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Our Plastic Brains – Even in Old Age

category_bug_journal2.gif Surely you know of Oliver Sacks, the Columbia University professor of neurology and psychiatry. You may have read one or more of his books recounting case studies of people he has treated with, usually, rare brain disorders. Books such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Seeing Voices and The Island of the Color Blind.

Or perhaps you saw the movie, Awakenings, based on his book of that title.

Earlier this month, The New York Times published an essay from Dr. Sacks about how our brains are almost miraculous in their ability to stretch, adapt, overcome injury, retrain themselves and perform feats we could not imagine before.

He relates the story of a woman who, due to sudden and complete paralysis caused by a spinal cord infection, particularly missed small pleasures like the daily crossword puzzle. She asked for a newspaper so she could at least read the clues.

”When she did this, something extraordinary happened,” says Sacks. “As she looked at the clues, the answers seemed to write themselves in their spaces.

“Her visual memory strengthened over the next few weeks, until she found that she was able to hold the entire crossword and its clues in her mind after a single, intense inspection — and then solve it mentally. She had had no idea, she later told me, that such powers were available to her.”

I'm making a leap here, but perhaps it is because of his own age, 77, that much of this essay addresses the remarkable plasticity of elder brains:

”[N]euroscientists now know that the brain does not stop growing, even in our later years,” writes Sacks. “Every time we practice an old skill or learn a new one, existing neural connections are strengthened and, over time, neurons create more connections to other neurons. Even new nerve cells can be generated.”

We have discussed here in the past the irritation of deteriorating short-term memory as we get older. Mine has become so close to non-existent that I can forget a thought or intention within a second or two and have it return only when it's too late.

Simple example: I went to the bathroom to collect towels to wash, decided to empty the waste basket first (so I wouldn't forget) and didn't remember the towels until I was folding the laundry. Grrr. I could relate dozens of variations on this theme.

A while ago (I forget how long), I wondered if it is possible to regain at least some short-term memory function with brain rewiring. Obviously, something different needed to be tried, so to that end, when I make a mental note now I ask myself, “Are you going to remember this?”

Oddly, I recall that intention most of the time; it's become habit to follow any mental note with the question. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't – but I am most successful when I ask the question aloud and my short-term memory seems to be improving a bit.

Now I've added saying the intention aloud too so if you were a fly on the wall around my place, you would hear, “Get the towels for the laundry. Are you going to remember this?” or something similar several times a day.

(New thought just now: Could something like this be the genesis of the stereotype that old people talk to themselves?)

Compared to serious brain disorders Dr. Sacks treats, this is a small experiment with a common elder difficulty. But it's not small to me; it is the single most irritating thing about being old.

Dr. Sacks writes that some areas of the brain,

...especially in the cerebral cortex, which is central to higher cognitive powers like language and thought, as well as sensory and motor functions — can be, to a remarkable extent, rewired as we grow older.

I'm giving it a try to see if I can improve my short-term memory even if I have to keep talking to myself. I've also cut down distractions. I no longer allow television news to play in the background and I turn off my email program so it doesn't ding at me when I'm writing for TGB. I think that helps too.

Dr. Sacks again:

”Whether it is by learning a new language, traveling to a new place, developing a passion for beekeeping or simply thinking about an old problem in a new way, all of us can find ways to stimulate our brains to grow, in the coming year and those to follow." [emphasis added]

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ian Rudick: The Future of Healthcare


When I forget the towels (or some form of that) I don't beat myself up about it, but I'd sure like to know how to keep that from happening. I do several crosswords a day, and I play forms of scrabble on the computer. Here's hoping that's enough to keep my brain operating well for several more decades!!

Thanks for sharing this strategy. I will try this, too.

Oh thanks Ronni, I talk to myself. A lot. But never to remind myself of what used to be so obvious. I am trying this today.

I recently read The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge (all about brain plasticity) and found it very inspiring indeed.

I not only talk to myself to remind myself to do something, I repeat it over and over until I finally to do it. It goes like this "pick up the towels, pick up the towels, pick up the towels" until I have done it.

Short term memory keeps getting worse even though I do puzzles, etc. to keep my memory alive.

I discovered a new problem with my brain. Over a period of months I have noticed my ability to concentrate is getting shorter. Sometimes I have to stop what I am reading and do something else because I get become agitated. What is this about?

good article. I will say things out loud that I want to remember.
thanks for this info.

I've always been a mental list-maker, outlining what I intend to do, then trying to check things off. Aging seems to lead me to what I call "wandering around" -- I'm conscious there is some list item that I'm intending to accomplish (like picking up the towels), but other items jump in front until the list gets scrambled. That sounds more as if it impeded me than than it does (now), but I know I need to develop cues that will help me keep the list in order. When there is a lot to get done, I've taken to writing it down -- but then I have to remember to consult the list. :-)

I've always been able to find ways to adjust my mental list making to new situations, so I figure I can find such cues as I age also. I wonder whether confidence in the brain's plasticity is a major asset to us as we age, in itself, on top of the actual plasticity.

I forgot (heh, heh) to mention that when I repeat the question and the intention aloud, I also picture myself, in detail like a little video, doing it.

Remember, I don't know anything about how brains work. That said, I believe that while crossword puzzles, soduko and other brain exercises couldn't hurt for helping to maintain cognition in general, they are not useful for specific changes you may want such as my desire to improve short term memory.

