Things to Remember About Memory (May 2006)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 12:22

Saga May 2006

Things to Remember about Memory

As they get older many people complain that they have two problems with their memory. They can't always remember what they want to remember, and they can't forget the things that they want to forget. I'll deal with not remembering here and the problem of not forgetting next month.

Nowadays we get lots of advice about how we can keep our memories functioning well for the whole of our life. There can be no doubt that following a programme of daily exercise of the brain with crossword puzzles, Suduko and the like, regular physical exercise, and a well-balanced diet is enormously beneficial, but this will be so only if, as you get older, you do not acquire three interlocked bad habits which will certainly ruin your memory. This is what I've found in my many decades long observation of friends, family, and various acquaintances. These bad habits are:

  • giving up taking responsibility for yourself
  • reducing your interests to a small circle of family and friends
  • lying to yourself.

Psychologists distinguish four different kinds of memory:

episodic memory, ie, memory of personal experiences

  • semantic memory, ie, memory for facts
  • working memory, ie, memory that holds on to small amounts of information for a limited time as in looking up a phone number and then dialling it.
  • prospective memory, ie, memory about the future as in 'I've got a doctor's appointment on Friday.

When we are taking responsibility for ourselves we are constantly using all four kinds of memory. We have to remember events in the past in order to know who we are and what our life is. We need to remember practical facts in order to survive and make our way in the world, and we need to remember abstract ideas in order to make sense of our life and the world around us. We have to be able to hold certain information in our mind in order to carry out our tasks ('I'll set the table while the potatoes are cooking'), and we have to remember our plans for the future. However, as I have often seen, some people relinquish responsibility for themselves quite early in middle age. They are tempted to do so because they have reliable adults close to them who will readily accept such responsibility. However, handing over responsibility for yourself means handing over parts of your memory. There's the husband who expects his wife to remember all the details of their social life ('When are we supposed to go to this party?'), and the wife who expects her husband not only to remember when she's to take her pills but actually hand them to her. There's the parent who finds it all too much trouble to remember what work his children do, or who expects her children to check regularly that she is safe and well. Moreover, why should you trouble your head with learning how to use emails or shop on the internet when you've got an obliging grandson who'll do that for you, and, when he becomes less obliging, you can take to laughing at the ridiculousness of learning all this computer stuff and as for mobiles! You wouldn't dream of wasting your time with all that nonsense.

An important part of taking responsibility for yourself is to keep an up-to-date working knowledge of what's going on in the world. Saying, 'All politicians are the same so I never bother to vote' does not protect you from the effects of what politicians do when they are elected. You mightn't expect to live to see the effects of climate change in the year 2100 but not being interested in climate change shows younger people that you don't really care about what's going to happen to them and their children. Deciding not to read a newspaper or to watch the news means that you gradually lose the ability to make sense of the world around you, and so you can find yourself beset by fears which are quite irrational.

Nobody gets physically fit lying on a couch all day. Handing responsibility for yourself over to someone else is the equivalent of lying on a couch all day and every day. Just as muscles won't get strong if they are not used and pushed to their limit, so our memory won't be strong if we don't use it to remember unpleasant as well as pleasant things. Tragically, there are many people who, often quite early in life, decide never to face up to anything unpleasant. When something unpleasant happens, rather than remember it and think about it, they tell themselves it didn't happen. Some years ago I was visiting an acquaintance who insisted that I give my honest opinion about how she had brought up her child because the child, now a young man, was in difficulties. I had direct knowledge of her son and so I gave my opinion which, though truthful, was not flattering to her. She said nothing but got up and went to the bathroom. Her husband of many years said to me, 'When she gets back she'll have forgotten what you said.' He was right. When she returned it was as if I had never spoken. She was not angry or distressed but talked instead about her forthcoming holiday. This woman, and others like her who constantly lie to themselves, now have memories which don't function very well. This is hardly surprising. Neuroscientists are now quite sure that when we lay down a memory certain neurones in our brain form connections. How then does a brain deal with holding two conflicting memories, one that says, 'This happened', and another which says, 'No it didn't'? It's something like the brain equivalent of driving a car with the handbrake on, something that does the car no good at all.

Don't kid yourself that I'm just talking about older generations and none of this applies to fifty-year-olds like you. Whatever our generation, we feel comfortable with the technology we grew up with and we have to work hard to understand the technology that comes along when we're adults. It's a temptation for all of us to repress memories which do not enhance our image of ourselves, and an even greater temptation to be lazy and give up responsibility for ourselves when the opportunity arises. However, if you don't want to be bossed around, patronised and ignored when you're old, keep working your brain hard even when your body doesn't follow along as well as it used to do.