Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Decline of Memory

I had already decided what to blog about this morning, but changed my mind on the fly when my attention was caught by an interview on NPR. The person being interviewed was Harriet Harvey Wood, editor of an anthology of studies called Memory.

Memory is a fascinating topic, and I find it more interesting and intriguing as I grow older and cope with my own problems of memory. How do we remember things? Why? What makes us remember some things and not others? Why does memory seem to get worse as we get older?

Ms Wood made the observation in her interview that she finds herself no longer able to remember her friends' telephone numbers, and guesses that it's because she has all the numbers stored in her telephone, ready to be retrieved at the push of a button - why memorize them? She noted also that many of the bits and pieces of data we used to keep in memory are now stored in PDAs for easy retrieval - no need to memorize an address or a factoid when you can whip it right out of your trusty digital assistant. And students soon learn that whatever they may need to know can be Googled at any time - leaving plenty of room in memory for ... what?

People who study memory tell us that the brain is like any other muscle - it needs to be exercised and kept in trim in order to work at its best. Unfortunately, many people don't bother to exercise their brain any more. Schools don't emphasize rote memorization of facts any more; while the ability to think is good, the brain training done by memorization may well be at least as good, if not perhaps better. I love crossword puzzles, which are good vehicles for teaching vocabulary and spelling; Agnes enjoys suddoku puzzles (not being good with numbers, I don't). I enjoy reading, and love the old radio comedy and dramatic programs that forced you to use your imagination to set the mental stage that TV and movies can easily and effortlessly fill with vivid digital imagery.

Many other people nowadays don't work their brains that way. Of course, as I've often lamented in this space, people don't do much thinking for themselves any more, anyhow. But in all seriousness, the decline of memory is a dangerous thing. Each time I find myself unable to remember some bit of information, I worry about the onset of Alzheimer's Disease - the terrifying scourge that robbed my mother of her mind and led to the long decline that ended with her death seven years ago. I try to exercise my mind and memory as much as I can to avoid the same dreadful decline.

What does the decline of memory skills mean for the population at large? What we call experience is the application of lessons learned and stored in our memories. What happens when the memories aren't there? We lose the lessons of experience. If you're a Republican, you revere Ronald Reagan while forgetting the tawdry Iran-Contra scandal. If you're a Democrat, you long for the days of Bill Clinton while forgetting his disgraceful personal behavior. The selective memory employed by children and spouses works overtime for everyone during an election year...and political campaigns count on it.

So the message today is simply this: your brain is a muscle, just like your biceps. You need to exercise it. Read more books, magazines, and newspapers, and think about what you're reading. Do puzzles. Listen to the radio instead of watching TV.

You may never know your memory is failing until it actually happens, and by then it's too late. Work your brain now. It's good for you, and for the rest of us, too.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



The Mistress of the Dark said...

The BBC did an interesting series on Memory Skills back in the 80's. Greg Proops hosted it. It was great. I'll have to hunt down that tape again.

Anonymous said...

Your most telling comment and scariest is that schools don't demand memorization. It is possible that this traditional (and hated by students)teaching technique is critical to brain development, and without that form of brain exercise at a young age, people will lose cognitive and memory skills--perhaps permanently. For example, I remember being force to memorize classic American poetry, Longfellow mostly. "Beneath the spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands. The smith, a might man is he, with large and sinewy hands." Miss Booth forced those opening lines in to my brain nearly 60 years ago, and I will know I have Alzheimer's when I cannot recall them. But she may have been opening channels in my brain (and let me tell you, they are clearly weakening now, perhaps because I don't have to memorize all that I used to.) Henderson 3, 4840, my grandparents' phone number, disconnected 42 years ago. Can you remember your bosses' cell phone number, which you called yesterday? Of course not. Your phone does.

Bilbo, you may have revealed a serious threat to Western Civilization. Freedom and the very substance of our lives depend on memory. And without practicing rote memorization, especially your times tables (who needs it, my phone has a calculator?) we may all lose this critical ability.

Signed, the man that wasn't there, because he couldn't remember it!

Amanda said...

I definitely agree with working your brain. I grew up memorizing a lot of things as a child because of the school systems here in Malaysia. While I don't recommend that style of learning, it did teach me to remember a lot of things. Memorizing was second nature but as I have grown older and started relying on my cell phone or email address book, I find that I can't do it as well anymore and have recently started to consciously work my brain in all sorts of ways.

....I find blogging a good exercise too amongst all those you have listed....

craziequeen said...

My brain hurts.......


Mike said...

True story. A friend of mine was a election judge last Tuesday. An 80 year old lady comes up to the table. He askes her, "democrat or republican?" She say's,"democrat! I'd rather have sex in the White House than a war!"

zero_zero_one said...

My high school maths teacher had his own rules of maths on the wall, and number two was "The mind is a muscle and must be exercised."

I'm not sure that it's a bad thing per se that people store information like phone numbers etc in PDAs and phones (except that it makes it all the more important to keep an eye on your phone so that it doesn't get stolen), but I think that it's important that people do mental activities and puzzles to keep their minds active.

I quite like crosswords (though not cryptic ones) and all week I've been buying The Times just for their puzzles page (crosswords, sudoku and a puzzle called a polygram which is quite neat).

Has Agnes ever tried Killer Sudoku puzzles? has a huge selection of free puzzles that you can play online or download as pdfs and print.