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Matthew Barrett: Human memory is not a recording device

Matthew Barrett

Matthew Bar­rett

What excites you the most about your job?
As a Pro­fes­sor and the founder of Brain Train­ers Men­tal Fit­ness LLC, I love see­ing how the right infor­ma­tion can have a life-changing effect on people.

Please tell us about your inter­est in applied brain sci­ence. What areas are you most inter­ested in? What moti­vated you to pur­sue work in your field?
I’m an edu­ca­tor first and fore­most: I like to see peo­ple empow­ered with clear, accu­rate, and use­ful infor­ma­tion about their brains. Just under­stand­ing more about diet, exer­cise and sleep could rev­o­lu­tion­ize our soci­ety. Beyond edu­ca­tion, I’m espe­cially inter­ested in biofeed­back, neu­ro­feed­back, mind­ful­ness, men­tal ath­let­ics, and lucid dreaming.

What are 1–2 key things you’d like every per­son to under­stand regard­ing his/ her own brain and mind, that you think is com­monly mis­rep­re­sented or not addressed in the pop­u­lar media?

Peo­ple just expect too much of human mem­ory. It’s not a record­ing device. I can’t count the num­ber of times some­one has come to me think­ing there was some­thing “wrong” with their mem­ory, only to describe lim­i­ta­tions that are per­fectly nor­mal. I’m con­sid­er­ing putting this on my tomb­stone: “There is noth­ing wrong with you!”

Where do you see clear “low-hanging fruit” to enhance behav­ioral and brain health based on neu­ro­science and inno­va­tion?
I may be biased, but I believe that edu­ca­tion is the best low-hanging fruit around. If peo­ple don’t know about the typ­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions of our brain, they can’t set rea­son­able expec­ta­tions, nor can they develop workaround strate­gies to improve per­for­mance. There is clear, accu­rate, and use­ful infor­ma­tion avail­able. We just need to dis­sem­i­nate it.

What sur­prised you the most at the 2013 Sharp­Brains Vir­tual Sum­mit?
I was most sur­prised by the other participants–I’ve often felt alone in my career, espe­cially when I would hear about some­one else “in the indus­try” only to dis­cover they are ped­dling bad sci­ence. Dur­ing the water­cooler chats, every­one was so knowl­edge­able and pas­sion­ate. I’ve looked up many since then, and haven’t seen one I wouldn’t endorse.

What is one impor­tant thing you are work­ing on now, and where can peo­ple learn more about it? 
I’m work­ing on a sim­ple approach for mem­ory train­ing that would work for stu­dents, seniors and men­tal ath­letes of any age. I will have more infor­ma­tion to share next year.

Finally, what do YOU do to stay sharp?
So much! Every type of puz­zle; lean pro­tein, com­plex carbs and veg­gies; track sleep cycles and record dreams; avoid caf­feine, nico­tine and alco­hol; take EVERY oppor­tu­nity for nov­elty and mind­ful­ness. Lately my wife and I started ball­room danc­ing, which is a good aer­o­bic and men­tal work­out. As the Sharp­Brains Guide empha­sizes, what’s good for the heart is good for the brain, and what’s good for the brain is good for the heart!

2013 SharpBrains Summit

—This con­ver­sa­tion is part of the inter­view series with Speak­ers and Par­tic­i­pants in the 2013 Sharp­Brains Vir­tual Sum­mit (Sep­tem­ber 19-20th). Pre­vi­ous inter­views include:

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