Healthy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to to Activate Your Brain and Do Everything Better (2016)

THE MYSTERY OF MEMORY HITS HOME:
Memories Mean More Than Neurons

It was a beautiful clear Wednesday morning in New York City. I had been a faculty member at NYU for a while by that time. That morning I was eager to dig into the Wednesday food section of the New York Times—my favorite section of the week. I was excited to see an article about the world-renowned chef Thomas Keller. With my parents, I had been to both of Keller’s five-star restaurants, the French Laundry in Yountville, California, in the Napa Valley and the equally amazing Per Se, overlooking Central Park. I was looking forward to a fun article about specialty butter or rare wild mushrooms, so I was surprised when I found that the article was about Keller’s later-in-life revived relationship with his father, who left the family when Keller was five years old.

Since that time, Keller had had only sporadic contact with his father. It was not until the chef was in his forties that son and father had established a real relationship. They enjoyed each other’s company so much that the elder Keller moved to Yountville to live near his son. Both loved their new relationship, eating and enjoying life to its fullest—no doubt the wonderful food and the beautiful surroundings of the Napa Valley only added to the joyful intensity of their reunion. But a tragic car accident left Keller’s father a paraplegic, requiring constant care and monitoring. Keller threw himself and all of his resources into helping his father heal and begin a new life from his now ubiquitous wheelchair. Under the careful watch of his son, the elder Keller survived with at least some of his old gusto intact for another year, before passing away.

It was a moving article. I could feel the pain that Keller experienced in losing the father whom he had only just gotten to know so late in life.

But the kicker was a quote by Keller who summed it all up when he said, “At the end of the day when we think about what we have, it’s memories.” I actually started to cry.

I cried not just because the story was moving. I cried because the story made me realize something important about myself. I had spent the last sixteen plus years studying the mechanics of memory, without truly thinking about what memories mean to me. Yes, I thought about patient H.M. and all that he lost without his medial temporal lobes. But I had spent no time thinking about how precious my own memories were to me. What memories were they? In a flash, the memories that came to mind were about studying; doing lab work; and earning degrees, prizes, and grants. I realized that my recent memories were all about science.

But I also had all sorts of memories about being a child, growing up in California with my parents and brother. If I concentrated, a slideshow of these moments began to unfold inside my head. Wasn’t Thomas Keller right? Aren’t our memories our most precious possession?

MEMORY LOSS AT HOME

While overt damage to the brain leading to amnesia is relatively rare, the brain regions damaged in those patients are also damaged in patients suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. One January a few months after that Thomas Keller article had been published, I got a call from my mother. She told me that Dad wasn’t feeling well and that he told her he couldn’t remember how to get to the convenience store where he had been going to get his coffee for the last thirty plus years. Quite suddenly, my father’s memory had evaporated.

I’m not a neurologist, but I knew my father’s symptoms were not just the forgetfulness that comes with age, when the brain’s memory centers begin to gradually slow down. I jumped into action and through my colleagues at Stanford, I got my dad an appointment with a top-notch neurologist. I flew out to go to the appointment with my parents. I was there when my father was given a diagnosis of general dementia.

I can’t even put into words how helpless I felt. I was considered an expert on the brain areas important for memory, and yet I was completely and utterly powerless to do anything to help my dad. What was all my education good for if I couldn’t help my own father? It was devastating.

I decided that even if I couldn’t cure his memory problem, I would find a way to help him. In the process, I helped my mother and myself as well.

Before that fateful January, I had been on a mission (much like Thomas Keller) to improve and enrich my own relationship with both my parents. While we were never estranged, we were not close either. For many years, my parents and I spoke only once every few months. We had gotten into a habit of not speaking regularly. On my end, I was too busy trying to attain my dream of earning tenure as a professor of neuroscience. On their end, I think my parents just accepted the sparse communication as part of the package of having a daughter with the kind of high-powered academic career that had been expected of her.

But as I entered my forties, I decided that I wanted to close the distance between us. I first started by making a point to call every week, a change that they both embraced. So, I was already talking to Dad more regularly before and after his memory problem appeared. And after the diagnosis, Dad was still Dad: he had the same sweetness and sense of humor, loved to ask me if I had seen any good Broadway shows, and always loved to hear about the new restaurants in New York. He just couldn’t remember what he had for lunch that day or who was at the family gathering last week.

But memory can also work in mysterious ways. Sometime after Dad’s diagnosis, I decided I wanted to try to change another one of our family traditions. While my Japanese American family was unwaveringly polite and always friendly, one thing we were not was affectionate. I like to tell people to think of us like a Japanese American version of Downton Abbey without the accent, the servants, or the real estate.

