Copyright © 1999 Henrietta W. Hay

On Memory
October 8, 1999

"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 want it.
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 It disease."
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, The list of university medical schools involved is very impressive, so it is presumably accurate.
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.