It's a common occurrence. You meet a new neighbor by the apartment mailboxes. Just as you're chatting, another neighbor comes by and you want to introduce them. BLANK. You can't remember either one's name!
You tell the plumber you'll leave the key at your neighbor's house because you have to be at work. The sink has been blocked all week and you're having guests over for the weekend. As you leave the house you're busy planning your workday and how you'll avoid the traffic jams they've just announced over the radio. Sure enough, you forget to leave the key with your neighbor.
"In order to encode information well, two steps are required: paying attention and making connections (associations) with previous knowledge."
Not to worry, say the experts. Memory loss is a common part of the mental scene. Nobody can remember everything. The experts tell us that people make conscious or unconscious choices about what they want to remember and put effort and energy into subjects that are important to them. There are manuals and memory improvement classes that can help people enhance the process of memory retention.
Developmental psychologists explain that at the age of 40 there are often changes in the brain that account for memory drop, but the rate of deterioration varies from person to person. These very normative fluctuations in our ability to remember make some people worry that they're falling victim to Alzheimer's disease when indeed it's only BF (benign forgetfulness). Most people expect their bodies and reflexes to slow down with age. Physicians now recognize that memory declines as well with advancing years. However this age-associated memory decline is neither progressive nor disabling, as are illnesses that cause dementia. Only a small part of the population (3 to 5%) will ever suffer from this organic mental syndrome.
Verbalize out loud the information to be remembered, e.g. when meeting a new person, repeat the name, "I'm glad to meet you Mr. Goldenwasser," thus enlisting auditory memory as well.
At present there is no cure for dementia. There is no treatment for BF either, but there are many ways to overcome it. What's encouraging is that the rate of change in memory is definitely a function of mental exercises. "Use it or loose it," has been scientifically ratified by research on memory retention. "Those who are mentally alert, learning and indulging in intellectual pursuits, are less likely to experience memory decline than those who don't use their minds," says one expert in the field. It matters little whether you spend hours working on crossword puzzles, or read tractates of ancient literature or study the Russian language in your retirement. What's important is that your brain is being exercised.
Many groups in memory improvement are being conducted all over the world. Men and women are flocking to classes to learn how we remember and why we forget. They learn practical aids like writing themselves reminders and lists, repeating aloud names that are easily forgotten, developing association tricks that can overcome the natural BF process. Generally it is these utilitarian techniques that make these classes so useful and popular. "I learned not only how to live with my memory problem," said Fanny, a participant at a senior citizen center, "but also what to do about it."
" Older adults apparently do better than their progeny in tests that measure knowledge and judgment. "
Fanny also learned that minor memory difficulties could be accelerated by physical and psychological factors: fatigue, grief, stress, medication, vision or hearing loss, depression and illness. Similarly, outside factors, such as distractions, lack of concentration or an attempt to remember too many details at once can increase memory impairment.
Encoding: Getting the information into memory
Even though certain mental functions become more difficult with age, others remain unchanged and may even be better than in younger people. Encoding, that is embedding information into long term memory, is one of the functions that decline with passing years, e.g. the common complaint: "I can't remember what I heard at a lecture as well as I used to."
In order to encode information well, two steps are required: paying attention and making connections (associations) with previous knowledge. Since there are so many stimuli competing for our attention, it takes concentration to remember appointments, addresses, name and directions. Association is something we do everyday, effortlessly and it helps us retain new information, for example, by dividing facts and information into categories for easier retention.
Memory improvement classes teach people how to focus their facilities on new information that they want to retain, how to hone their ability to give full attention to the subject at hand and how to consciously build associations with previously encoded items of memory.
Recall: Getting information out of the memory bank
Recall is the other mental function that we perform when we remember. When we say, "I know the name of my medicine, but I forgot it when I went to the pharmacy," we're complaining about a lack in recall. This function refers to the ability to retrieve information on demand. We retrieve information in one of two ways.
1. Recall: searching for the information in our memory bank, triggered by a need or a cue (the first name of someone you're trying to remember, or the place where you first met him).
2. Recognition: perceiving the familiarity of a piece of information. People remember faces better than names, for instance.
In Fanny's memory class these aspects of the memory process were transposed into day-to-day processes. Hints on how to improve retention and recall were practiced. Following are some of the techniques that she learned:
Techniques for improving your memory
- Visualization: raising a picture in one's mind's eye of what you want to remember. Turning concepts, numbers or words into images make them easier to "recognize" and hence recall when needed.
- Embellish and elaborate on an idea or a concept. By adding a description of the surroundings, the emotions involved and the general atmosphere at the time of encoding, one can more readily remember the desired information.
- Devise memory games: group addresses, names or important details according to categories; alphabetizing; make acronyms out of the first letters, or devise stories to connect each item.
- Verbalize out loud the information to be remembered, e.g. when meeting a new person, repeat the name, "I'm glad to meet you Mr. Golden," thus enlisting auditory memory as well.
Not all the techniques taught in Fanny's class were mental tricks. Some included external aids such as changing something in one's environment to stimulate recall. Some people move their wedding band from one finger to another to remember something important. Another popular method is to place what you have to take with you the next morning in front of the door.
Making lists, writing down appointments and hanging up phone numbers in strategic spots act as basic aids to people of all ages. For those who worry if they turned off the gas or lights before they left the house, there's even a suggestion to make yourself a checklist to be marked off each time you leave the house. "Did I do.....?"
One of Fanny's classmates asked if there's a solution for misplacing common items, like reading glasses or keys. The practical advice here was to always, always, always put them in the same place. "No matter what the pressure, no matter what the task at hand, always hang the keys on the key hook, for example, and always put the glasses in the same drawer whenever they're not on your nose," the instructor said.
Much of the concern over memory loss in older people stems from the inability to recall names and certain words on demand. The embarrassment and frustration can make the person anxious, and this, in turn, further blocks the retrieval process. But older people do as well, if not better, than youngsters on certain mental tasks. Recognition of faces, voices and other perceived information is generally not a problem for the older person.
Similarly the experience of a lifetime gives this segment of the population an advantage over others. Older adults apparently do better than their progeny in tests that measure knowledge and judgment. "The experience of a long and rich life can produce a wisdom that young people can only hope to attain," declares one manual on the subject.
The good news, therefore, is that memory loss is normal, understandable and memory can be improved. There are experts out there who can teach us simple techniques how to remember what we've forgotten. Now if I could only recall those techniques....