If you’re over 50 and worried about memory loss or becoming forgetful, then read a new book: Adventures in Memory — the Science and Secrets of Remembering and Forgetting by Hilde and Ylva Ostby.
In short, our fears relate to quite natural ageing in the 21st century.
The Herald Sun Digital Edition: GOOD TO FORGET
Misplaced your keys again? It’s not as bad as you think.
A new book reveals that forgetfulness is essential for a healthy brain, writes Anna Maxted
WHEN a name, face, appointment or memory escapes us, it causes embarrassment, frustration, even fear. Particularly in middle age and beyond, we worry it’s the first sign of mental decline. But the good news, according to a new book, is that these lapses are normal — and often a sign our brain is in perfect working order. Clinical neuropsychologist Ylva Østby who, with her sister, novelist Hilde Østby , has written Adventures in Memory — the Science and Secrets of Remembering and Forgetting, says it’s not just good to forget, it’s essential.
FORGETTING CERTAIN TYPES OF INFORMATION IS THE BRAIN’S WAY OF PROTECTING ITSELF FROM OVERLOAD
Modern life and mobile phones mean we are exposed to a barrage of information. Not only is it normal for our brain to discard most of it, it’s also desirable. If it didn’t , our system would be overloaded. “A lot of forgetting occurs very soon after an experience,” says Ylva. “This is a good thing, because we don’t need to hang on to all that information. The brain is tidying up and working functionally.”
According to Ylva, our memories are formed by the action of neurotransmitters on the synapses — the connections between neurons
— in our brains. When we pay attention to something, such as an emotional experience, the neurotransmitters make the synapses stronger, and eventually information is directed into the hippocampus, the part of the brain vital for transferring memories into long-term storage.
However, she says: “It is also the role of the hippocampus to block this from happening with some pieces of information.”
This sorting mechanism is called “executive function” . We choose what we pay attention to and the rest is lost. However, when Hilde was recently concussed in an accident, for several months her short-term memory didn’t work. It seemed she couldn’t decide what to retain or discard. “It was horrible,” she says. “Everything comes at you with the same intensity. You cannot sort anything out. It makes you so tired you want to collapse. Unless some stuff is prioritised as more important than other stuff, we can’t function.”
NAMES ARE NOT IMPORTANT TO YOUR BRAIN
You’re introduced to someone and, a second later, you’ve forgotten their name. It’s mortifying and makes you feel stupid but it shouldn’t . Your brain has merely focused on the more vital aspects of this social interaction. “It’s so common,” Ylva says. “We meet someone for the first time and forget their name shortly afterwards. But we’re using our working memory, which only has space for a limited amount of information.”
Our working memory keeps hold of information for only a few seconds, or for as long as we keep thinking of it. “When we meet another person, we’re filling up our working memory with a lot of other information,” Ylva says. “How we might appear to them, what we’re going to say next, who this person is in terms of personality, which is more important than a name, which is a random label. That’s what the brain clings to.” She adds: “It should be OK to ask their name again. It shows you take an interest.”
YOU ONLY MISPLACED YOUR KEYS BECAUSE YOUR BRAIN HAS OTHER PRIORITIES
If you can’t remember where you’ve put your keys, don’t be too cross with yourself. Putting our keys down is a mundane activity, which doesn’t require concentration, says Ylva. “Our brain isn’t paying attention to it at all. When we don’t remember where we put things, or whether we turned off the stove, it’s usually a question of where our mind is focused.”
If you’re not aware of what you’re doing, the information can’t enter your long-term memory. So how can you help yourself?
“I park my car, leave the garage, and don’t remember whether I locked it or not. I have other things on my mind. So I say aloud, ‘Yes, I’m now locking the car!’ It helps.”
We live in an informationheavy age, Ylva says. “We have too much to remember, which makes it difficult for the brain to filter out what is important and what needs to be taken out.”
But we can help our memory by highlighting what matters.
“It is important to use external memory aids — because we’re not supposed to remember all of that stuff, appointments, and so on. We’re supposed to forget,” says Ylva. “When we write something down it helps our memory because it is an act of picking out what we want to remember. We are attaching meaning to this specific piece of information.”
Stress and lack of sleep are the real enemies of your memory. The real risk to memory is an unhealthy lifestyle, say the sisters.
“Even though age does affect memory, as early as your thirties, it’s normal and not that noticeable,” Ylva says.
“Everyday slips of memory become more frequent as we grow older, due to loss of neurons in the hippocampus — but it’s not something to be alarmed about. There’s a great variability, and some people keep their memory abilities intact their whole life.”
To help this process, there are certain things to avoid. “Worrying is one of the enemies of memory. We fill up our working memory with stressful thoughts,” Ylva says.
Poor sleep especially has a negative effect. “A lot of memory consolidation goes on while we sleep. Memories are being laid down, rearranged and put into the right place. Lack of sleep can cause memory problems; you might remember events from the day, but the memories are not properly consolidated.”
And as for what you should be doing? “As a clinician I would say physical exercise, eating healthily — the boring stuff — and using your brain actively,” Ylva says.
