Elders Invisible – Not This Time

Resting our Brains to Improve Memory

category_bug_journal2.gif It is, probably, the number one fear old people have: loss of memory. To not remember is literally to lose our selves, the core of our being, the entire definition of who we are.

Although there is not much anyone can do about dementia, we spend a lot of time worrying about memory loss. When we walk into a room and wonder why we're there, is it incipient Alzheimer's, we ask ourselves.

A 74-year-old friend with whom I chat regularly on the telephone is frustrated with how frequently he forgets a word he needs while speaking, something that happens to one or both of us every time we chat.

And here's a convoluted example: I regularly forget that even if I have only three items on the grocery store list, I need to write them down and when I don't, I always forget to buy one and, sometimes, two of the items. On the few occasions I do write them down, I'm as likely to leave the list at home as take it with me.

That's at least a double forget and maybe a triple.

It is for reasons like these that brain training games have become a billion dollar business even without an iota of proof that they work. Study after study fail to show memory improvement from all those hours at crosswords, sudoku and concentration exercises.

None of it ever made sense to me on my personal theory that the brain and memory within it are way too subtle and complex to benefit from games that all repeatedly task the same kind of mental operation. But now there is a study on memory improvement that does make sense:

“...psychological scientist Michaela Dewar and her colleagues show that memory can be boosted by taking a brief wakeful rest after learning something verbally new - so keep the pencil for phone numbers - and that memory lasts not just immediately but over a longer term.

"'Our findings support the view that the formation of new memories is not completed within seconds,' says Dewar. 'Indeed our work demonstrates that activities that we are engaged in for the first few minutes after learning new information really affect how well we remember this information after a week.'"

In times past when there wasn't much everyday distraction but radio, books and what we created for ourselves, I recall looking up from a book now then, staring off into space to give some thought to what I had just read before returning to the text. I don't sense that I or many other people do that often anymore.

These days we live in a world of fractured attention. Email, smartphones, television, Kindles, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, YouTube, Angry Birds all beeping and buzzing at us minute to minute and as soon as we are done with one, we move directly to the next.

With unexpected serendipity yesterday, soon after I read about this research into what might be called mindful remembering, I came across a story in The New York Times about a new movement from the people who invent and prosper from the technologies of our mental distraction.

”The concern, voiced in conferences and in recent interviews with many top executives of technology companies, is that the lure of constant stimulation — the pervasive demand of pings, rings and updates — is creating a profound physical craving that can hurt productivity and personal interactions.

A director in the executive offices of Facebook, founders from Twitter, eBay, Zynga and Paypal along with executives from other technology giants such as Google, Microsoft, Cisco, etc. have, for the past three years, been attending an annual Wisdom 2.0 conference to explore whether interactive technology has addictive properties and if so, what to do about it.

“'We’re done with this honeymoon phase and now we’re in this phase that says, Wow, what have we done? said Soren Gordhamer, [the organizer of Wisdom 2.0], about the pursuit of balance in the digital age. 'It doesn’t mean what we’ve done is bad. There’s no blame. But there is a turning of the page.'”

In one session at the most recent conference, it was debated whether technology firms “had a responsibility to consider their collective power to lure consumers to games or activities that waste time or distract them.”

Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford School of Medicine says that it is becoming widely accepted that our gadgets create a “persistent sense of emergency by setting off stress systems in our brain.”

”'It's this basic cultural recognition that people have a pathological relationship with their devices,' she said. 'People feel not just addicted, but trapped.'”

I don't use my smartphone for much beyond actual telephone calls and damned few of those but just from hundreds of emails a day, I feel a lot like what Ms. McGonigal describes and I don't need an expert to tell me such feelings affect memory.

According to The Times, Google has started a mindfulness movement with its employees.

”Richard Fernandez, an executive coach at Google and one of the leaders of the mindfulness moment, said the risks of being overly engages with devices were immense.

“'It's nothing less than everything,' he said, adding that if people can find time to occasionally disconnect, 'we can have more intimate and authentic relationships with ourselves and those we love in our communities.'”

And, I might add, improve our memories when we are not dashing and darting from one distraction and engagement to the next. I'm just as likely as those Silicon Valley types to spend the day in front of the computer screen, read my Kindle through dinner when I'm alone, read a chapter or two of a book before some TV show I want to watch and this goes from morning to lights out.

