Improving Your Memory With Yoga and Meditation

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Man has always aspired to have a perfect memory. Some people are born with a perfect memory, but not everyone is so lucky! The important question is that if it is possible to improve our memory. In addition to this, the following question also comes to mind: Is it necessary to have a very strong memory when we have computers with high capacity, calculators and many other technological devices at our disposal? In times when we didn’t have such support, we needed a good memory. Nevertheless, even people who benefit from all this equipment appreciate a good memory and want to have that themselves. Everyone agrees that memory plays an important role in the path to success in life – both in the traditional sense and in terms of personal and spiritual development.

Today’s Neuroscience’s Perspective on the Concept of Memory

Remembering and forgetting are two of the most complex and amazing functions of our brain. It is a well- known fact that memory lapses (gaps in memory) are very selective; we remember some certain things and forget others. In some cases we have simple explanations for this fact – a phone number that we use all the time activates a circuit in the brain and information travels quite quickly along this frequently used pathway, so that recall occurs. But sometimes we can remember an infrequently used number without any effort at all. Tulving, a contemporary psychologist, says that remembering an event depends on (i) memory tracing, i.e. where the memory is stored in the brain, and (ii) something that happens in the moment that acts as a reminder cue or trigger, thus initiating memory scanning or memory tracing. For example, an article we read about wilderness can help us to vividly visualize a previous visit to a nature park and, sometimes surprisingly, to remember all the details about it.

Similarly, the same approach explains forgetting as impairment in memory monitoring and/or lack of a reminder cue. Many studies have been conducted to understand which of these two factors is more important. A simple experiment was conducted to investigate this. Subjects were divided into 6 groups and 6 word lists were created. Each of these six lists contained words belonging to a specific category (for example, the list of insects included: ants, beetles, wasps, mosquitoes). The first experimental group was then shown a single list of words that they were expected to remember. The remaining five experimental groups were shown both the first list and lists one/two/three/four/five respectively. Thus, the first group was shown a single list of 4 words that they were expected to remember, while the fifth group was shown a list of 6 words that they were expected to remember, i.e. 24 words. Although one list was common to all groups, it was noted that the first group showed much better recall performance. As expected, the sixth group had the worst recall performance. So overcrowding the mind appeared to have a negative impact on recall ability. However, when mnemonic cues were added to the experiment (such as the first letters of words), the sixth group’s recall performance was no more worse than the other groups. This suggests that in many cases, the lack of mnemonic cues is more important than impaired memory monitoring. From this point of view, it can be argued that everything we experience is stored somewhere in our brain and we can easily access this information when cue(s) that activate our memory are available.

Wilder Penfield, a neurosurgeon, has produced some very interesting experimental findings that support this idea. Epilepsy patients undergoing brain surgery under local anesthesia remain conscious during the surgery. During these surgeries, electrical stimulation applied to some parts of the temporal lobes of the patients caused them to vividly reconstruct events that took place many years ago. For example, a patient heard someone singing a song with melody and lyrics – he remembered the song. Everything we experience is somewhere in our brain. We are the ones who decide which information is better for us to access!

The Effect of Anxiety on Memory

Sigmund Freud suggested that we forget (i.e. repress) anything causing us anxiety or pain. It is often said that anxiety leads to forgetting. Students report that test anxiety negatively affects their test performance. The popular explanation for this is that worry causes the mind to become overcrowded. When the mind becomes preoccupied with negative or concerning thoughts, it can become difficult to focus on anything else. This can lead to feelings of anxiety, stress, and difficulty in completing tasks or enjoying daily activities. Of course, it is an important fact that information that we do not use frequently is not remembered. This way, we create a mental space. Our ability to remember is often associated with higher-level brain functions that take us up the evolutionary scale. Perception, for example, is a complex system that primarily involves the reception of sensory information (hearing/feeling). In fact, there is much more to perceiving something than that. Because in order to perceive, we need that sensory information for which we rely on previously stored findings (memory).

Modern Methods of Memory Improvement

According to modern science, memory improvement methods are also limited to increasing the capacity of brain cells, increasing the ability to remember and recall, and improving the whole process.

Logical method: Involves a series of ways of making sense and establishing relevance, such as similarity, contrast, association, organizing the material at hand.

Understanding the meaning of the material: Of course, if attention is paid to the lesson, the material is more easily remembered. This is called rational memory. However, this is not true for all material, for example multiplication tables cannot be understood.

Overlearning: This is another way of saying that one learns enough to be able to retell the lesson without making mistakes. “overlearning” helps to reinforce the lesson. Many motor skills, such as swimming or cycling, are never forgotten because they have been practiced so much that they can be practiced without making mistakes.

Learning with and without gaps: Continuous work without any breaks or rest is called “learning without gaps”. Studying with breaks in between is called gap study or distributed study. Experiments have shown that gap work produces much better results than non-gap work.

Mnemonics: Different games that make it easier to remember a sequence or a group of independent items.

Improving Memory through Yoga and Spiritual Knowledge

Here’s how practicing yoga can help improve memory with the following benefits:

Perception deepens: If all our channels of communication with the outside world (i.e. our five senses) are not functioning at optimum levels, our perception becomes dulled and it declines. The first thing to do in this situation is to increase the awareness  of these senses. We can do this by stimulating (kriya) or relaxing (savasana, pranayama, and indeed any yoga practice).

