Recently, the ever-popular brain training games have taken off. These games hope to improve our mental capability and even promise to better our memories. Because this is extremely important to everyone as we age, they have had increasing popularity in recent years.
Although we won’t debate whether or not these games actually achieve what they claim to do, the latest scientific research regarding these games isn’t promising, and they have failed countless scientific tests.
So where should you turn now that these games are not as effective as once believed? The answer to that question actually lies in the connection between memory and hearing. This connection is the key to understanding just how much your memory can be impacted by your hearing ability. Previously, researchers did not understand or believe that this strong connection existed, but now that research has proven this, it has been the focus of many studies. Interestingly enough, this research has shown that a healthy memory actually depends on healthy hearing.
In order to understand the effect hearing has on our ability to remember, we must review the process of human memory as well as the brain’s process of memory.
How human memory works
The brain is one of the most intricate, complex parts of our body. This makes understanding memory extremely difficult, especially because there is not one area we can point to as the place memory storage takes place.
The storage of memories is created by electrical and chemical signals across all parts of the brain. Neurons are responsible for connecting these signals and creating the memories we retain. Because of the intricacy and widespread nature of the brain’s processes, memory is not nearly fully understood.
Although there are many things we have yet to know about the brain, we do know that the creation of memories occurs in three stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval.
The first stage occurs when we take in stimuli from the environment. When we do this, the stage of encoding is taking place. During this stage, we subconsciously filter the information we are encountering, getting rid of unimportant things and attempting to retain what is important. If we did not filter, our brain would subconsciously try to store every stimulus we were exposed to, which would result in our memory being quickly filled to capacity.
The next stage is the memory stage. Your short-term (working) memory has the capability of holding up to seven pieces of information for about 20-30 seconds. Although this does not seem like a lot of information that can be kept, there are ways we can expand this capacity. These techniques include chunking, breaking long strings of numbers into groups, as well as using mnemonic devices which can help us more easily remember the data we tried to store.
Three keys to moving information from short-term to long-term memory are attention, repetition, and association. When we do this, we avoid the risk of completely losing the information we hope to store. The reasons these techniques help us are because we become:
- less distracted and more focused on the information.
- exposed to the information more frequently.
- able to form associations with the new information and information already previously stored.
The last stage is memory retrieval, where you can consciously recall information that has previously been stored in long-term memory. When taking the information out of long-term memory for use, the ease of this depends on how successfully the information was initially encoded and stored.
How growing older affects memory
When attempting to understand how the brain works, we must keep in mind that our brain has a characteristic called plasticity. Plasticity occurs when the brain changes structure in response to new stimuli. Although this seems like a positive quality, it can also have some negative effects.
As we age, our brain changes both structurally and chemically. Some changes that occur include losing some cells, losing some of the connections between neurons, and generally shrinking in size. These changes that occur naturally in our brain due to the simple fact of aging can worsen our memory and impair our general mental function as we grow old.
However, plasticity also allows us to create new connections and learn new things. For instance, as we are exposed to new stimuli on a daily basis, we are not only gaining knowledge but also strengthening our ability to remember simultaneously. Interestingly, studies have shown that mental exercise and stimulation can keep our minds sharp well into our 80s.
Lack of use has been proven to be the biggest culprit of memory decline as we age. Because we are no longer engaged mentally and learning new things when we get older, our brain naturally begins to worsen. This is why keeping our minds active and exposing ourselves to new things is an essential part of aging in the most healthy way possible.
How hearing loss affects memory
So is there actually a relationship between memory and hearing loss?
It’s relatively clear to see why hearing loss impacts our memory, and this concept has been proven by many studies. In our discussion of memory and hearing loss, we’ve seen that our ability to store information long-term depends on our ability to pay attention to what we are encountering.
So let’s take a real life example. Say you’re having a common conversation with someone and you have a hearing impairment. When this conversation is taking place, two things are simultaneously happening. First of all, you’re simply not able to properly hear what is being said to you. This results in your brain not being able to encode the information successfully in the first place. Later, when you attempt to retrieve the information you stored, you can’t.
Second, you are forced to devote mental resources to trying to figure out meaning through what is being said contextually, which makes encoding the information properly extremely difficult. As we struggle to put the pieces together and form meaning from the conversation, most of the information is either distorted or completely lost.
Another reason that hearing loss affects the brain is because the brain has been proven to reorganize itself in those with hearing impairments. This reduced sound stimulation affects the part of the brain responsible for sound processing. The parts of the brain that are activated when we process sound becomes weaker and are less active and effective.
Improve your memory, schedule a hearing test
From what we have discussed so far, the ways to improve our memory and lessen the amount our brain changes are quite clear. First, it is extremely important to challenge ourselves and learn new things, which keeps our minds active and sharp.
Second, we must take the proper steps to improve and treat our hearing. This concept is just as important as keeping our minds active. This is extremely significant because with hearing aids, our sound stimulation is increased, which can help us to better encode and remember information. And, the enhanced sound stimulation to the parts of the brain responsible for sound processing ensures that these areas stay strong.
So forget the brain games—learn something new that you have an interest in and schedule your hearing test to ensure that your hearing is the best it can be.