As I was preparing to set fingers to keyboard to write this article, I experienced momentary mind blips since I couldn’t remember what I wanted to cover. Earlier today while I was in session with clients in a group psychotherapy practice, I told myself that I would recall the theme or topic on which I planned to focus. Completely blank mental slate at the moment.
For those readers of a certain age, this is a familiar phenomenon. It is as if the words are just a stretch out of my grasp as I reach for them in vain. When I was young, my mother would use the phrase, “I have a mind like a sieve.” I would giggle as I imagined her brain looking like the blue and white metal collander that she would use to drain spaghetti and think about ideas slipping through the holes. Not so funny any more as my own formerly reliable memory has developed its own gaping openings.
The onset was likely 10 years ago when I began to find that my train of thought got derailed mid-conversation. Then names of people I had just met moments earlier, vanished like sunrise mist on a mid-summer morning. What followed was forgetting why I walked from one room to another and would need to go back to the spot where I had the original thought. After that came getting to an otherwise familiar intersection and thinking, “Do I turn right? Do I turn left?” Thank goodness for the GPS that has become part of my brain.
My husband used to say that I had a ‘phonographic memory’ since I easily recalled song titles, lyrics and artists of a multitude of tunes. Now, Google has become a BFF as I use it for that purpose. My grandmother who could speak five languages, but couldn’t read or write in any of them, kept a list of 20 or so phone numbers. There were no names next to them, for the aforementioned reasons, but she knew whose number was whose. She also ‘cooked by ear,’ as I called it, like someone performed music that way, and combined ingredients with a pinch of this and spoonful of that since, once again, she would not have been able to read recipes.
A few years ago, while working as a social worker in an inpatient psychiatric hospital, I was having a conversation with a co-worker who has become one of my dearest friends. Peggy was regaling me with a story about her sister with whom she lives. One of them had asked the other what the name was for ‘sleeping equipment.’ The other responded “pajamas?” Yup, that was it. On their fridge, they have what they now call a pajamas list with the names of common words and their description. When I couldn’t remember a word while at work, I would look at her and say, ‘pajamas’ and she would let me ‘borrow her brain’ to come up with it. These days, I borrow other friends’ cognitive equipment if I am at loss with my own. Between two of us, we are mind-full.
The most challenging aspect is that this wordsmith with a formerly steel trap memory, has let some verbiage slip through the cracks. Confession time…when in front of an audience, there are moments when I am asked to repeat something I just said, so that someone could better grab hold of and digest the concept. “Nope,” I respond, since I don’t always recall what I have expressed. I call it a download, channeled from the cosmos and everyone laughs. I’m not always chuckling about it, though, wondering if that is so. I have long said that as we age, the hard drive gets full, since there are so many things we need to recall on a daily basis and the more we multi-task, the less adept we are at holding together the various strands of responsibility. That’s where keeping it simple comes in handy (KISS-I prefer Keep It Simple Sweetheart to the less kind and appealing word Stupid as is oft used).
When my mom was on hospice back in 2010, she used to tell me that she still had her marbles and I would reassure her that I would retrieve any that rolled under the couch. These days, I need to keep a grip on my own as the multi-facets of my own life which include writing, speaking, promoting, scheduling, counseling, coaching, officiating as a minister, family responsibilities, helping to plan my son’s wedding, paperwork, as well as ‘normal people stuff’ such as cleaning, laundry, shopping, bill paying, car maintenance, social life and exercise, sometimes threaten to escape.
I do many of the things that are recommended for strengthening memory such as word puzzles, listening to and making music, my gym playouts, stimulating conversation, reading and writing, deep breathing and meditation. I don’t drink, smoke or do drugs. I surround myself with mind stretching people and activities. I acknowlege that although the mental hard drive sometimes gets too full, the problem isn’t storage, but retrieval.
I now call them my ‘middle aged moments’ or even more complimentary, ‘wise woman moments,’ since supposedly, with age comes wisdom.
Research indicates that synaptic changes alter abilty to recall information. Another fascinating conversation on the topic of memory and the use of language was recorded on an NPR (National Public Radio) interview. In the first portion of the Radio Lab show, Ian Lancashire, an English Professor was studying the work of Agatha Christie. He took the contents of her books over the years and ‘dumped’ them into a computer program with the idea of seeing how many times certain words appeared. As she aged, he discovered that she began using more nebulous words, such as ‘thing’, ‘nothing’ and ‘something,’ as if she had lost the ability to think outside the box. He sensed that she was developing Alzheimers, but didn’t publish his study until after she had died, so as not to impugn her reputation as a stellar writer. The second half of the program focused on the “Nun Study” in which a group of School Sisters of Notre Dame agreed to be subjects over the years, have memory tests applied and have their writing scrutinized. What was determined was the more content rich their wordsmithing was, the greater chance they could escape signs of dementia. What a relief for me, since I thrive on finding creative ways of expressing simple concepts.
Take heart. There is hope. According to memory researchers, it is possible to strengthen memory muscles.
- Brain boosting tasks and tools
- Engaging in hobbies, new and renewed
- Time with other intellectually and emotionally stimulating people
- Smoking cessation
- Limit or eliminate alcohol intake
- Listen to music
In the immortal words of comedian Steven Wright: “Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before.”
Photo by pareeerica