Suzana Herculano-Houzel

And the best remedy for memory is…

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More books, more internet, more newspapers, more information – and it seems that the memory can handle less and less. What can we do to remember more and forget less? How can we have more synapses in the brain, those connections between neurons that are the basis of memory? Is there a remedy for memory?  

All these questions are perfectly natural – and have unusual answers. To begin with: you don’t want more synapses in your brain, you want good synapses. Maintaining the right synapses is a combination of learning and constant experience, and the elimination of excess synapses from the first years of life is part of normal brain development. When it fails, the excessive number of synapses is associated with mental retardation.

Too much memory is also a problem. I’m reminded of this every time I arrive in the late afternoon at the parking lot, where about a hundred cars change spaces every day, and I’m glad my memory isn’t perfect. Thanks to the selectivity of memory, which stores only some information and erases the rest, I don’t look for my car today in yesterday’s space. I don’t know by heart a list of now useless telephone numbers that I once needed, nor do I fumble today to remember the trumps from yesterday’s card games. Forgetting is an integral part of a well-functioning memory, just as not even registering most of what happens around us is also fundamental. The only reason we aren’t constantly overwhelmed by so much sensory information – and we don’t even need the internet for that – is thanks to the powerful filter of attention, which concentrates all the brain’s operational power on just one thing at any given time.

On the other hand, of course it’s important to find the information you need, and preferably when you need it, in your brain records. A lot of money has been invested in looking for drugs that make memory easier but, so far at least, all the candidates have undesirable side effects, and nothing works much better than coffee & nicotine – which obviously has its problems.

Even with all the advances in neuroscience, or indeed thanks to them, the best way to save your stomach, heart and lungs and have a good memory is still to… use your memory. Unlike a computer or any hard disk, our brains rewrite their history and memories each time they are accessed. And – more importantly – the more it’s used, the better it gets.

Originally published in Folha de São Paulo on October, 2006.

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