I think it's important to direct changes toward the goal.

Although mine is mushier than, say, learning a new language, I'm applying similar tactics - breaking down the project into individual parts.

I don't know if this will work, but I'm interesting to see what happens. At worse, I'll just go on talking to myself which has shown some small improvement in getting done what I want. So far.

What a practical and encouraging post! I'll try your idea and let you know if it works! I am a perennial list-maker...(Now if only I can remember where I put that list!) Seriously!

Your article also gives me hope as all of is watch the amazing recovery of our beloved Gabby Giffords here in AZ.

Isn't he wonderful.

I lost my short term memory to a stroke, but I find parts of my long term memory now have taken over the job.

Very interesting. I have done the repetition thing and that works but doesn't thrill me to do it. Asking myself if I'll remember sounds better. Almost sounds as if my inner parent is questioning my inner child!

Thanks for mentioning towels. Prompted me to get up from the computer and do my laundry. I, too, have forgotten to put my towels in the wash, but not today!

Interesting post. I too have found that saying "it" out loud keeps the task at hand in mind. I started when I found myself not knowing whether or not I'd taken my diabetic meds at meals. The action was blotted out by the little tasks we do fixing a meal. I remind myself outloud to take them and say outloud that I have taken them afterwards, my recall is greatly improved.

I've quit making multiple purpose trips through the house. I just take the towels to the laundry and then start another task. No more a multitasker.


Not multitasking is important too. I know it's all the rage in the workplace, but a couple of recent studies have shown that doing so makes people less efficient and reduces the quality of results.

It seems obvious and common sense to me that having three or four or more thoughts swirling through one's brain at once is a formula for failure at one or more of them.

The practice of mindfulness - paying full attention to an individual task - is a related idea.

Great post & I'm going to try your technique as well. Couldn't hurt:)Had a good thing happen to me recently. At the encouragement of my neighbors, I joined them to play cards one evening & found that I recalled the basics of rummy games to enjoy myself thoroughly in a complicated & embellished rummy games.......Shanghi maybe?? Whatever it was, I came away not the winner, but very pleased with the way I was able to do the scoring in my head & keep track of the cards. I'm going to expand on this & learn a few more games. Wish me luck! Dee

And while I'm thinking of it, ashleighburrows.blogspot/com, our elder blogger who was shot in Arizona, has left a couple of new posts. Like the rest of you, I'm wishing her well.

I forget to remove the towels from the dryer.
There they sit, all nice and clean, for days on end.
Perhaps if I limit myself to just one or two sets of towels?
My husband, who used to read to the children, and grandchildren,
now reads aloud to himself. He tells me it helps him remember what he has just read.

I live with my daughter and her family, and I play "memory" games with my 8 year old grandson. He always beats me, but I do it for the mental exercise. Of course, I might do better if the cards had images of something other than Tonka trucks!

BTW, if you all haven't seen Kathy Bates in her new tv series "Harry's Law," don't miss it -- a talented gray-haired actress playing a smart, feisty, caring, crotchety single female. It's about time.

Good hints here. Thanks

One thing I do to keep my mind on a task such as cleaning up the kitchen , I set a timer and tell myself I have x amount of time to finish the task. I don't hurry but having a set time seems to help keep me focused.

I like the idea of reminding myself by speaking aloud what I need to do.

Wonderful post Ronnie. I think we can improve our short term memory. Also, I have been working on remembering names. I stopped saying I can't and began to think like the Little Engine Who Could. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. It works.

Thought provoking post and such good comments. Don't know if there has been definitive evidence that short term memory can improve, but certainly it is worth a try. What I think is essential is to make sure to strive to continue to strive to see life and life's problems from a new perspective.

Thank you for mentioning Mr. Sacks' work. He has been one of my heroes all these decades.

Good idea! An interesting thing I've found is that I remember tasks connected to my job better than personal or miscellaneous tasks. Maybe it's because I've worked at the same nonprofit for 35 years, but a lot has changed during that time. Maybe my brain just knows somehow that, if it wants to get fed, it had better be on-task when it comes to my job!

After forgetting - one too many times - that I was boiling water for a cup of tea and discovered a burned pot too-many minutes later, I now set the timer when I boil water. Also, I've used the reminding myself by 'telling myself outloud' to 'remember to take such and such when you leave' works. Too many times chastising myself for forgetting something I meant to take along with me.

What a wonderful post and ensuing thread. It's truly an "Absent-minded elders' support group" on the net. Knowing that there are a lot of us who suffer from the same challenge makes it much easier to bear. Thanks to everyone who responded. My wife's recent ruptured-brain aneurism and stroke has left her with a sort of swiss cheesey short term memory that may take a while to repair.
Has anyone heard anything about "neuro feedback"? It may be a way of jump starting short-term memory recovery but I haven't found much information about. Also has anyone tried meditation to create new brain channels for memory. They've experimenting with it at Massachusetts General Hospital but I can't remember where I saw the write-up.

It's a sick joke in our household like: Wife "Do you remember the name of the Doctor who said I need to have a sleep-apnea test? Husband (me) "No, what was his name?" Wife "I asked you first". Me: "Fagetaboutit"
Also, distraction is the real memory killer I just can't remember what I'm supposed to do about it.

Our computer betwen the ears is full up after so many years..."Retreival" of the memories is the snag

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