While there was no question that my mom and dad loved my brother and me, the reality was that we never said it. That just wasn’t done in the culture of our family. After we learned that my father had dementia, I realized that I wanted to start saying those three words, to both of my parents. I guess I wanted (or needed) them both to know that I did love them.

But then I had a problem. I knew I could not just start saying it without any explanation. It would be like suddenly starting to speak Russian to them instead of English for no reason.

So I decided I would have to ask permission.

Then I thought, Wait a minute! I’m a grown woman and I have to ask my parents’ permission to say I love you? That’s ridiculous, awkward, and uncomfortable. But then I realized that it wasn’t the awkwardness of asking permission that was bothering me. It was the fear that they might say no. And I knew that would make me feel awful.

Well, the only way to find out was to ask. One Sunday night I gathered up all my courage before I made my regular call. Obviously, this was no ordinary Sunday night. This was going to be the night of “The Big Ask.” How these Sunday-night calls worked was that I would first talk to my mom and share all my news of the week, and then she would hand the phone off to my dad and I would share all over again with him. I was starting to get scared that I would chicken out and not ask my question, so I decided my theme for the phone call would be “Keep it light.” I would treat my request like any other request, like “Hey, Mom, what if we start talking on Monday nights instead of Sunday nights?” This was my strategy. It seemed better than “Hey, Mom, how about we try to change thousands of years of stoic and deeply ingrained Japanese culture in one fell swoop and start to say I love you to each other?”

The first part of the call was like any other Sunday phone call. I asked her how her week was, and I told her about mine. I was especially upbeat and cheerful that night and somewhere in the middle of the conversation I launched in.

“Hey, Mom, I realized we never say I love you on our phone calls. What do you think if we start saying that?”

There was a pause in the conversation.

A really long pause.

I think I was holding my breath. But when she finally answered she said, “I think that’s a great idea!”

I gulped air and breathed a huge, silent sigh of relief.

Sticking to my theme of keeping it light, I replied, “That’s great!”

We finished up our conversation about what we did that week, and I could feel a tension growing in our voices. We were like a couple of wild cougars warily circling each other. Why the tension? Because I think we both knew that it’s one thing to agree to say I love you and a very different thing to actually say I love you for the very first time.

But it was my idea, so I took the bull by the horns and said, “Okayyeeeee” (in other words, get ready for it, Mom!).

I love you,” I said in a big, overexaggerated Disney-like voice to hide my discomfort.

She replied “I love you too,” in an equally exaggerated voice.

I won’t lie, it was very difficult and very awkward, but we did it! Thank goodness that was over!

I knew that once my mom agreed my dad would agree too. During my conversation with him that night, I asked permission, he said yes, and we said our awkward I love you’s to each other, and the historic night of The Big Ask was over.

I should have been so proud and happy when I hung up from that call. And I was, but I also burst out crying when I got off the phone. The fact was, nothing about what had happened was light. I had said I love you to my parents for the first time that night as an adult, and they had said it right back to me. With that, we had shifted the culture of my family—forever. It was moving, and my tears were mostly tears of joy.

The following week, I was happy to see that saying I love you had already become much less awkward with my mom.

Then it was Dad’s turn. I realized that there was a chance that he might not remember our conversation from the week before, so I was ready to remind him about our agreement.

But that night, Dad surprised me.

You see, that night, and every Sunday night conversation since, my dad has said I love you first. He remembered.

You have to understand that sometimes he can’t quite remember whether I’m visiting for Thanksgiving or Christmas, but he remembers to say I love you at the end of every phone call without fail.

As a neuroscientist, I immediately recognized why this happened. This is a beautiful example of the power of emotion to strengthen memory. The love and maybe even the pride my dad felt the week before when his daughter asked if she could tell him she loved him—that emotion beat dementia and allowed him to form a new long-term memory that has lasted to this day. When events or information arouses us emotionally, our amygdala gets activated; that brain area, we now know, is critical for processing emotion and helps boost the memory processed by the hippocampus. This shows just how interdependent emotion and cognition, or feeling and learning, truly are.

That night, my dad formed a new long-term memory despite his dementia. And you can be sure, the memory of that phone call will be locked into my brain for the rest of my life.

WHAT MAKES SOMETHING MEMORABLE?

