True story. Years ago, my doctor asked me what medications and supplements I was taking. I was doing fine remembering them until I stopped and said, “I’m taking something that is supposed to improve memory, but I can’t remember what it’s called.” It was ginkgo biloba, and I went home and threw the rest of it away.
Memory is a complex phenomenon that scientists are only beginning to understand. This is not a post about how to improve memory; those abound. Most, like this one from the Mayo Clinic, advise us to get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and eat well. (How lucky are we that chocolate is considered brain food?) And we all have our own personal tricks—for me, they include Post-It® notes and Siri.
Rather, this post is designed to reassure those of us who are concerned that our memory just isn’t what it used to be. It’s probably not, but that’s no reason to worry. In many cases, forgetting is normal or even adaptive. (If you have serious concerns about yourself or a loved one, please see the resources at the end of this post.)
- There is a reason we stand in the middle of a room with no idea why we’re there. We’ve all done this. We head to the bedroom to find our keys or go to a colleague’s office to ask for a report. But the minute we get there, we forgot why we came. Sometimes we retrace our steps to jog our memory. Other times, we just start doing something new—fold the laundry or chat about our coworker’s new car. Friends of mine called this “threshold syndrome,” and I thought they made it up. No, it’s a real thing, though researchers call it by the very scientific-sounding name, “the doorway effect.” It appears that memory is contextual, cued to our physical and mental environments. When we move from one room to the next, we have, in effect, changed the scene. Our brain believes it’s now time to store prior memories away and begin making new ones. So it’s frustrating, to be sure, but likely not a sign of serious cognitive decline.
- Forgetting information we no longer need helps make room for new memories. Writing about brain science for the e-learning industry, corporate trainer Art Kohn writes, “[I]n professional neuroscience, forgetting is not thought of as a failure at all. Instead forgetting is thought of as a natural, adaptive, and even desirable activity.” If we attend to every new sensory input, we can’t focus on what is important at the moment. If you don’t believe me, try watching this 90-second video. Scientists have found that our brain makes room for new memories by pushing out competing information, especially that which is similar. Writing in the Independent, Fiona Kumfor and Sicong Tu use the example of getting a bank card with a new PIN. As we remember the new one, we gradually forget the old. (Of course, this doesn’t account for why we remember our childhood phone number but sometimes forget our current one; memories are both fickle and fascinating).
- Blame it on Google. Yes, scientists have studied Google’s effects on memory. Because we know we have a world of information at our fingertips, we have less need to remember where Ecuador is or how to get to Aunt Mary’s house. However, all is not lost. We are still storing information in memory, though what we recall more than the information itself is where to find it online.
- We can’t forget what we don’t take time to remember. There is a wonderful, easily understandable piece on human memory from How Stuff Works. You may find yourself recalling some long-buried memories about synapses, neurotransmitters, and dendrites. But the authors also make the point that what we think we have forgotten may never had made it into our memory at all. They use the example of setting our glasses down before we go to bed. If we don’t pay attention to where we put them, we may have no idea where they are in the morning. We have to store something in memory to be able to recall it. That’s why it’s good to eliminate distractions (think multitasking during a conference call) so we can attend to the information at hand.
- Memory does, in fact, degrade with age. Okay, maybe this isn’t comforting in the feel-good sense. But somehow knowing that many of us begin to experience a breakdown in the “assembly process of memory” beginning in our 20s, and continuing as we age, makes me feel that at least I’m in good company. And cognitive decline is not inevitable. In fact, says medical writer Carol Turkington, “research shows that the average 70-year-old performs as well on certain cognitive tests as do many 20-year-olds, and many people in their 60s and 70s score significantly better in verbal intelligence than do younger people.” This is definitely a case of “use it or lose it” and one of the reasons I like being a writer. I have to review and synthesize information on a wide range of topics. I may not remember all of what I read, but I hope my effort to understand new and sometimes complex information will keep my synapses firing for years to come.
Resources About Memory Loss
If you have significant concerns about your own or a loved one’s memory, especially if these problems are beginning to interfere with everyday functioning, you may want to learn more about different types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. You may also want to ask your doctor if neuropsychological assessment is warranted. The Alzheimer’s Association has a wealth of resources to help.
Susan Milstrey Wells is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.