Distraction decreases and attention span increases: The goal of yoga practice is to reach a state of mental transcendence (completely). Part of this state is the ability to voluntarily change one’s mental activity. Even if the state of supreme awareness is not reached, it is certain that one can exercise some degree of mental control, which means that one can concentrate on what he/she wants to memorize and exclude all other thoughts from his/her perception.

Inactive areas of the brain are activated: Interestingly, even geniuses do not use the full capacity of their brains. Human beings only use a small fraction of their brain capacity. Yoga practices help us to activate the inactive parts of our brain.

Necessary things in our memory are separated from the unnecessary: Developing our memory is supposed to lead us to the source of our thoughts, the source of our existence (Anandamaya Kosa in yoga parlance). One of the ways to make this possible is to keep the useful things in our memory and to discard the negative things that have lost their purpose and are not pleasing to us. This will help one to develop and create a positive environment and a harmonious society.

General Memory Concepts of Yoga and Meditation

For Yoga and the spiritual sciences, what is essential is the development of the person, from the lowest primordial impulses to the highest divine level of existence in harmony with nature, the universe and the whole creation This holistic view of growth is the essence of developing memory according to the science of Yoga. In accordance with  Upanishads and the yogic tradition, the human being is composed of five sheaths or layers, known as the pancha-kosha, each representing a different aspect of existence. These sheaths are the annamaya kosha (the physical body), pranamaya kosha (the energy body), manomaya kosha (the mental body), vijnanamaya kosha (the intellectual body) and anandamaya kosha (the bliss body). Each one of these sheaths encompasses the inner ones, and are believed to be the different aspects that make up the human experience. As mentioned above, a holistic approach to yoga (functioning in all sheaths of existence) is again important for a holistic memory. There are a wide variety of yoga techniques which, when practiced regularly, can bring about the aforementioned changes in memory. Between 1986-88, a study was conducted among students attending a Personal Development Camp for a period of 10 days. The current auditory, visual, auditory-visual, short-term and long-term memory status of 8-18 year old students (boys and girls) was observed before they participated in yoga practices. Then, the students took integrated yoga classes for memory development for two and a half hours every day. At the end of the camp, the same parameters were measured again. Data were collected from a total of 360 students who participated in the personal development camp.

As a result, there was a significant improvement in memory values:

Auditory memory: 28%

Visual memory: 23&

Auditory-visual memory: 18%

Short-term memory: 12%

Long-term memory: 8%

In another study, meditation was shown to have a positive effect on academic performance and psychological health in high school students (Kory & Hufnagel, 1974). Grade point averages, absenteeism, tardiness and major disciplinary offenses were all improved. In learning complex subjects, performance is known to improve when anxiety is reduced (Saltz, 1970). It is thought that the anxiety-reducing effect of meditation is the reason for the progress made in this cited study. This study tests the effect of a ten-day yoga practice on memory using a standardized scale, the Wechsler Memory Scale. The subjects were 108 children aged between 11 and 14 years. They participated in a 10-day personal development and yoga summer camp. All children were explained about the study. The children were selected from among those who participated in three consecutive camp cycles (courses I, II, III) during April. In each cycle, I-33, II-30, III-35 children were selected respectively. All children were assessed once at the beginning and once at the end of the 10-day period on the following seven parts of the Wechsler Memory Scale standards:

Personal and up-to-date information (6 points)

Orientation (5 points)

Mind Control (8 points)

Collecting details of the story (23 points)

Number sequences, forward and backward (15 points)

Visual reproduction (11 points)

Learning together/collaboratively (15 points)

All children practiced multidimensional yoga: asana, pranayama, kriya, and meditation. At the end of the 10-day camp, there was a statistically significant increase in memory in all three groups (I, II, III; n= 33, 30, 35, respectively) according to the six sections (2 to 7) of the Wechsler Memory scale. When the percentage increase values were calculated, there were significant differences between the improvement shown by the subjects in different groups (I, II, III).

These differences are as follows according to the groups:

Group I (n=33) showed the highest improvement (436%) in the 4th phase, followed by the 6th phase (336%), while the lowest improvement (9%) was recorded in the 5th phase.

Group II (n=30) showed the highest improvement (473%) in the 6th phase, followed by the 4th phase (236%), and the lowest improvement (0%) was recorded in the 7th phase.

Group III (n=35) showed the highest improvement (365%) in the 6th phase, followed by the 4th phase (290%), and the lowest improvement (17%) was recorded in the 3rd phase.

Having made such promising advances in memory development, more systematic research has been done to study the effects of yoga on memory development. There is a lot of detailed research on the effects of yoga on memory. These studies have yielded many interesting findings. For schoolchildren, a ten-day program of yoga practices was found to be sufficient to improve their memory. In general, practicing yoga improves right brain activity (creative, intuitive) more than left brain activity (logical, analytical). However, left-brain activity also improves. Another surprising result is this: Could the nostril we use to breathe in and out have an effect on memory? The results suggest that it can, and in fact does. For example, breathing through the right nostril positively affects the functioning of the hemisphere of the brain on the same side (right), helping us to remember shapes, pictures and routes.

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