When You Forget the Little Things
Don’t worry – our brains naturally prioritize the important stuff.
So, how often this week have you misplaced your glasses? Your phone? Did you find yourself standing in the kitchen wondering why you were there? Or perhaps at the mall yesterday, you forgot where you parked your car.
A friend, struggling in a recent conversation to remember the title of a book she had just read, confided her concerns about forgetfulness. “I just can’t seem to access my brain anymore,” she moaned. “It’s like someone deleted the app.”
These moments can be unsettling, but according to neuroscientist Lisa Genova, not necessarily a cause for alarm. Genova is the author of Still Alice, the bestselling novel that became an award-winning movie about a woman facing early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. In her new nonfiction book, Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting, she describes how our brains prioritize information; forgetting things that are habitual, inconsequential and routine is a normal part of brain function.
“If you’re not paying attention, your memory isn’t involved,” Genova said in a recent CBC interview. Now that’s reassuring. My memory isn’t at fault when I can’t find my glasses. I simply wasn’t paying attention when I left them on top of my book.
I find it interesting that over the years many of us have focused on maintaining healthy hearts – we exercise, we pay attention to what we eat, we nurture our social connections – but somehow we have leaned away from digging into what keeps our brains healthy.
For me, I suspect that’s based on fear – fear that each time I forget the name of a movie, an acquaintance or a street, Alzheimer’s disease is closing in.
So it was a relief to learn that forgetting is a part of being human, that our brains are imperfect, that they change over time, and that it’s quite normal for our processing speed to slow as we age. By our later years, our brain has accumulated an enormous number of facts and experiences – and hopefully wisdom; as a result, it can take more time to retrieve a wayward scrap of information or an elusive memory.
When you’re searching for the right word, how often have you said, “It’s on the tip of my tongue”? This is also totally normal according to Genova, and not exclusive to the older cohort. One of the differences is that the younger generations automatically outsource questions to their cellphones. And she sees nothing wrong with doing just that. “After all, we use glasses to help us see.”
Genova also tells us that we can actively train our brains to resist forgetfulness. She talks about this in terms of creating a “cognitive reserve.”
“Our brains are dynamic organs with trillions of possible connections; the more connections we build, the better,” she noted in a TED Talk. This is why learning a new language or perhaps taking up a musical instrument is as beneficial in later life as it is for youngsters.
As for wondering what brought you to a certain room, Genova explains that your memory is greatly influenced by context. Say your usual routine involves relaxing in the bedroom with a book before sleep, but you don’t have your glasses, and think you might have left them in the kitchen. You formed the need for your glasses in your bedroom, but when you get to the kitchen, which is associated with food, not reading, the context doesn’t jibe and you forget why you’re there. The trick is to take yourself back, either physically or mentally, to the room you came from, in this case the bedroom, and your brain will trigger the missing memory.
However, Genova does caution it could be time to schedule a meeting with a health care professional if you’re forgetting the words for common, everyday things such as a pen or toothbrush, or if you can’t recall what your car looks like while trying to track it down in the parking garage. And she reminds us that Alzheimer’s disease isn’t the only reason for forgetfulness.
Genova suggests showing empathy for our aging brains. Give them time to come up with the goods. There’s a lot in there to sort through, and we are constantly writing over our memories. She has summed up our brains as representing something of a dichotomy. They are, she says, both “masters of it all, and a bit of a dunce.”
Uncertainty has been constant during the long years of Covid. Not only has the pandemic removed many of the usual experiences by which we mark time and memory, but anxieties around climate change, the horrors in Eastern Europe, and what feels like a general fraying of the social fabric have combined to seize our attention away from more mundane considerations. So perhaps there is some solace, even optimism, in knowing that, in spite of it all, our brains are continuing to function as they were meant to do.
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