We often think of memory as something like a hard drive or video camera, where we store information and experiences in great accuracy, clarity and detail. The shocking thing is that this is simply not true. Memory is prone to fallacy, and even the memories we feel confident to have recalled vividly may not even be true at all. This is the phenomenon of false memories.

In 2001, Johnson, M. K., professor at Yale University, wrote, "A false memory is a mental experience that is mistakenly taken to be a veridical representation of an event from one's personal past. Memories can be false in relatively minor ways (such as believing one last saw the keys in the kitchen when they were in the living room) and in major ways that have profound implications for oneself and others (such as mistakenly believing one is the originator of an idea or that one was sexually abused as a child)."

The parts of our brain responsible for creating and remembering memories are the hippocampus and the amygdala, both located within the medial temporal lobe of the brain. The hippocampus is associated with motivation and the formation of memory, especially for the long-term, while the amygdala is associated with emotion and emotion-based memory.

With aging and stress, there is mental decline, causing an increased likelihood of the occurrence of false memories. As you become older, you become more confident in memories that did not take place.

Both short-term and long-term stress affect memory functions

The formation of memory happens in three stages: encoding – the information is received, and the brain prepares it for conversion into a memory; consolidation, where the information becomes fixed into long-term memory; and retrieval, that is, the process of retrieving the memory containing the information stored when we need to use it another time.

Stress may affect all three of these processes. Let’s say you forgot there was an examination, and you’re now trying to cram as much information as possible before the test. Predictably, what likely happens is that you’re not be able to remember anything you were reading, because you were trying to perform the encoding process under acute stress. When you’re stressed, it takes up more mental capacity, and you may not be paying full attention for the encoding process to work. Consequently, your memories may be non-existent or even distorted.

It is important to note that stress is not always detrimental; in fact, moderate stress facilitates information storage. However, the hippocampus is greatly sensitive to stress. This has been proven in several studies which reveal the profound suppression of hippocampal synaptic plasticity after acute stress. Moreover, it was found that activation of certain molecule receptors in the amygdala and hippocampus facilitated the impairing effects of glucocorticoids on delayed memory retrieval in spatial water maze tasks given to rats.

Prolonged exposure to stress is perhaps even more dangerous. It can alter brain structure for the worse, and increase the risk of developing mood disorders like depression. The key factors that affect an individual’s susceptibility to these cognitive alterations are certain personality traits, gender and age.

Age affects susceptibility to stress and false memory creation

Our susceptibility to stress changes over the course of life. A pioneer study by Bodnoff and colleagues involved comparing the performance of young adult and mid-aged male rats in the water maze test after a three-month injection of steroid treatment to mimic the elevated hormone levels that occur when experiencing stress.

It was found that learning impairments were induced only in the mid-aged rats. This, and other studies, highlight mid-age as a stage of life where people are most vulnerable to stress, and we have already established that the more vulnerable a person is to stress, the more likely they are to experience fallacies in memory.

Brain degeneration can be minimised

Some of the factors that cause the creation of false memories may be harder to guard against. For example, if quite a few people in your social circle remember something wrongly, you could end up changing your version of the events unintentionally to fit in, even if your initial memory was strong and accurate. Social influence literally modifies how your memory will be presented to you in the future.

The best bet is to protect the degeneration of the hippocampus and amygdala. Research has shown that just by walking at least thrice a week for no less than 40 minutes will help expand the size of the hippocampus by almost 2%. To preserve the efficacy of cognitive functions, regular mental exercises should be performed. It would also be useful to train yourself to think more creatively.

To take care of both the body and brain, enough quality sleep must be ensured as this will aid in triggering changes in the brain that help in improving memory. Nourishment is also important, for optimal functioning of the organs. Healthy meals and consuming food that has been shown to delay short-term memory loss such as blueberries, beans, nuts, vegetables and seafood may also help.

The last, although the most obvious, is ironically the hardest to achieve: reduce the amount of daily stress and anxiety that is experiences, and take good care of emotional stability. MIMS

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