No wonder I can't remember a grocery list of three items. I need to give myself more time to let it – and anything else I want remember - settle into my mind. To give my brain the leisure it needs to store the information rather that give it more work to do with brain games.

Michaela Dewar explains that there is growing evidence to suggest that the point at which we experience new information is

"...just at a very early stage of memory formation and that further neural processes have to occur after this stage for us to be able to remember this information at a later point in time."

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Joanne Zimmermann: A Classic Case


I remember a number of years ago reading about a study that claimed students retained more information when they were allowed some quiet time after a lesson before the next class began. I don't remember when this was done but am sure it was before smart phones,iPods, etc.
All of this makes me wonder. Do we need to exercise our memory when we are young in order for it to work well as we age? Our great-grandparents memorized poetry and prose as a part of their learning as children. Did they remember better in old age than later generations?

Great article. Thank you. I forgot my three item list yesterday and felt the fool.

Yes, after the stroke, I found myself using substitute words such as truck for car....one never knows what's going to come out. So I made a decision to limit my interactions. I have a cell, but use it for emergencies. I do email rarely and belong to only one list. I read blogs but don't Twitter. I do Facebook to keep up with the grandkids, and I also post pictures for our local American Cancer Society Discovery Shop.

After my morning bout with the computer, I try not to spend the rest of the day here. I do look up and out when reading, cooking, but not driving. :)

I have always had a problem with remembering certain words. As a teacher, my mind used to be quick enough to instantly think of a synonym or change the sentence to disguise my lapse. Back then, part of it was that my mind was already a paragraph ahead of my mouth.

At 71, it is much harder to cover up for a mistake; those synapses just don't fire the way I want them to.

It bothers me no end listening to older people stop and try to remember someone's name or date or whatever, going on and on about it in a stream of consciousness way. I do try not to do that--just skip it and go on and try to appreciate the mind that I have left.

Your description of writing things down is spot on. I keep a pen and paper next to the computer and another pen and paper at the kitchen counter.
When I have an idea for an essay,story, poem, or blog post, I write it down immediately. I stop everything and write it down; Because I know if I take three steps, I'll probably forget it. On the other hand, I can rattle off all 16 forms of the definite article in German, which I learnt fifty years ago, and tell you the exact events of a nightmare I had when I was four years old. I write down my grocery needs as they occur to me, and tick them off as I order them on the computer.

This is one of the reasons I knit - and not while I'm watching television. The act of forming stitch after stitch, whether in a complicated pattern or a simple repetitive one, is restful and meditative. It's addictive, but a healthier kind of addictive than using a cell phone, which I so often see people do while they're walking for exercise. What's so important it can't wait until they get home?

My friend is a classical pianist and has to do a lot of memorization. He has commented that the material is learned after a full night's sleep. That is, he doesn't see the full fruits of his memorization until the next day.

I remember seeing a wonderful lecture on aging – many years ago. The woman speaking said “the only reason young people remember things better than old people is that, unlike us, they still have spaces in their brains.” (I think she may have winked.) I loved the idea, not just as an excuse for forgetfulness, but as a reminder that we have to take the time to push out useless trivia and make room for new and more important information. Contemplating, re-reading and talking about the new information all help.

Re: the forgotten grocery list, I treat it as a memory challenge and then applaud myself for the items I DID remember, rather than berate myself for forgetting the list. I’m not sure it helps with memory, but I feel better.

When forgetting simple words began to create a lapse in my talking or reading I had the fear that we all share. Is it Dementia or, horrors, Alzheimer? Eventually I just got used to it and used substitute words in a Thesaurus as a clue toward finding the word I needed. Or I researched a forgotten name on the Internet.

Strangely enough, the loss of words is not happening as often now as formerly.

I find that when I am physically tired I forget words more often.

When I need to do something later I just keep repeating it until the job is accomplished.

Studies come and studies go. I no longer pay much attention to them. So many theories are countered by other theories and are later proven to be of no value.

Maybe it's because I am really, really old I just ignore well meaning advice and do what I have always done the way I have always done it. I must have been doing something right.

In graduate school (U of Texas at Dallas) I took a course "Memory and Ageing". I was in my 50s at the time - but paid attention anyway.

There are, as we know, two memories: short term and then long term.

