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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Memory’s Mysterious Moods: What Slimy Snails Remember and Why We Should Eat More Chocolate

- how the latest scientific discoveries can help musicians recall the dots –

This week my attention has been caught, and my imagination fired by some startling articles in the UK press. I am not one to fall easily for the latest crackpot theories about the creation of the universe or the meaning of life, nor even about how to play the guitar in two weeks, and as you know we are blasted from all sides by just such propositions. But when hair-raising ideas come from serious sources such as University research teams, then I can only conclude that either they have just joined an academic club of nutty brethren or that scientific enquiry is on the threshold of amazing discoveries. I am pleased to announce that it is this last possibility which I prefer to embrace with wonder and enthusiasm.

This week is the 60th anniversary of the discovery of DNA. That amazing breakthrough afforded us a peep into how we are made, and not just us, but all living matter. I have devised a Hollywood style celebration. Although not as grand as the Oscar awards I hope you can throw yourselves into the imagined proceedings with a similar commitment. And so, enter stage left, a snail. He is pushing a diminutive trolley stuffed full – please take him seriously, you will soon discover why. Enter stage right, a human creature, in other words one of us.

Now it may have escaped your attention that snails have large neurons in their brains thus facilitating our examination of how their memory works, so are ideal subjects for observation and kind experimentation. All that was needed in a recent experiment was a poking stick with no sharp end and some epl. What’s that, I hear you ask. Epl (epicatechin) is a particular type of flavonoid which is a chemical compound “that give plants their colours, flavours and scents, and have been linked to many health benefits in humans” according to The Scientific American including, crucially, improved memory. The good news for us humans is that epl is found in cocoa, green tea, red wine and blueberries, all of which I am very fond. I hope you are still with me: our snail has entered pushing a trolley of epl, aided and abetted by a team of scientists from the beautifully named Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the University of Calgary in Canada.

Now let’s go back to stage right, from which has entered a mighty human being, well mighty only in comparison to the snail, but actually an ordinary human being - stressed out, overworked, and underwhelmed by life’s lot, just your ordinary typical person-off-the-street, who sometimes can’t remember why he got up to go into the other room, nor the day of the week, nor a host of other mundane and not so mundane things. Stand still, say the researchers from the Department of Psychology, Montclair State University, Montclair, New Jersey, USA who have produced a learned paper on the subject. Clench your right fist for 90 seconds and think of something – anything - you wish to remember.

Meanwhile, dear spectator, our snail is leaving a trail of slime, intelligent slime, as he proceeds towards centre stage just where our fellow creature is standing. He has been fed an increased dose of epl (do you still remember what that is?) and is helping himself to more from the trolley too. By doing so it has increased his memory span from a meagre two minutes to several hours, simply by eating epl full of really tasty food. Forgetting things within two minutes or less is of course a human speciality, and if you doubt such a tendency, ask yourself the following question: what are the three qualities flavonoids give plants? You just read the answer in the second paragraph above less that 60 seconds ago!

But I digress from the show: there is our human who some while ago had been asked to clench his right fist for 90 seconds. He has waited patiently for the approach of the snail, who not surprisingly is taking his time (that’s why he is what he is), not least because he is gorging himself on the blueberries and red wine so that he can hardly slime in a straight line. Finally the snail is upon him and astonishingly is able to say “ah yes, sir, I met you back stage an hour ago”, whereas pre-meal time he would have forgotten the encounter within two minutes.

Our human volunteer is now prompted by the research team to clench his left fist for 90 seconds, after which, to his delight and our bemusement, he can recall not only a previous encounter with the very same snail but his name too! Just imagine the hugging and embracing that is going on now between man and snail, but best not to think of kissing.

It’s all about neurones again, this time human ones. It turns out that clenching your right fist triggers the storing of memory, and clenching the left fist its retrieval. Quite why this should be is the subject of continuing enquiry.

So there you have it, dear reader, guitarist, or muso: to help you memorise eat loads of blueberries and chocolate washed down with red wine, and follow that with clenching your right fist for 90 seconds while concentrating like crazy on what you wish to remember. Two hour later, brew up some green tea, and upon imbibing, clench your left fist for 90 seconds whereupon all your stored memories will be recalled, no problem.

And can you think of a greater pleasure than playing a Bach fugue effortlessly from memory while stuffing yourself with blueberries and refilling your glass from a case-load of red wine, knowing that such excesses are in the pursuit of improved recall and enhanced performance?

Watch this space for more amazing discoveries from the world of science.

28th April 2013, London

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