Copyright © 2009 Henrietta W. Hay
October 24, 2009
"Memory . . . is the diary that we all carry about with us," wrote Oscar Wilde in, "The Importance of Being Earnest."
Here in the Commons one would think that we had all misplaced our diaries. The most common expression which we all use is, "What IS her name? I know it, but I can't remember it."
We find this loss of memory very annoying, not to say scary. We usually blame it onto our
age, just as we do everything unpleasant that happens to us. But it is not exclusively a function of old age.
My friend the doctor put it in modern terms. She says everything we have ever seen, heard, felt and learned is stored in our brains like computer bits. We just have to keep punching keys until we find the one we want. Now there is a scary thought --the idea of carrying a computer around between our shoulders. The problem is retrieving specific information when we want it. But even computers aren't always perfect - a comforting thought when you are not facing a deadline.
It is not only a matter of age. As I struggle to remember the name of the person I just met, I have to chuckle at my baby boomer friends bemoaning the fact that "I can't remember anything anymore. I'm having a senior moment." Ellen Goodman, herself a boomer, described it from experience. "Of course it isn't a moment. Somewhere between bifocals and Medicare, the moments have linked together into minutes. But now a reassuring theory suggests that I am not suffering from Rotting Brain Syndrome or Mid-Life Losing It disease." I've got a secret for you, kids. It's normal. You're just running low on storage space.
Knowledge of the brain and how it functions is growing every day. The Dana Consortium on Memory Loss and Aging is the one of the major researchers.
The brain works night and day and eventually gets cluttered up with facts. If some of them get lost it is not necessarily a cause for panic, but probably essential to our sanity.
Our brains were not built for the modern world, but for the Stone Age. We are pushing the limits of what they were designed to do. The older we get the more we have pushed in and the more stuff has fallen out. Or in computer terms, we have transferred a lot of extra information onto a disc to leave room on the hard drive. And we tend to lose the disc.
Most of us don't appreciate the fact that when we talk about failing memory we're actually talking about a memory that works. A perfect memory would be rigid, inflexible like a computer's. We would be so locked in to what we have already learned that we might be incapable of producing new, creative thoughts. The computer has a perfect memory (when it works), but it can't think by itself yet. We can.
Brain researchers assure us that there is a lot that be done to compensate for weakening memories. Like muscles, nerve connections get stronger with use. There are simple, effective, time-proven techniques we can use to improve our memories.
Most of all, they tell us, keep your mind busy. Learning new things maintains and strengthens nerve circuits in the brain. Physical exercise can increase strength and endurance. Mental challenges can stimulate memory, improve powers of concentration, and increase the brain's ability to cope with challenges.
Samuel Johnson came up with one suggestion long before the scientific research began. "The true art of memory is the art of attention." One researcher says that inability to remember names is the universal complaint. Ask anybody living here. But remembering names is one of the hardest things people do.
Of course we are all acutely aware of the tragedy of Alzheimer's disease. The experts say, however, that most memory loss is quite normal. I have often heard it said that if you're worried about your memory you're probably OK. But if your family is worried and you're not, you'd better see a doctor.
I still like Oscar Wilde's comment -- "Memory is the diary we all carry about with us." I'd better start studying my diary harder. But quit worrying, Baby Boomers. Your diary still has lots of empty pages.