Saturday, July 12, 2014

Aging, Forgetting and Remembering: The Insistence of Memory

In The Nostalgia Factory (Yale), history of psychology professor Douwe Draaima deals with both aspects of memory in the aging mind: the forgetting, and the remembering. He is reassuring on the forgetting. After reviewing various memory techniques (most of dubious value) he writes: “However active your lifestyle, however varied your existence, your memory will gradually decline with age. This is perfectly natural. Anyone who still has the memory of a twenty-year-old at the age of seventy is not entirely normal.”

 Everyone is annoyed by not being able to remember something, but the worry has increased with more awareness of various forms of dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease. Draaima reiterates the statistics—for people over 65, less than 5% are likely to be stricken, and even having a parent who has suffered from dementia still doesn’t get you to 10%. The difference in symptoms is the difference between forgetting where you put your car keys and forgetting what your car keys are for.

“The vast majority of people who turn up at memory clinics give such a detailed account of all the things that have slipped their minds recently that it is clear they have no reason to worry.”

 On the remembering however, Draaisma carefully reviews a number of studies (his and others) to conclude that yes, the old tend to remember the distant past better than the recent past, and more specifically, their most vivid memories cluster around their 20th year. Other memories that often remain vivid are of “firsts”--first love, first eclipse, first day of school, etc.

   He is thorough on the phenomena: how the focus on the past increases with age, for instance. He writes about residents of an old folks home in their 80s and 90s who no interest in their present, not even people around them. Their listlessness turns to vibrant interest when shown obsolete artifacts and photos from their youth. They even begin to interact—members of such group found that they came from the same town and even went to the same school around the same time.

 His research affirms that “as the reminiscence effect attains its full force, memories will return to which you have long been denied access. These are memories that really do slumber.”

 His research also suggests that as time goes on, memories emerge more and more as stories. He interviewed centenarians who hadn’t written autobiographies, “yet the stories of their lives have the usual cast of characters and twists and turns that we see in the autobiographical genre. The event that started it all, the moment that brought a complete change of course, the meeting that was to have important consequences, the lesson for life, even the insults that seem to make so much more of an impression in youth—they emerge of their own accord when the centenarians look back over their long lives.”

 Draaisma recognizes that evolutionary explanations for this phenomenon are inadequate, but doesn’t offer a persuasive alternative. A different kind of psychologist (like James Hillman) would suggest a search for meaning, a deepening of soul, a completion.

 But this research does affirm what I have come to accept: as we grow older, our job—like it or not—is remembering. We don’t really have much choice in the matter. But we can try to think about it all, apply whatever wisdom we can derive to the future, and otherwise ponder the mystery of existence, while we still have some.

In future posts I'll come back to some of Draaisma's conclusions with specific applications to the Boomer generation.  If I remember.