Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Strange Thing About Memory

Memory is a strange thing.

I can't remember what I had for dinner last night or the name of a casual friend I often see at the community center, but....

I can give you the name of every kid who ever threw up in my grade school class, along with the circumstances, the color and consistency of the vomit and who cleaned it up. For example, one day in second grade, Phyllis MacElvoy threw up a prodigious amount of curdled milk through her fingers as she sat in class. My desk was across the aisle from hers, so my view was up close and personal. I was both horrified and mesmerized. When Sister Claudine asked who would like to clean up Phyllis and her desk, hands shot up all around me. I did not volunteer. I was too busy willing myself not to retch along with my classmate.

Those early memories can, indeed, be lasting ones. What do you remember from your early years? How many senses are involved in these memories? Sometimes a memory is simply a sound or a smell.

My widowed paternal grandmother moved her two children from Tucson to Los Angeles when the youngest, Molly, was not quite five years old. In later years, Molly's recollections of Arizona were vague except for her memory of the way the desert smelled after a rain, the air rich with creosote.

What lives on in your memories -- the happy times or the challenging ones?

Some studies have found that negative events and information are more likely to be stored -- and sometimes distorted -- in one's memory than positive events. One study has proposed that this focus on the negative may be a way of enhancing a person's ability to deal with such events should they recur.

But the positive memories from our earlier lives can be lasting and life-enhancing, too.

Sometimes memories are warm -- like those I have of myself at the age of eight, just returning to full-time school after a two-year recovery from polio. I recall walking around the school playground holding onto the sash of Sister Mary Virginia's habit, feeling safe and reassured by her loving presence. Only a few months ago, still a nun but now using her birth name of Rita McCormack, this beloved lifelong friend told me that seeing me so small and vulnerable, standing by myself on the playground, brought back memories of her own childhood: being out of school for two years as she battled TB and the pain of going back to school to classmates who had all but forgotten her. And she had reached out to me from her own painful memories as I struggled to fit in.

Sometimes the memories start out painful but become positive. One moment from my college years has lingered for decades in my memory. It was a windy, bone-chilling day in January and, as I stomped through the snow to class, I was thinking how tired I was of the pressures of putting myself through school, struggling to keep my grades up so that I didn't lose my scholarship, dealing with the rigor of a challenging program and the angst of being perpetually lovelorn. "I'll never forget how hard this was. Ever!" I muttered to myself as I stomped along the icy sidewalk. "I'll never become one of those nostalgic alums!"

I was certain at the time that I would always remember my college years as a time of hardship and existential loneliness. But my recollections of those years have expanded over time. Now my memories of Northwestern are largely about life-changing lessons learned both in and out of the classroom and of special friends from that era -- some of them close, lifelong friends -- who are evidence that I was never really alone in facing the challenges of my young life. I haven't forgotten the financial pressures of that time nor the pain of unrequited love. But I've grown in gratitude for what I did have and the blessings I continue to enjoy because I chose to go to Northwestern. And I'm happily looking forward to attending my 50th college reunion in the fall.

The fact is, our memories are changeable, influenced by a variety of factors, including naturally occurring distortions. Dr. Daniel L. Schacter, a noted research psychologist, has noted that "Memory is inherently a reconstructive process whereby we piece together the past to form a coherent narrative that becomes our autobiography. In the process of reconstructing the past, we color and shape our life's experiences based on what we know of the world."

In his research, Dr. Schacter has identified several types of common distortions. There is "imagination inflation" that can range from someone remembering a real event with some embellishments that they are certain did occur to having a false recollection of an experience that did not occur. Sometimes imagination inflation will shape a memory to match a person's current self-image. Other distortions: remembering the gist of an experience but forgetting specific details and recalling post-event misinformation which can lodge stubbornly in memory along with the real event.

Sometimes these distortions can lead to family conflicts over what happened -- or didn't happen -- in the past. In the best case scenario, we can listen to each other's differing memories with with love and an open mind, viewing divergent memories as a learning opportunity. Listening to the way a loved one views the past and how this colors his or her world view can be a chance to get to know him or her in a while new way. It can also be a chance to look back with greater understanding of family conflicts and how these might have started long ago.

And as we age, our memories become a new concern. Why is it that long-term memories seem so secure while short-term memories can be so fleeting? It has to do with our aging brains.

After peaking in the early twenties, brain volume gradually decreases. By the forties, people begin to notice that they're not quite as good at remembering new names. As we grow older, multi-tasking doesn't come as easily as before. Decreased blood flow to the brain, especially to the hippocampus, can make new memories harder to retain. And we become more forgetful.

