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How to Beat “Mom Brain”

If you’ve given birth in the last few years, there’s a good chance you’ve recently forgotten where your keys are or what you meant to do when you entered a room. Some studies have shown that as many as 80 percent of women experience some form of impaired cognitive function during pregnancy. And once baby arrives, raging hormones and months of sleep deprivation prolong the amnesia-like case of brain drain that’s been dubbed “mommy brain.”

“Both the pituitary gland, which doubles in size during pregnancy, and the placenta release chemical messages that influence the maternal and fetal brains during pregnancy,” says Curt Sandman, PhD and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the University of California, Irvine. “These changes ‘program’ the nervous system with long-term, perhaps permanent, consequences. Some functions, such as memory for specific details, may be compromised.”

No one wants to go through life without being able to retrieve long-term memories of who we are, where we’ve been, and what we know. Our memories also help us relate to others, including our children. We always talk about our pre-baby bodies, but what about our pre-baby minds?

Actress and author Marilu Henner, mom to two teenage boys, never really had to worry about “mommy brain.” Then again, she’s one of only 12 documented cases of Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM). She literally remembers almost every day of her life — including where she put her keys.

It’s an extremely rare gift, but she still works hard to keep her memory sharp. “Your mind is capable of remembering more than you think it can,” says Henner. “It’s like a muscle. We don’t really use our minds as much as we could, in terms of tapping into memories — it’s like you have this great exercise machine and you’re rarely on it.” Here are eight memory exercises inspired by those in Henner’s new book, Total Memory Makeover, that flex your mental muscles to get your “mommy brain” back into fighting shape.

  • Come to your senses

    In the early stages of parenthood, we want to cherish each and every sensory experience, like our baby’s unique and glorious smell. Yet we’re often so exhausted by our daily rigmarole that these details gradually retreat to the recesses of our minds.

    To retrieve those delicious memories, choose an object — your now-school-aged kid’s baby sock, for example. Spend time with this object by thinking of it, looking at it, or smelling or touching it. Leave yourself open to what happens to you emotionally or psychologically, and write it down. You may find yourself remembering how your kid smelled as a baby — and can cherish that memory once more. You can also harness your senses in the present to really take in current experiences. Just don’t let your teen catch you smelling his hair!

  • Let the music play

    Songs are aural time capsules; a few bars into an oldie but goodie, and you’ll feel like you’re six again, strapped in the backseat of your parent’s car. Using music to mentally excavate your childhood can sharpen your memory and help you relate better to your kids. “Memories of childhood give you a bigger spectrum of understanding and empathy for your children, because you’re reminded of how it felt to be their age,” says Henner.

    To take yourself back in time, listen to a song you loved when you were your child’s age. Spend a few minutes trying to recall where you were and how you were feeling when you first heard that song. You may find yourself reliving feelings much like what your child is currently experiencing. Sharing these tunes and memories with your kids can turn into a bonding experience — and turn your kid on to some cool tunes.

  • Blow out the candles

    We learn so much about parenting from our parents. Whether you want to emulate their techniques or take a completely different approach, an awareness of our childhood memories can continually inform how we raise our kids — if we know how to use them. “By remembering what you’ve been through, bringing it to the present, and using it productively in the future, you can avoid the same mistakes,” says Henner.

    Think back on your 5th, 10th and 15th birthdays: what you did to celebrate, where you were, and how your relationship with your parents was at that time. Write down as much as you can remember. Memories beget other memories. What can you learn from how your parents cared for you? How can you use this information to improve how you relate to your kids?

  • Collect your memories

    We all fantasize about the day we’ll share How I Met Your Mother-like moments with our teenagers, yet the prospect of telling your life’s stories in graphic detail can be intimidating if you can’t even remember the class parent’s email address. “We’ve gotten so lazy, relying on things like speed dial, GPS, and our computers to do all of our thinking for us,” Henner says. One way to retrieve some lost experiences to share with your kids: Divide a piece of paper into four columns and label them with the titles Hot Weather, Cold Weather, Rainstorms, and Snowstorms, or similar categories relative to where you live. See how many events you can recall in the next 10 minutes. Work quickly and don’t go over the time limit. The details you recall will boot up new memories and make the stories you share with your kids all the richer!

  • Brainstorm memories with those who knew you when

    It’s often said that every story contains your side, someone else’s side, and the truth somewhere in between. Memories are highly subjective. Your experience in a given situation might be very different from your friend’s, but bringing both perspectives together helps clear the fog from a distant memory and activates more memories that lay dormant in your brain! Technology makes it easy, convenient, and even fun to ask your friends and family to unearth details long buried in your mind. Email or post a question about a song, photo, or past shared event on Facebook. Each person who comments will share his or her own unique spin on the memory. With all these recollections in one place, you can review them to spark a few new recollections of your own — and, if appropriate, share these memories with your kids!

  • Make a timeline

    When your children face challenging decisions as they get older, they may want to know what inspired some of your life choices. Yet, parents have less time than ever to think about the present, let alone reflect on past feelings about their lives. To retrieve some of your more important “teachable” moments, imagine you’re creating a documentary about yourself. Create a timeline organized by your major life events, places you’ve lived, schools you’ve attended, and jobs you’ve had. Try to fill in the blanks between each marker. Seeing these moments written down may spur memories you’d long forgotten and help you recall how you felt during each fork in the road.

  • Paint your life by numbers

    Do you still remember your childhood phone number? You aren’t alone! Numbers set off signals that recall life events. The next time you spot one, see if it helps you recall certain dates or events. For example, every time I see the number 41, I think of my birthday on April 1. Connecting ideas from your own life to number combinations you see in passing can help you unlock priceless past life experiences you’ve stored in your mental vault and help to sharpen your memory so you can mentally access your pediatrician’s phone number! It’s a cool game to share with your kids, too.

  • Use “the juice”

    Smartphones are amazing tools for multitasking. Compulsively keeping an eye on your phone when you’re with your kids can divide your attention, however, so you’re less likely to remember details. What’s worse, we may pass this kind of screen addiction onto our kids. Recently, a prominent psychologist, Dr. Aric Sigman, warned that parents who constantly use smart phones and iPads have children who are more likely to become screen addicts themselves. Henner thinks we owe it to our brains — and our kids — to fully focus on the moment. She calls this added attention “the juice” (and no, there’s not an app for that). To make and retain memories with your kids, turn off your devices and instead, use the camera in your head, a.k.a. “the juice,” by parenting with both eyes and both hands.

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