When Nothing is Unforgettable
A Personal Confession:
While cleaning up after cooking, I put a half-gallon bottle of Wesson oil in the microwave.
Easter Sunday, I parked my truck in front of my daughter's house and then marched directly onto the porch of the house next door.
I had about eight pairs of glasses at last count – now I'm lucky to find just one.
Every day I try to recall the name of someone I know well and cannot retrieve that name from my locked memory bank.
I'm very confident I wrote down the date and address for where I'm to give a talk about my book in May. Where did I do that?
Who on earth would steal the electric toothbrush from my bathroom?
A fellow forgetter (my helpful husband) sent me a Wall Street Journal article about forgetfulness this past Monday. I suppose it's a comfort to know that I'm not alone in this troublesome experience – folks everywhere are reporting similar concerns. But it's doubly difficult when you're older, and some people are treating you like you're already into second childhood, and … I forgot my third point!
So, to calm my anxiety, I flew into a frenzy of research in a quest to restore and reassure myself and you – that overwhelming forgetfulness isn't terminal. Let's first talk about our social and business environment for the last two years. What? Been mostly at home and doing business over Zoom? Does your book club swap opinions via email and texts only? On top of that let's pile world news, nasty politics, and the war on Ukraine – all of which we can follow on multiple media sources – 24/7. We're carrying an overload of concerns that include self-survival. Any one of these conditions causes stress that can pile up to impact sleep, attention span, and memory.
All this happened under 26 months of pandemic restrictions. One neuroscientist explains that memory thrives on new experiences and information. Who gets that in their living room? Isolated at home, daily life becomes routine – one day blends into the next. Remember the last time you cleaned the kitchen sink? I don't, but I think I did it.
The act of forgetting is a hot topic in neuroscience and psychology since so many people are questioning their mental well-being. Researchers say that our brains embed memories that are distinct – unique, very personal, and impactful. The likelihood of having memorable experiences is greatly reduced when we're in a sheltered environment – the critical components of long-term memory get very little (if any) exercise. One day fades slowly into the next.
Here's what happens according to my grossly simple interpretation of really complicated parts and roles of the human brain: The main components of memory are the cerebellum, hippocampus, and amygdala. Our emotions are regulated by the amygdala and its reaction to stress hormones. For our own protection, it decides which strong memories to store "up front" so that we can retrieve them when threatened or excited. These "stress hormones" regulate emotion.
The hippocampus helps consolidate memories for long-term storage, gives those memories meaning, and then transfers that information to other parts of the brain (Like – Run! - That's a rattlesnake!). And the cerebellum, along with the brainstem, harbors all the information the body needs to physically function as it should (think essentials like breathing, digestion, circulation, and other mechanics that keep us alive).
Put this delicately balanced system under stress, and normal processes are disrupted. Memory is dulled when one day is like the last – events are not worthy of storage and retrieval. The strong emotional experiences that trigger the release of hormones and neurotransmitters haven't been available in everyday pandemic life. There have also been fewer demands on the hippocampus that gives us survival signals – who needs those on the couch in front of the TV?
These stresses filter down to the mundane and bothersome. One that's painfully familiar to me is the "Tip of the tongue phenomenon." This can happen when trying to recall a common word. But the most embarrassing is not being able to recall names. Not just those from the past or media personalities – people you know and encounter frequently. The expert advice on this one is to not attempt a forced memory because the effort to do so will block access to the stored memory. They say relax, take a breath, and the name will come. Probably much later, when you no longer need it.
But take heart. The brainy scientists say that our memory will sharpen as we transition back to what we once knew as 'normal life'.
Here are a few suggestions from the pros:
Don't try to force yourself to remember because you'll further stress your already stressed-out brain
Dump multitasking and concentrate on one thing even if that task is routine and boring.
Chill out – Do whatever it takes for you. A long walk outdoors, a focused talk with a trusted friend. Do Yoga, meditate (not for me, I find that stressful).
Spend quality time with your pet (something I'm happy to do because who understands me better than my dog Murphy?).
And if these tactics don't work – take heart! There's a new video game being developed at the Therapeutic Games and App Lab at the University of Utah. Neurogrow is designed by Sarah Morimoto – not for fun and excitement – but to "exercise the brain" and "enhance neural circuitry. It shows so much potential that the National Institute for Mental Health infused the project with a $7.5 million dollar grant. Before I forget all about this project, here's a link for you to learn more about Neurogrow (I inquired about volunteering my brain for the project. At least I think I did.).
To summarize – It's not you. It's all of us, here and now, but hopefully not forever.
Now, what was I saying? Where's my phone? Never mind. Think I'll just go have a chat with Murphy.
You're bringing sunshine to a week of daily rain and a dusting of snow. Thanks for reading Down Darby Lane and letting me know how you are doing in these uncertain times - You brighten my week and keep me thinking positive thoughts that I'm delighted to share with you. Let me know how you are doing - email@example.com And a big "Thank You" to my kind neighbor Merry Campbell who gives my drafts a proofing and frequently saves me from looking as stupid as I occasionally feel.