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Stroke Smart Magazine

November/December 2007

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Memory and the Holiday Experience

by Jay Schneiders, Ph.D., ABPP,
The Colorado Neurological Institute

When it comes to recalling holiday memories — from the day you made a gingerbread house with the grandkids to the time the turkey tumbled off the platter toward a very happy Fido — a healthy brain is essential. But for some stroke survivors, the brain can complicate remembrances and interfere with the creation of new memories.

Memory is not a set of clearly recorded and nicely stored videos and photos held in the library of the brain. We don't access memories the way we double-click on computer files.

Instead, memory is a process — a virtual construction. Every memory is a set of countless, rapid-fire associations that tap different arenas of experience and recall, and build upon one another until a final “memory” appears in our awareness, as if it happened all at once, fully formed just as we experience it. In the healthy brain, this process can seem effortless and instantaneous. But in a brain affected by stroke, it can be slow, with all sorts of glitches, or be painfully incomplete at times.

A fluid remembering process involves a huge number of nerve tracts and multiple areas of the brain. A memory about baking holiday cookies may involve sight, sound, smell, touch and movement — each of which is influenced by a different area of the brain. That's one reason strokes can interfere in so many ways with memories.

Several things may help increase the ability to remember experiences after a stroke:

Involve the survivor as much as possible in regular holiday traditions. For example, seat Mom close to the holiday tree, where she can smell the pine, and have her help unpack and hang ornaments. Or have Grandma help light the menorah lights and gaze into the warm flames as the melody of the blessing is sung. By involving the senses of today's traditions, instead of just talking about them, you may be able to stimulate memories from holidays past and help create new memories.

Don't just look at photos and movies from the past, because “looking” is just one of the senses involved in the memory. Instead, watch old family movies while at the same time stimulating other senses. For example, look at photos while sipping eggnog, eating holiday foods and listening to favorite melodies. This may help the survivor assemble and retrieve memory traces that enrich the holiday experience.

Minimize distractions when doing new activities; this will help the brain focus on registering and consolidating memories. For example, make sure that multiple conversations aren't going on at the same time, even in the background. And keep the TV off while you knead and bake the holiday bread.

Record new memories with cameras and video recorders, then review them before the holiday (or evening!) ends. Review them several times. This can help etch and consolidate the memory of the event more securely and solidly in the brain. Take time during the coming months to review the images again.

Recreate the smells and sounds when looking at new photos and videos. This will keep memories fresh, since the process of remembering is active and dynamic.

By remembering that remembering is not a passive, one-time, simple act, stroke survivors, families and caregivers can interact creatively throughout the year in yet one more loving and productive way. In doing so, brains affected by neurological “glitches” may be able to better retain the joys of holidays.


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