Short term allows us to remember things like, 'where did I put my car keys?'. Or 'what happened yesterday?'.

Long term allows us to recall events that happened years and years ago, ie Sonnets, scripts from plays we were in, lyrics to our favorite tunes of the 50s and 60s.

What the agent is that initiates the loss of short term as you age isn't defined - but we all know it exists. It seems, though, the ability to recall events from years ago increases with age.

Off the subject - diminished sight, hearing, then memory loss is the order of events to be monitored as you age. Think bifocals, turning up the volume on the phone, and 'why did I forget to bring that grocery list?'.

Now - as a Teacher and Curriculum Developer I know that material needs to be presented in a triad. That is, 'tell'em what you going to tell'em, tell'em, then tell'em what you told them'.

If we all approach learning, or relearning something, try this triad: Think of what you need to do, Verbally (outload)tell yourself what you need to do, then write it down - - and don't forget to do it!

Try it and let's see if that works.

Regards . .

As we age the quality of our sleep suffers and that does affect our memory.Also,we were not anxious when we were young and many insecurities crop up now and perhaps that dulls the memory by distracting our focus in the first place.

I've always been a list maker but half the time these days I forget to make list!! Sigh.

This is a wonderful post. My mother had senile dementia and I live in dread fear of that condition. At the same time, I realize my memory was always at the mercy of the stresses in my life. This, along with the comments, is a keeper in my file. I do often remind myself, "Breathe, just breathe." Then somebody else wrote it into a song.

I've always loved the studies on the elderly nuns who moved into their nineties and upwards with their memories intact even though some had Alzheimers and brain lesions.
I think there was a lesson such as you've described, Ronni, they took the time for contemplation and meditation.
I MUST remember to do this as I skitter about from device to book to screen.

Uma--I'm envying the world in which you grew up - without anxiety. Wow!

All--In a conversation with a much younger friend, yesterday, he was talking about how he's trying to plan to take time off from laptops, iPads, and smartphones. A couple of minutes into the conversation, I was stunned to learn that while I thought he was looking to take a week or two off in the wilderness, he was merely thinking of "switching off" for a few hours. Goodness me!

I think we are all--young and older--suffering from "information overload" and it's good to know that I'm not alone. Using electronic devices is as natural to 20-somethings as answering the phone (when that's all it was) or reading a newspaper were to us, so maybe they deal with distractions better than I do. Still one has to wonder whether the number of kids diagnosed with ADHD, etc., isn't related to constant switching back and forth among competing tasks.

I know that I had to FOCUS when I was learning a 2nd language or writing an essay back in my school days. Maybe the inability of many kids to put together a coherent sentence has something to do with a loss of ability to focus or concentrate on one task at a time.

All I know is that I'm looking forward to a week in early September when I plan to unplug: turn off my smartphone and iPad, forsake Facebook and LinkedIn and drastically curtail the time I spend on email. While email and social media can be a convenient way to communicate, they can easily become a black hole that devours hour upon hour every day.

I just spent a few days at a hotel on the North Shore of Lake Superior that prides itself in being "technologically free" i.e. no T.V., no phones, no gadget hookups.....just the crashing of the waves....it was wonderful..Our electronic gear gets to be just another task after awhile...We all need down time to reboot!

Very pertinent. I am afraid I am very attached to my laptop. The ability to get any question answered immediately is very addictive.

Glad the tech folk are lookin' at those effects of their digital creations on individuals. Maybe for some people there are psychological states to be in that are better than others when a person is introduced into this tech world. Perhaps in many situations it's best the person not be going through a major life change. Perhaps they first best have settled into structure and routines establishing a newly adjusting life pattern with more rational thinking before tech immersion and interacting with new people.

Also, what some seem to be describing here are word finding problems which is an issue that elders can experience and find frustrating. There are techniques to cope with this, including one which includes talking about the word being sought in a related indirect manner rather than persisting in seeking the exact word directly, or ceasing to stimulate the word's recall.

When I wrote on my blog about trying to recall a particular word or name, I came up with the Rolodex Theory of Recall. Partly tongue-in-cheek, the theory is that every person you've every met or song you've heard or movie you've seen or fact you've learned is on a metaphorical rolodex which is chockful of all that information and more. The more you know, the longer it may take you to recall the name you want. You can't force it, but sooner or later the name will come to you.

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