The 5 Most Comforting Things I Learned About Forgetting

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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.)

  1. 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.
  1. 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).
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

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Mark Hammer

My dissertation area was memory self-assessment in older adults, specifically perception of decline. One of the interesting aspects was that many, if not most, of the exact same memory slips happen across the entire lifespan. Here is a list from Crovitz and Daniel’s 1984 survey of Duke University undergraduates:
I forgot a person’s name
I forgot to make a phone call
I forgot a phone number
I forgot to do this assignment
I forgot a conversation
I forgot to take a book
I forgot to take a letter
I forgot to give information
I forgot to take papers
I forgot a dream
I forgot to give a message
I forgot to set a clock
I forgot location of a book
I forgot location of keys
I forgot to take a card
I forgot to get money
I forgot location of a pen
I forgot what I was talking about
I forgot to do a letter
I forgot to get information
I forgot to go to a meeting
I forgot to take identification
I forgot to take checkbook
I forgot to take glasses
I forgot to take gloves
I forgot to take vitamins
I forgot the sports schedule
I forgot the name of a song
I forgot the number of a room
I forgot today’s date
I forgot a definition
I forgot the time for a class
I forgot the time for a meeting
In another paper (also from Herb Crovitz, I think) everyday memory slips were volunteered by people from college age right out to the 7th or 8th decade, and they were surprisingly similar. EVERYBODY finds themselves standing in front of the fridge with the door open, wondering why they are standing there.

The difference is that older adults are more likely to think such isolated instances are somehow diagnostic or reflective of something more pervasive whereas younger adults treat them as isolated and easily explained by circumstances. And the stronger the age stereotypes held by the older adult, the more likely they are to treat them as diagnostic (i.e., what typically happens to people in my age group is also happening to me). That is not to dismiss such slips – people can have reversible and irreversible declines for very demonstrable reasons – but it can also be the case that such slips and real or perceived declines occur for very normal reasons and not to any degree more than they might have occurred 20 years earlier in the same person. If you have children or a spouse, you’ll know that inattentiveness is not the exclusive domain of the elderly!

Cindy Hofmann

Thanks this is encouraging!! now that I’m a little older and work the medical field and analize EVERTHING.. oh maybe that s ruminate. I also have a signifient family history af alzhemiers. This reality check re- centers me.

Susan

Cindy, I agree; Mark, thanks for posting this. My son often complains about forgetting something, so it’s nice to know that’s normal even in younger people!

Mark Hammer

One can find no better demonstration that memory is a) not necessarily impaired by age, and b) largely a function of strategic attention, than the work done in the 80’s at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. Seniors were taken for a stroll through historic Berlin, where important dates were associated with various locations. They were trained in how to use mnemonic strategies, and then both further trained and tested to memorize long strings of numbers. The participants used the various historical dates and addresses to “assign” the numbers read out to them to various locations. Mentally “visiting” a handful of places would permit the successful recall of several dozen numbers. Participants eventually worked their way up to over 100 digits.

The big hurdle is that the older we get, the more things seem to be implicitly memorable to us, so we allocate little attention to them because…y’know….we’ll remember, right? If you look through Crovitz and Daniels’ list above, you’ll see a great many routine actions that even 25 year-olds will have done so many times before, they are bound to under-allocate attention to them, and consequently forget. Getting older simply exacerbates that basic phenomenon. When seniors are coached to spend a little more time and effort memorizing things, they do substantially better than their normal habits provide for

Stephanie

Fascinating, and extremely comforting! Thank you bringing up this topic. I hadn’t considered my memory disfunctions to be something to discuss with professional contacts before.

Edward J Mcdonald

I have no problem focusing on current events that are affecting my life. I agree with many scientists that our minds do forget some past events so that we will have strong memories of recent events. I am not aware of any significant memory loss concerning recent important events. I use Google as an important reference tool to improve the accuracy of my memory.

Edward J Mcdonald

I have no problem focusing on current events. I agree with many scientists that our minds do forget some past events so we can focus our memories on current events . I use Google to better ensure that my memories will be accurate. I enjoy writing about events because I form a clear understanding of the event. I have not noticed a significant decline in my mental capability.

Sharon Nugent

A fascinating piece to read (& remember!). I learnt shorthand back in the days when it was a necessity in becoming a Personal Assistant/Secretary. What was fascinating was when you are writing shorthand you forget what you are writing because you don’t need to remember it. With that ability I found it crossed into all other areas of my life. There may be times when that is not useful but I can’t think of any at the moment (or is it that I can’t remember!)

Profile Photo Mark Hammer

People would be surprised to learn that there is animal research in what is called “directed forgetting”. In other words, instructing animals to “fuggedaboudit”, and then springing surprise tests on them to see if they actually did. I won’t bore you with how that gets done but, just like people, if a pigeon “thinks” (and I use that term loosely) that whatever they just saw does not really need to be remembered later on, they will stop paying attention to it, and show poorer memory for it than something they have been signalled to remember for later use.

In a general sense, we show poorer memory for things we have paid less attention and time to. That reduction in time and attention could be because we were forcibly distracted, but also because we didn’t think we *needed* to remember it, or because we didn’t think we needed to do anything *special* to remember it.

We’re a cocky bunch, we are. 🙂

Susan

Monique, another true story–I wrote this post a bit ahead and then found myself thinking, now what did I write about for next week? I must just have lots of new things to remember. 🙂