While we may joke about "senior moments", there is always that fear that memory lapses mean the beginnings of dementia. Most of the time, our lapses are due to age-related forgetfulness: losing keys, forgetting the names of acquaintances, or walking into a room and wondering "Why did I come in here?" These lapses, in general,  don't interfere with our ability to function effectively in our daily lives -- from household and hygienic tasks to professional activities and social interactions.

Those with dementia, on the other hand, struggle with everyday tasks, suffer from disorientation, an inability to make rational choices or to recognize the reality of their situation or, eventually, even some of those close to them.

One of the clearest descriptions of senior moments vs. dementia that I have heard is this: "Forgetting where you put your keys happens to everyone but forgetting how keys are used and what they're for is a sign that you may well have dementia."

Another observation: those who worry about losing it are usually fine. Many of those with dementia have no sense that anything is wrong with them. They may blame others for the changes in their lives. A friend of mine who suffered from Alzheimer's, for example, was outraged that his wife wouldn't let him drive and he often talked about needing to look for a job.

Perhaps such lack of awareness is protective. Being aware that you have cognitive deficits and possible dementia is devastating. I once had a neighbor who was a well-known research psychologist and in the early stages of Alzheimers when he and his wife moved into our community. He spoke to me several times about his feelings -- ranging from joking ("Can you lend me some brain cells today?") to deep depression ("If I had the courage, I would kill myself.") And, more recently, a close friend's husband who is suffering from advanced Parkinson's and dementia told his wife during a painful, lucid moment that "I can accept not being able to walk and spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair. What I really can't accept is the fact that I'm losing my mind."

His grief and fear resonates with many of us. The tragedy and terror of dementia has touched many of our lives, as we have watched beloved relatives or friends suffer, and can haunt our dreams with fears for our own future.

While research continues to look for causes and more effective treatments for dementia, we do know that, even as we age, there is so much we can do to help our brains stay younger.

We know, for example, that staying physically active -- even simply taking a daily walk -- can help that blood flow to the brain. One recent study found that the least sedentary of subjects over 65 had the lowest risk for dementia while the most physically inactive subjects had a dramatically higher risk for Alzheimer's disease, comparable to those with a gene mutation that carries a high risk for Alzheimer's.

Learning new things -- a new language, a musical instrument, brain-challenging activities like Scrabble and crossword puzzles -- can help. So can getting enough sleep, avoiding smoking, and having a supportive network of friends and family.

Living a healthy, active, social lifestyle can help our brains -- and our bodies -- to work better and longer. There are no guarantees, of course. But taking these steps can enhance our lives in so many ways as we grow older.

In the meantime, it's not at all unusual to find that while we have an endless variety of long-term memories, more immediate ones can be ephemeral.

Like so many my age, I have these vivid flashes from long ago: barfing grade school classmates, the look on my father's face when he discovered that, at age three and trying to be helpful, I had polished the kitchen floor with my mother's cold cream and all the words to the Bucky Beaver jingle for Ipana toothpaste back in the Fifties ("Brusha, brusha, brusha with the new Ipana, with the brand new flavor! It's dandy for your teeeef!")

My memory is amazing, indeed.

But...has anyone seen my keys?


  1. Love the ending. I have had some weird memories and one in particular that presented itself in a reoccurring dream. These eyes were always following me in a void and I couldn't get away from them. A counselor helped me get to the bottom of that dream, whereby I slowed downed and asked the eyes what they wanted. They wanted to know why my mother quit kissing me good night when I hit puberty. Wow! It was a memory that bothered me greatly. So I asked my mother and she said that at the time it was thought to be unnatural, but I had taken it as rejection. Nice to get that clarified.

    1. Yes! That's fascinating. I think that a lot of adolescents (and adults, looking back) feel the same way -- confused and rejected when a beloved parent seems to be withdrawing affection.

  2. You ending sentence was perfect and gave me a chuckle. This was an excellent post. My grandfather suffered from Alzheimer's and we all tend to be on high alert when we forget something that seems so simple to remember and, when we wrack our brains, still come up empty. One brother seems to be recalling things that no one in the family remembers and also not remembering from one conversation to the next what was said. I don't know whether we should be concerned or not as he is not one to always pay close attention to what others are saying but more on what he has to say. I don't mean that in a negative way, but it makes it difficult to draw the line between a problem and his personality. His wife doesn't seem concerned. I tend to push the bad memories down to be pulled up when I need to be reminded of some hard learned life lesson and keep the good ones where I can easily access them for a needed uplift. Luckily, I always know where my keys are. However, remembering why I walked into a room...not so much. LOL

    1. Thanks for your kind words! I think we're all on alert -- especially when we have a family member with dementia. I think we all have our memory glitches though. Glad you are keeping track of your keys!