YOUR BRAIN DOESN’T CARE ABOUT PRECIOUS MOMENTS
If it saddens you that much of early parenthood is a blur except for moments such as a terrifying visit to hospital, our memory is doing its job. “Your brain doesn’t care whether you remember your child’s first steps,” says Ylva. “That’s not the important stuff — it doesn’t always have the same priorities as we as nostalgic people. Its priority is to learn the socially important information about their childhood. Who they are, their likes and dislikes.”
We also remember events that frighten us to avoid repeating them.
“I remember very vividly when my daughter rolled out of bed when she was six months old,” says Ylva. “She was OK, but she screamed and I cried. I called the ER. That is the sole purpose of remembering these emotionally vivid events so that we may learn from them. And that is, unfortunately, why we remember all the dramatic and negative stuff so well.”
FORGETTING ROUTINE EVENTS IS JUST YOUR BRAIN BEING EFFICIENT
Mundane activities are merged by the brain to save storage space. We don’t remember every journey to work, because that would be pointless, but we know what it’s typically like — thanks to cumulative memory.
“Cumulative memories are activated when we repeat activities,” Ylva says. “Our brain is making it into a more efficient piece of information. There are two processes going on simultaneously in our minds. One is generalisation, when similar events are being added together, which is good because that’s how we accumulate knowledge.”
“The other process,” she says, “is to keep the specific and the special. That’s the main task of the hippocampus, to notice the things that stand out and are different.”
This way of recording specific memories is, she adds, “the most advanced form of memory, which takes a lot of resources. Our brain has to
MEMORY IS NOT A HARD DRIVE — DON’T EXPECT TO REMEMBER EVERYTHING
We’re so used to documenting and carefully curating every bit of our lives now we expect to have the ability to remember perfectly. Yet memory isn’t meant to be like a PDF we can open, because total recall is not requisite, or even useful, for survival. Ylva explains: “Evolution does not strive to make our memory the perfect hard drive. It’s not the functional way of adapting to the environment. The past is mostly forgotten. All the little details of every single day. But we are able to reconstruct pieces of the past using the same processes as when we imagine the future.”
Hilde likens memory to a stage play. “Every time you remember something, it’s a new version of that play.”
Memory is not a commemorative faculty. Its role is to guide us and help us to plan. For this, it works with our imagination. Ylva says: “By using pieces of information from the past, we can construct vivid simulations of the future. This and this happened then, so we can expect similar.”
DON’T BE ASHAMED OF OUTSOURCING YOUR MEMORY TO GOOGLE
We may despair because we’ve baked a cake 20 times and still have to look up the recipe. But, Ylva says, there’s nothing wrong with our memory. “Research suggests that when we can look something up later, our brain doesn’t make the same effort to remember it.”
In an experiment, two groups were asked to answer questions and type them into a computer. “One group was told the information would be erased, the other was told they could look it up later,” says Ylva. “Then they were given a surprise memory test, and were not allowed to look up the answers. The group (that was) told their answers would be erased remembered the information better.”
This isn’t negative. Our brain is cleverly adapting to the need to use extra energy to remember the small details. You can Google it and use the energy on something else.”
YOU REMEMBER MORE THAN YOU THINK
We feel worried when precious moments escape us but memory is not about recalling every single fact. It’s about feelings, impressions and particular details.
“Memory is wildly associative,” says Hilde. “When you hear a piece of music or a story fragment, your memory will throw things at you.” Ylva adds: “Sometimes it takes a very specific association to prompt memory. That is why when we smell a smell from our childhood all these memories come flooding back.”
WHEN YOU SHOULD WORRY
“If you feel your memory is deteriorating more rapidly than it should be, or your spouse or friends are becoming concerned, you should see your GP,” says Ylva.
Spatial navigation problems occur long before other symptoms in Alzheimer’s sufferers. “When you have spatial navigation problems you get lost more than you once did, or more easily than others,” says Ylva.
Of course, a certain amount of confusion is normal.
“Spatial navigation is difficult in everyday life and new places. It is perfectly normal to get lost in a shopping mall, or to go the wrong way when you exit the train station in a new place. Our brains are not perfect machines with perfect GPS.”
The Science and Secrets of Remembering and Forgetting
By: Hilde Ostby, Ylva Ostby, Sam Kean (Foreword by)
Published: 11th October 2018
Number Of Pages: 312
A novelist and a neuroscientist uncover the secrets of human memory
What makes us remember? Why do we forget? And what, exactly, is a memory?
With playfulness and intelligence, Adventures in Memory answers these questions and more, offering an illuminating look at one of our most fascinating faculties. The authors—two Norwegian sisters, one a neuropsychologist and the other an acclaimed writer—skillfully interweave history, research, and exceptional personal stories, taking readers on a captivating exploration of the evolving understanding of the science of memory from the Renaissance discovery of the hippocampus—named after the seahorse it resembles—up to the present day. Mixing metaphor with meta-analysis, they embark on an incredible journey: “diving for seahorses” for a memory experiment in Oslo fjord, racing taxis through London, and “time-traveling” to the future to reveal thought-provoking insights into remembering and forgetting. Along the way they interview experts of all stripes, from the world’s top neuroscientists to famous novelists, to help explain how memory works, why it sometimes fails, and what we can do to improve it.
Filled with cutting-edge research and nimble storytelling, the result is a charming—and memorable—adventure through human memory.
Source: The Herald Sun Digital Edition: GOOD TO FORGET