Three times in an hour-long conversation with a friend this morning, I had reason to say, “Never mind, I lost the thought.” In my case when that happens, the thought is gone forever.
Most TGB readers are old enough to know the problem of forgetting the name of a place, person or thing (these lapses are almost always nouns). It has an infamous twin - walking into the bedroom and forgetting why you're there.
This is an old-age phenomenon, short-term memory being too short to be useful. But Daniel J. Levitin, a 62-year-old neuroscientist says we are wrong.
”This is widely understood to be a classic problem of aging,” he wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times. “But as a neuroscientist, I know that the problem is not necessarily age-related.”
(Or maybe it is; note how he hedges his statement with “necessarily.”)
He goes on to explain that “short-term memory is easily disturbed or disrupted.”
”It depends on your actively paying attention to the items that are in the 'next thing to do' file in your mind. You do this by thinking about them, perhaps repeating them over and over again...
“But any distraction — a new thought, someone asking you a question, the telephone ringing — can disrupt short-term memory. Our ability to automatically restore the contents of the short-term memory declines slightly with every decade after 30.”
Dr. Levitin tells us that his 20-year-old students make “loads” of short-term memory mistakes.
”They walk into the wrong classroom; they show up to exams without the requisite No. 2 pencil; they forget something I just said two minutes before. These are similar to the kinds of things 70-year-olds do.”
The difference between to the two age groups, he says, is how they each describe the events:
”Twenty-year-olds don’t think, 'Oh dear, this must be early-onset Alzheimer’s.' They think, 'I’ve got a lot on my plate right now' or 'I really need to get more than four hours of sleep.'”
Cognition does slow down with age, says Dr. Levitin, but given a little more time, elders' memory works fine. As others before him have explained, part of the slowing down problem is old people have so much more information stored in their brains that it takes longer to sort through it all.
But there's good news too.
”Some aspects of memory actually get better as we age. For instance, our ability to extract patterns, regularities and to make accurate predictions improves over time because we’ve had more experience.
“(This is why computers need to be shown tens of thousands of pictures of traffic lights or cats in order to be able to recognize them). If you’re going to get an X-ray, you want a 70-year-old radiologist reading it, not a 30-year-old one.”
Dr. Levitin says elders more easily recall events from long ago because they were new when they happened and make strong impressions.
Although little of Dr. Levitin's memory discussion is new to me, I was enjoying reading his piece until I came upon the last paragraph:
”...experiencing new things is the best way to keep the mind young, pliable and growing — into our 80s, 90s and beyond.”
What a bunch of - oh, never mind. I have new experiences every day. Everyone does even if it's as simple as reading something new. That's not going to make anyone's mind young. Instead, it just reinforces the ageist belief that age is inferior to youth.
And anyway, new experiences don't help me remember why I walked into the bedroom.
The Times' article notes that Dr. Levitin's article is adapted it from his book, Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives.
I was just about to type out a snarky response to that title, but I think most TGB readers will think what I do when see that sorry phrase: please do tell us, then, what is UNsuccessful aging.