Barriers to Memory


Matthew Barrett, founder of Brain Trainers, was the speaker for our November 18 WorkSource Professional Network meeting.  Barrett has a Masters degree in Psychology and calls himself a “personal trainer for the brain.”  His lessons take cutting-edge cognitive neuroscience and turn the science into entertaining and accessible presentations for his audience.  We spent some time together recently talking about what “brain training” is and why it matters to jobseekers.

Barrett says that everyone experiences memory lapses from time to time.  The primary reason people can’t remember facts, faces or names is that they can’t retrieve the information from their long term memory – what Barrett calls the “file cabinet.”  Some information never gets from short-term memory – he calls it “the desktop” to long-term.  Some information is filed, but may not be easily retrieved upon command.  There are a couple of factors that can inhibit memory and recall.

One factor, believe it or not, is the efficiency of the adult brain.  Neuroscience studies indicate that when you first learn or perform a task, all your neural circuits engage; “Your brain lights up like the Vegas Strip,” says Barrett.  He calls this process “cognitive load.”  Think about the first weeks you spent as a new driver. You were hyper-alert, thinking about every tiny task and movement necessary to stay on the road and avoid other cars.  As the years progressed, and you logged in thousands of miles every year, your brain adapted to perform this complex task automatically. 

Eventually, you could perform the entire drive home on autopilot, without even engaging your brain.  That’s how you might find yourself pulling into the driveway without remembering any of the details of the commute.  Your efficient brain performed the routine drive without using any brain power – allowing you to plan the weekend dinner party with those circuits instead.

 This efficiency means that the trip home is accomplished as a single task instead of the hundreds of component tasks that it actually comprises.  Since you didn’t experience any neural stopping points during the journey, it’s natural to forget to pick up the dry cleaning until you get home, even with the ticket in plain view on the seat the whole way home.

Stress also prevents you from recalling important information; Barrett says that’s why racking your brain is counterproductive.  “You won’t remember what it is until you relax,” he says. Barrett explains that we actually have two brains: the complex reasoning brain we use much of the time, layered on top of our primitive brain, which hasn’t changed since our caveman days.  He describes it like this: “When we were cavemen, our survival depended on being able to respond to danger immediately.  The primitive part of the brain that engages during you ‘fight or flight’ response is called the limbic system. This system is also part of what controls whether – and where – memories are stored in the brain based on the emotional response an event invokes.  When your caveman self heard a lion roar, the limbic system clears the memory decks – short-term and long-term – so you can focus on your sensory input for survival.  Unfortunately, the limbic system reacts the same way to a lion and to dropping your notes in the middle of a presentation.  You go blank.”

If stress is keeping you from committing facts, faces and names to memory, it’s probably affecting your other social skills as well.  Working on relaxation techniques before networking events may be one of your best bets to improve memory.

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