The fact that my father always remembers to say I love you at the end of our phone calls is an example of how emotional resonance can make memories stronger. But emotional resonance that kicks the amygdala into gear is not the only thing that can boost memory. For example, my request to my dad was also very novel relative to our other conversations in the more than forty years he has known me, and novelty is another key factor that can enhance memory. You see, our brains are naturally tuned in to novelty. It’s actually a safety issue because we want to be vigilant of new things in our environment that might be dangerous. Our brains tend to respond strongest (in terms of action potentials) to new stimuli so that a bigger response will be seen when we are looking at a completely novel face, for example, instead of the face of our office mate whom we see every day. It turns out that novel information is also easier to remember.

But there are a few other key factors that improve our memory, which I notice in my dad every week during the football and baseball seasons. You see, he can often tell me what football or baseball game he watched—especially if it was an exciting one. Just a few days ago, he told me he really enjoyed watching his San Francisco Giants win the 2014 World Series against Kansas City and that it was especially exciting because the Giants won in game seven. To tell the truth, I don’t follow baseball and I had to google it to be sure he got his facts right. Now, that’s pretty darn good memory for someone with dementia! The trick there is that my father loves baseball, especially the Giants, and has essentially a lifetime of memories and associations with Giants baseball that make it easier for him to remember the details of the World Series. All those associations that he has with the Giants provided a framework for remembering this new but associated piece of information: The Giants won the World Series (again) in 2014! We know that one of the major functions of the hippocampus is to help link or associate initially unrelated items in memory. The larger associative network is stored in the cortex, but when the hippocampus can link a new item (like the Giants winning the Series) to a much larger network of other Giants baseball–related information, it becomes easier both to learn and to remember that information. This is part of what makes my dad still my dad, even if his ability to form new memories is weaker now. He has a foundation of strong memory networks, which he has built up throughout his life, of the things he loves, thinks, and cares about: his family, food, Broadway, baseball, and football, to give a few examples. I am so thankful that this aspect of memory allows Dad to retain all the things he enjoys most.

DEFINING DEMENTIA AND ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE

How are dementia and Alzheimer’s related? Dementia is a general term that describes a set of symptoms that are severe enough to affect a person’s everyday life. These symptoms most commonly include a decline in memory function, planning ability, decision making, and other thinking skills. The term alone does not describe a specific disease. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. It is estimated that 60 to 80 percent of people with signs of dementia have Alzheimer’s disease. The most common symptom of Alzheimer’s disease is difficulty remembering names and recent events. It is associated with deposits of protein fragments called beta-amyloid (referred to as plaque) and twisted strands of another protein called tau (referred to as tangles). These plaques and tangles are found all over the brain in late stages of the disease. To find out more information see the Alzheimer’s Association’s website (www.alz.org).

MARRIED TO SCIENCE

Yes, I was trying to strengthen my relationship with my family, but my career was still the major focus of my life. My new appreciation of how precious our memories are was making me realize how few precious personal memories I had. Don’t get me wrong. I had many great colleagues and work friends. Over the years I had established strong and productive collaborations for my work. I was considered an energetic and productive colleague to many but dear friend to few. Not to mention the fact that I was perpetually single. Was being married to science enough for me?

My focus on work and more specifically on succeeding in science was not new. It started when I was an undergraduate with my determination to become a neuroscientist and teacher like Professor Diamond. The irony here is that Diamond was more than a science role model. She was a wonderful role model for a balanced life in science that included not only an active research lab and spectacular teaching reputation but also a husband (another scientist), children, and an active social life that included her weekly undergraduate tennis matches. But for some reason, I didn’t feel the need to model myself after those other features of her identity. All I focused on was her passion for research and professional success.

My focus on work was amped up even more once I started my postdoctoral position at NIH. Every day, typically seven days a week, I had a forty-minute commute from my apartment in the Adams Morgan neighborhood in D.C. to my small office in the basement of Building 49 on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, to work, work, work. Yes, I did socialize with the great group of post-doc colleagues in the lab at the time, and even dated two of my colleagues (at different times), which was when I learned firsthand all the reasons people warn you not to date your coworkers. But these were momentary blips in the scheme of my life. I hadn’t had a serious boyfriend since François.

I had developed a theory about myself that started to define how I lived my life. My theory was that my self-worth was measured only by how many papers I published and grants and prizes I won. It made a lot of sense at the time; certainly this was the area of my life where I got the most attention and recognition. It was also an easy formula to follow. It was easier just to work all the time. There were no messy emotional attachments to deal with—just doing the work to the best of my ability. Yes, I could do that, and I was really good at it.

