"Memory . . . is the diary that we all carry about with us," wrote
Oscar Wilde in, "The Importance of Being Earnest." He said it long
before the age of the computer but it's pretty close to the current
version, "Memory is the ability of the human computer to store and
retrieve that which has been input."
I read someplace that everything we have ever seen, heard, felt or said
has been retained in that thing we carry on our shoulders. Now there is
a scary thought. The problem is retrieving specific information when we
As I struggle to remember the name of the person I just met, I have to
chuckle at the baby boomers 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 Medicaire, 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
I've got a secret for you, kids. It's normal. You're just running out
of storage space. And you still have a lot more left than I have.
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 and the more stuff has fallen out. Or in computer terms,
we have transferred a lot of extra information onto a floppy to leave
room on the hard drive. And we lost the floppy.
There is a site on the web that has far more information about memory
and aging than I ever wanted to know, but in the interest of being
informative, I'll pass it along. It is The Dana Consortium on Memory
Loss and aging,
http://www.dana.org/dana/memloss1.html The list of
university medical schools involved is very impressive, so it is
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. Just as 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. But remembering names is one of the hardest things people
do, apart from trying to remember a thousand digits of pi. But it's
still embarrassing when you forget the name of somebody you have known
for 20 years.
Of course everybody over 50 is acutely aware of the tragedy of
Alzheimer's disease. The experts say, however, that most memory loss
is quite normal. One of them says 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.
Meanwhile I still like Oscar Wilde's comment -- "Memory is the diary we
all carry about with us." Quit worrying, Baby Boomers. Your diary
still has lots of empty pages.