  3. Another excellent post - thank you!

  4. Excellent post! I don't have a great memory but my 85 year old mother does! She gets annoyed when I don't remember something that happened while my children were growing up (they are 30 plus years old) and I get annoyed because I don't remember! As a fulltime working mom a lot of my memories are a blur from the time the children were born until they graduated! I often find negative memories override positive memories. It's like my brain is clay and every bad thing that ever happened is etched into the clay. I do have a lot of positive memories but I struggle to pull those out sometimes! I love the comparison of normal temporary memory loss and the possibility of dementia. I have written it down and put it on my fridge so I don't forget! I recently had a conversation with my spouse about what he needs to do should I suffer from dementia and about an hour later he said to me What was it we were discussing, I can't remember! My grandmother had a memory like a history book right up until she passed at age 98. Is something like that inherited or is it a skill that is honed through the years? Like Homer Simpson I sometimes think my brain will only hold so much information and whatever comes in last shoves out whatever was ahead of it! Thanks for a thought provoking article!

    1. Yes, I think you just have a lot on your plate! When we're extremely busy or under chronic stress, we don't always remember everything as well as we might otherwise.

  5. Wonderful post. I do remember the good and the not so good from the past quite well and in detail. The mundane is gone forever.
    I can't believe so many hands went up volunteering to clean up Phyllis:)) I'd have been like you.

    1. Thanks, Patti! Yes, it was always amazing to me how many people would eagerly volunteer to clean up such messes. It has to do with the Catholic school culture, I think. We would do anything -- almost anything in my case -- to please the nun in charge. My parents used to shake their heads when I'd head over to the convent to help the nuns with Saturday house cleaning, leaving my at home chores undone. The difference, of course, was that the nuns would fuss over me and tell me how wonderful I was while my parents simply expected me to do the dishes or vacuum the house. Another memory from that past: in the elementary school I attended, our teachers were Irish nuns right off the boat. And they held older siblings responsible for the younger ones in all ways, including if a younger sibling threw up or wet his or her pants in class. I put my brother on stern notice that I would just simply kill him if he did any of that. He listened well. My only call-downs to his classroom were to get notes from his teacher to take to our parents about his clowning around in class. Turned out he was a genius who was simply bored!

  6. You nailed it, Kathy. And well, (as always!). I think we often worry about the things we forget but don't always honor the things we remember. (Like, where the keys are!). I have gone through long periods of looking for something I put in a safe place. It's really safe because I haven't found it in a year of looking. But while I think I might be losing that part of my mind, the fact that I can remember it is in a safe place comforts me! And I know why I want to find it, which is good too!

    I've been experiencing Alzheimer's through the husband of a friend and I think what we all want to remember about John is the John we knew. I bet he wants to remember that too, if he can process that. I'm not so sure. But you are so right about distortion of memories -- bad and good. My friend's deceased child who died at 12 has become a prodigy. And my mother's cancer treatment 40 years ago triggers fear with every mammogram, despite the rational knowledge that these days, detection is faster and treatments, still hard, help this disease from being an automatic death sentence.

    I had to laugh about cleaning up the retching. My first Christmas staying over with Rick and the boys, we heard hurling at 5 a.m. Don't ask me why, because I can't tell you -- but I was the one wiping up the floor. And that's when I knew, I was willing to be with this family for a long time. That's one of those bad memories that turns out to be good!

    1. I love your example of true love of a family, Jeanie! What a first stay-over Christmas! And your memory distortions are so understandable!

  7. Great post... I have said many times as I get older (will be 75 in August) that my biggest fear is losing my mind as I get older... I have no symptoms and am doing fine now (I think) with just the normal memory problems of aging (like where are my keys)....

    I don't think any of us would choose to live with dementia. The nursing homes are filled with people with no quality of life much at all.. Very very sad...

    I love your example showing the difference in age-related memory problems VS real problems... Not knowing where your keys are is 'normal' as we age --BUT not knowing what the keys are for shows REAL problems. GREAT example.

    Thanks for sharing..... IF you come and find my keys, I'll come and find yours.... ha