But there were a couple of corollaries too. One was the idea that I was not good in purely nonscience social situations. I felt confident about how I handled social situations revolving around science. If I could talk about my passion for my work, I was in my element. The problem was I didn’t know how to talk about anything else, which made my social conversation both awkward and boring. I had also decided during this time that men were just not interested in me. I had lots of great evidence for this theory. Just consider my graduate school experience. Six whole years and just one real date during all of that time. Actually someone else asked me out, but the first date went so badly, I said I was too busy and couldn’t go out again. The men I dated from my own lab left me feeling alienated from my own work environment and even less enthusiastic about my dating ability. Yup, my theory was clearly correct: Men simply were not interested in me, and it was not worth the bother.

The first year I got to NYU, amazingly, I was asked to be photographed for Annie Leibovitz’s photo-essay book about women called, appropriately, Women. And it was because of my teaching. I had been asked by my department to organize a day-long set of lectures for talented thirteen-year-olds who got great scores on their PSAT tests. Being very comfortable with human neuroanatomy after all my coursework with Marian Diamond, I decided to teach a section on human brain anatomy. The NYU newspaper had printed a photo of me holding a preserved human brain (just like the one Diamond first showed me) with a group of mesmerized teens looking on. Susan Sontag saw that picture (she was an adjunct teacher at the college), thought that I was an excellent example of an intellectual woman, and suggested that Leibovitz ask me to be in the book!

I didn’t have to be asked twice, and before I knew it, Leibovitz was standing in my lab. I ended up on a full two-page spread between Frances McDormand on one side and Gwyneth Paltrow and Blythe Danner on the other side. Pretty glamorous, right?

Someone once commented after seeing that picture that I must have men lining up outside my lab door.

My response: “Ha!” This was not a very polite response to a very nice compliment.

The fact was that, although I was a bona fide Annie Leibovitz model, there were never any men lining up at my lab door, let alone my apartment door. See? Men were just not interested in me.

Despite my obsessive work life and clear lack of a social life, I allowed myself one pleasure: good food. Partially primed by my time with François in Bordeaux and genetically primed by my parents, I loved food, and the restaurant scene in New York was phenomenally interesting. I read all the restaurant reviews (hence my paying attention to the article about Thomas Keller) and listened for any buzz I could pick up on the best and most interesting restaurants around.

When I first arrived as a new assistant professor at NYU I happily agreed to organize the departmental speaker series for the year with a colleague. We took suggestions for speakers from the faculty, made the invitations, and were responsible for hosting the guests during their visit. But the real reason I loved this job was because I got to choose the restaurants we took the speakers to after their talks. I took full advantage of this opportunity by researching and choosing what I thought would be the absolute perfect restaurant for a particular speaker—whether I knew the speaker or not. Those evenings out were becoming virtually my only social outlet, so, as was my way, I threw myself into restaurant research with all my might.

I ate by myself at the bars of the most interesting restaurants that I could find in New York. I liked to try new restaurants, but I became a regular at several neighborhood places too. I knew I had become a real regular when the bartenders started comping my meal because I ate there so often. All of this food-centered “research” could lead to only one outcome: chunkiness. My own.

Soon after I received tenure at NYU, I learned that I had been selected to receive the Troland Research Award from the National Academy of Sciences. This yearly prize honors the best under-forty researchers in the area of experimental psychology in the country. It was an amazing and thrilling honor to receive this award. It was particularly special because my parents flew out from California to attend the ceremony in April 2004 at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. My former dissertation adviser Larry Squire from U.C. San Diego, who is himself a member of the National Academy of Sciences, was also there, and he, my parents, and I all went out for a wonderful dinner to celebrate the occasion.

The author holding the Troland Research Award with her parents at the
National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

(Courtesy of the author)

Yes, I am smiling in the picture, and I was indeed happy that night. But beneath the smile was a woman who, at thirty-nine years old, was becoming aware of something: She hadn’t really given a moment’s thought to anything but her career and neuroscience experiments for years and years. And when I tentatively popped my head outside my lab door to take a look at New York City, I found myself all alone. It was as if I were leading a double life. My science life was like one big party that you never wanted to leave, with lots of engaging colleagues to talk to and always something new and interesting in the works. By contrast, my social life was like one of those deserted ghost towns in a Clint Eastwood western with bunches of tumbleweed swirling around the dusty road. In my quest to push the limits of science in my field and gain the coveted position of tenure at NYU, I’d lost so much of myself.

You can see it in that picture from the Troland Research Award ceremony with my parents. I was getting wide. But my waistline was not the only thing changing. Something even bigger was starting to change for me. I had finally reached my goal. I had won tenure at NYU and had a big active research lab to show for it. Yes, I was pleased, but then again, I was a little lost. What was there to work for now that tenure had been achieved? I could make it to full professor status above my current rank of associate professor. But what else? I thought I would have everything once I got tenure. The truth is that I had a title and a great research program that I loved, but not much else.

