Memory: Genetic or environmental?

(Or, a bit of both?)

Dr.Vivek Nalgirkar

3/10/20222 min read

As a physiologist, I am always confronted with this question - "Can memory be improved?" Particularly, the students preparing for various exams have this question in mind. "Does memory have a genetic origin alone or can a conscious effort be made to increase the retaining capacity of one's brain?"

I believe, some simple principles may help us understand what goes into building of memory in a lifetime. Though the number of neurons is determined genetically, and hence genetics may put a cap or ceiling on how far the memory could be developed, there may be extra-genetic factors that can be of import, so as to increase the number of synapses, the number of neurotransmitter (NT) vesicles, the NT release sites, and changes in the dendritic geometry. After all, memory is in the synapses, rather than in neurons!!

(1) Theory of evolution: A part that is used very often will develop relatively to a greater extent as compared to other body parts; a part that is used scarcely will become redundant. I know, this applies to over a few generations and not to a single life-span; yet, it may not be completely ruled out that repeated and very frequent use of the brain may increase its capacity.

(2) Principles of learning (and memory): The principle of classical conditioning says there should not be a wide gap between the conditioned stimulus (CS) and the unconditioned stimulus (US), lest the learning will fail to develop. Thus, a simple thing to follow, in order to build memory, is your learning process and procedure should be continuous enough, without much long intervals. Also, there should not be any extraneous interference or stimuli between CS & US. So, while you are learning and trying to retain something, allow all your focus to be on the same thing. Do not try to learn different things at the same time.

(3) Does diet help?

Long term memory involves structural and functional changes in the synapses between the neocortex and hippocampus.

The structural changes need proteins (for changes in dendritic geometry, increase in the number of neurotransmitter vesicles and the release sites) and essential fatty acids (myelin formation).

There should be a cycle of 7 days of (alternate day) protein intake and one day for stimulation of hippocampal cells.

The best protein / lipids for this purpose are fish - egg white - lentils - soya proteins. Paneer is also good condensed protein. So, u can pick and choose what is convenient (veg/non veg).

Reduce the tryptophan containing diet during this period (banana, potato, etc).

Then, for the release of gut peptides (and hippocampal stimulation) - spices, condiments, garlic , are good foods . (Paneer chilly is my favourite; daal fry is also good , there can be other such foodstuffs). Among vegetables, shimla mirch-containing, and paalak-containing vegetables. (But remember, anything in excess is not good for the body physiology). Don't take it very spicey. Only mildly is good enough.

(4) What's the best time for learning and consolidation of memory?

The answer is - morning time, immediately after waking up.

To convert the working memory into a long-term one, the best time for reading is 4-30 to 7-00 AM. It is the time when the brain is expecting an episode of REM sleep; it's very well known that consolidation of memory occurs in REM sleep. So, study during early hours and then take a light nap, and then start your normal day.

These things will help develop a better long term memory.

Try any part of this. Only thing, be cautious about the spices. Don't make it too spicey (otherwise it will result in stomach-related issues.)

Dr. Vivek Nalgirkar