Monday, April 25, 2011

Family: Memory, forget me not


If your memory seems to be failing you, all’s not lost, as INTAN MAIZURA AHMAD KAMAL discovers
I’VE come to a startling conclusion: My working memory sucks! I don’t know whether it’s age, or I'm not exercising enough, or that I’m simply juggling too many things at once, but really, it’s alarming how I'm forgetting the slightest things that I wouldn’t, say, two years ago.

Our working memory is literally our brain’s post-it note. It's one of the most important areas of our memory system as it's akin to our ability to hold and use a limited amount of information in our heads for a brief period. But the amount of information itself is unstable — a sudden distraction and the information is lost and you have to start all over again. These days, I keep colourful post-it notes on my dressing mirror, by my bedside and around the house. And just to be safe, I also use my poor kids to be my "working memory”.

Should I be alarmed? “It’s nothing to worry about," assures Dr Tracy Packiam Alloway, director of Centre For Memory And Learning In The Lifespan at University of Stirling, Britain, and author of over 75 scientific articles and books on working memory and learning. The bubbly 36-year-old was recently in town for a one-day workshop on working memory, organised by Kidzgrow, a one-stop centre that provides solutions for children with all types of learning difficulties.
“It’s similar to the ‘top of the stairs’ phenomenon,” she says with a smile. “You get to the top of the stairs and then you start wondering why you're even there in the first place. When you’re juggling too many things, you’re bound to drop one of the balls!” The average mother, adds the Malaysian-born Alloway who migrated to the United States when she was 13, probably has an average post-it note, but she would have filled it with so many details that things start to fall off the edge. And she ends up forgetting things and having a brain freeze. “All of us get this,” reiterates Alloway, who has also developed the world’s first standardised working memory tests for educators published by Pearson Assessment. “If you’re concerned that your memory is declining, the better index to check against is whether you can still recognise faces. As we get older, we have a harder time remembering faces, and that’s more of a concern than coming to the top of the stairs and wondering why you’re there!” To address this “malady”, the genial mother-of-two says we need to find that moment of peace or calm, whether through meditation, prayer or even listening to a song for five minutes. Prioritising is key here.

Alloway says: “If what you want to do doesn’t need to be done at that moment, leave it first. I’m a working mother and I make sure that if I have to attend to emails, I do it at one time of the day. If I have many things to do, I wake up early and budget my time. “I work when the kids are at the nursery. When they’re around, it’s shutdown time and I won't take calls or do emails so the children feel special and I don’t feel so torn having to think about things that need doing.” But what can we do to improve our working memory and keep our brain young? Alloway, who holds a PhD in cognitive psychology, says there’s exciting evidence of our brain’s plasticity, that it can change — shrink or grow — depending on what we do. One of the easiest ways to keep the pathway to our memory clear is to play games. “Pick up the newspaper and tell yourself that you’re going to circle 10 words starting with ‘M’ for example. The idea is to improve your visual scanning skill,” she suggests.

Exercise, too, can help the brain grow. A moderate workout may generate new brain cells, but not just any brain cell. These cells specifically help to distinguish between memories so each recollection stands out. It’s the kind of function you rely on every day, says Tim Bussey, one of the authors of the Cambridge University study.
Your diet is important as well. A diet rich in Omega fatty acids is instrumental in keeping your brain from ageing. “Foods rich in DHA, Omega-3 and 6 make the biggest difference,” says Alloway, an adviser to the World Bank on the importance of working memory. “The healthy fat molecules in your brain need to be flexible or wavy, and foods such as salmon, mackerel, avocado and olive oil help those fatty cells stay flexible, which, in turn, helps make your connection when you’re learning. “When you start eating foods that are bad for you, they end up making your fat cells more rigid, which makes it difficult for your brain to acquire knowledge.” Alloway, the 2009 winner of the prestigious Joseph Lister Award by the British Science Association for bringing her scientific discoveries to a wide audience, has been researching the area of working memory for the last 15 years. A boy called Josh got her interest piqued. She recalls: “I met Josh, this cute four-year-old living in California, because of a call for help from his distressed mum. Josh received funding from the state of California to support his learning needs. Because of that, he was regularly evaluated and assessed. “In one assessment, they found his IQ to be average for his age, but his working memory was very low. He was at the bottom end of the scale for his age. But because his IQ was average, the state decided that he didn’t need any financial support for his learning needs.” His mum, recalls Alloway, was thoroughly distraught at this turn of events and subsequently started looking up online on working memory. “That’s when she came across my research and got in touch. She asked whether I’d be willing to test Josh. I found he was very poor for his age when it came to working memory, so she decided to take her son's case forward to the Disability Tribunal, a legal proceeding for learning disability where the judge would look at the reports and make a decision. She asked if I would, via video link, testify on my research on working memory. I agreed.” But not long after, Alloway was informed that she didn’t have to testify in the case as the judge had ruled that because Josh’s working memory was so poor, even though his IQ was average, he needed the support. Understanding working memory can go a long way in helping us understand our kids, too. Parents who worry that their child is falling behind at school and have concluded that it’s due to laziness, should take note. Your kids may just have smaller post-it notes and they’ve run out of space, so they can't keep everything in their mind, says Alloway. “These kids are unable to remember everything the teacher says and work with the information at the same time. Looking solely at IQ as the benchmark for success is the wrong way to go. “One main distinction between IQ and working memory is that the former works with the knowledge that we have, the kind of experience that we have about the world, and the knowledge we’ve acquired. The latter relates to how we use that knowledge.” To spot a child with memory problem, use a standardised test, says Alloway. “With my colleagues from Durham University, we worked with a leading test publisher, Pearson Assessment, and developed a test battery, published in 2007.” The tool, a combination of a checklist and computer program informed by years of concentrated research into poor working memory in children, has enabled teachers to identify and assess children's memory capacity in the classroom from as early as four years old. Without appropriate intervention, poor working memory in children, which is thought to be genetic, can affect long-term academic success into adulthood and prevent children from achieving their potential, says Alloway.

She’s also working with Kidzgrow on a memory training program called Jungle Memory to help kids with small post-it notes. “I’ve had a chance to do my research with organisations such as Dyslexic Scotland and various autistic charities looking at kids with learning difficulties and those not achieving their potential and found that when children used this program, their working memory, IQ scores and most importantly, their grades improved in only eight weeks.

“People used to think that you can’t change your working memory. But you can, and there are many things you can do. There's definitely hope.”

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