Maybe I needed to pay more attention to Thomas Keller and start making some of the kind of memories that would really matter to me.

It was scary to consider these possibilities. Considering these possibilities meant that I had to admit how bad things were and I was not quite ready to do that. So many things were wrong at that point. How was I going to feel better about myself? How was I going to reconnect with the little girl who wanted to be a Broadway star? The romantic who fell in love with a French musician? Where had that woman gone?

I was going to find out, and I was going to use my brain to figure it out.

TAKE-AWAYS: WHAT MAKES THINGS MEMORABLE?

While we are still waiting for that magic pill that will allow us to magically remember exactly what we want and need to remember, here are some practical tips for how to make things stick in your memory.

• The more you bring a memory back to mind, the stronger it becomes. Boring but true. At the neural level, with each repetition you are strengthening the synaptic connections underlying the memory, allowing it to resist interference from other memories or general degradation. Repetition engages the neural networks related to our attention system; in other words, we tend to remember what we pay attention to.

• If you want to remember something new, try to link or associate it to something you already know well, and this will help. The more associations a memory has, the stronger it is because it allows the memory to be retrieved in the widest variety of ways. If one clue doesn’t work, it will always have another to help retrieve it.

• We know that memories with emotional resonance last longer and are stronger than other memories. This is because the amygdala, a structure critical for the processing of emotion, has the ability to form very long-lasting memories with help from the hippocampus. From an evolutionary point of view, the amygdala (one of the oldest parts of our brain) signaled us in an automatic way whether something in the environment was good or dangerous. As our brains evolved into more complex structures, the amygdala started sending reinforcement to the hippocampus whenever it picked up salient emotional experiences. It signals to the hippocampus: Remember this moment, it made me laugh, cry, scream with fear! It’s for this reason that our strong emotional memories seem imprinted on our brain and are so long lasting.

• The brain is wired to focus attention on novelty so really novel events—the only time it ever snowed when you were in California or the one time you saw a meteor shower—tend to be memorable.

BRAIN HACKS: FROM A MEMORY CHAMPION

I recently spoke at a TEDx event in the Bay Area and one of the other speakers was the 2008 U.S. National Memory Champion, Chester Santos. He dazzled everyone by reciting the names of probably eighty to ninety people in the audience that he had met briefly just that day. Then he did something even more amazing. He recited the following list of thirteen words quite quickly:

Monkey

Iron

Rope

Kite

House

Paper

Shoe

Worm

Pencil

Envelope

River

Rock

Tree

Cheese

Quarter

He told us that he could get us to remember that list of words in just about three minutes. We were all waiting with bated breath. Then he went on to use some of the key factors that make things memorable, including novelty, emotional resonance, and associations. He told us that one way to remember a long list of unrelated items is to make up a story with those items; and the more fantastical or funny the story, the more memorable it would be. Then he recited such a story for us. He started by asking us to picture a monkey pumping iron (a novel and funny image). Then a big rope descends out of the sky. Imagine yourself feeling the texture of the big rope. You look up and see that the rope is connected to a kite. But no sooner do you notice the kite than a huge wind comes up and blows the kite right into the side of a house. That house is covered with pieces of paper. Imagine a house covered with hundreds of yellow sticky notes tiled all over it. Then a gigantic shoe appears and starts walking around the house covered with paper, making shoe marks all over it. But this shoe is really smelly, so picture a little worm boring its way out of the inside sole of the shoe. Suddenly, the worm turns into a pencil and starts writing on an envelope that appears on the roof of the house. Another big wind comes up and the pencil and envelope are both blown into a raging river. Then imagine the river so raging that waves begin to crash onto a big rock. The rock turns into a beautiful tree, but this tree is unusual: it is growing cheese on it. And then the most striking thing happens—suddenly quarters start shooting out of the cheese on the cheese tree.

Okay, we all agreed it was a fantastical story. But how memorable is it? Santos then started to recite the story again with the entire audience (including me sitting in the front row) yelling out all the key words as he told the other parts of the story, and it was clear that his fantastical story with its improbable events really worked to help us remember! After that he asked us to recite back the list and the whole group of three hundred people simultaneously recited the list perfectly from beginning to end. Amazing! He gave us that memorable story. Clearly it will take practice to come up with your own fantastical story that will help you remember a long list of things. But the cool thing is that Santos was using the same tools that we know improve memory—association, emotional resonance (humor), and novelty are at play big time in his story—to speed and enhance the learning process. I’m a convert! I’m going to have to start practicing with my own fantastical stories next time I need to remember a list of errands to run or a list of points to make in a presentation!