain needs to function properly.
Exercise also increases the production of specific molecules within the brain, including brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). The molecular promotes synaptogenesis, which means new synapses, or connections between brain cells, are created. The more BDNF in your brain, the better your brain capacity and memory will be.
The positive effects of exercise on stress are also thought to promote good brain health. When we exercise, we can decrease the number of stress receptors in the hippocampus. Fewer receptors mean the impact of stress hormones will be reduced, so stressful experiences won’t be as stressful as they could be.10
Does exercise help prevent memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease? According to the Alzheimer’s Society, physical exercise is one of the best things we can choose to do to lower the risk of dementia.
Recent studies have found that exercise in middle-aged people can lower the risk of dementia by around 30% and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by around 45%. One study assessed five behaviours (exercise, moderate alcohol intake, not smoking, healthy diet, and healthy weight) and found that people who practised four out of five had a 60% less chance of developing dementia.11
Regular exercise isn’t a perfect cure, but research shows that moving our bodies can improve memory and perhaps reduce the effects of memory loss associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Hopefully, as we continue to unravel the mysteries of these conditions, we can pinpoint exactly what we should do to lower our risks. Aging is part of human life, but perhaps we do not have to accept the ‘old dog can’t learn new tricks' mantra.
As we move through daily life, we require a certain amount of flexibility, where previous knowledge is applied to a different or new situation. In research, this flexibility is supported by memory integration or the process by which related memories become connected by overlapping neurons. Synaptogenesis supports this process as neurons reach out to each other, making that information more accessible.
The idea of memory integration has only recently been supported by empirical research. Trying to decipher these complex mechanisms has only become possible because of computer technology.12 For example, perhaps you see a woman and a dog walking in the park. Your brain records this information.
Then, a few days later, you see a man and the same dog walking somewhere else. Your brain will recall the dog and the woman from the other memory, and you might infer that the man and woman are somehow related (maybe a couple, maybe living together, etc.). Recognising patterns like this is vital to increasing our performance at work.
When we think of an activity like dancing, the movements become mapped into the brain. This creates a shorthand between the thinking and the doing--so we can just dance without thinking about each move.13 Dancers usually refer to this as ‘muscle memory’, but this phenomenon isn’t limited to just dancing. High-level athletes who use the same motions over and over also show muscle memory.
Muscle memory may also play a positive role in persons who have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. A person might not recall how to play the piano, but someone might use muscle memory to play a favourite song. This also applies to daily tasks, such as getting dressed or brushing your teeth.
The human brain is an endless delight in answers and questions. We answer a few things but uncover dozens of more questions. Technology will continue to advance, so our understanding of how the brain thinks and stores information will eventually be better understood. To become a neuroleader, it is important to stay informed about research and do our best to continue to learn about how our brains work.
We can increase our performance and improve our brain function with practice. Remembering phrases or sequences of numbers to music can help us recall them. We can exercise to increase blood flow and the molecules in the brain that stimulate synaptogenesis.
The goal of research is not only to learn these secrets but to improve the greater good of humanity. Our memories make us unique and add a rich variety to the lives of those around us. In the workplace, our memories give us an edge over others which can mean the difference between failure and success. Perhaps we should refuse to slip into that inevitable darkness and instead focus on keeping our brains healthy for as long as possible.
Founder & CEO
About my Brain Institute
Scientist, educator, author, speaker, coach, award-winning leadership specialist, filmmaker and creator of the i4 Neuroleader Model & Methodology.
Silvia's scientific background and curiosity about the human brain led her to a decade long journey of research into optimal brain functioning and the application of neuroscience in leadership and daily life. Her past and current roles have uniquely prepared her for the current undertaking, that of leadership activist & change agent.
Silvia Damiano founded The About my Brain Institute in 2009, with the purpose of democratising leadership & neuroscience. She has a passionately held belief, that leaders in our 21st century global economy and their organisations must radically change long-held ideas of what constitutes effective leadership
In her ground-breaking books ‘Leadership is Upside Down’, ‘Brain-Friendly Leadership’ and the 2018 documentary ‘Make Me A Leader’, Silvia provides both compelling evidence and explores the importance of leadership in our personal and professional lives and what it takes to develop the human behind the leader.
Silvia has worked in different countries, across many industries, helping teams and organisations improve business performance. Silvia’s clients have described her as a passionate, dynamic, a highly experienced speaker and master facilitator on the topics of Emotional Intelligence, Cultural Change, Neuroleadership & Engagement.
Silvia is passionate about leaving a legacy of well-rounded leaders who can act and decide in a way that better serves humanity. Her clients include Microsoft, Australian Stock Exchange, NSW Government, VISA, Fuji Xerox and Manpower amongst many other global companies.