Memory Musing: My Brain's Functioning Just Fine (Alternative Title: Don't Lose your Keys)
In order for one to have a healthy memory, one must also be able to forget.
The goal of the memory is not to transmit accurate information across time, but to optimise intelligent decision making by letting go of what isn't important, and holding onto what is, according to this study. They found that without forgetting irrelevant details and focussing on real world, real time decisions, we may become more adaptable and flexible, letting go of outdated and possibily misleading information, such as the phone number you recall from the house you lived in twenty years ago. As the hippocampus helps with learning new things, old things get overwritten and are harder to access. That can be a good thing - a survival, evolutionary mechanism that helps with real time decision making.
Memories, of course, can be crippling, as any one who holds onto the past must know:
My house of memories
Is all I own
I live in misery
Now that you're gone
A constant reminder
Of what used to be
Is torturing me
In my house of memories
Holding onto the exact memories of the lover that left you or who won the tennis championships in 1986 is not going to help you with real life. Besides, we have to allow the cup of water that is our brain to overflow, lest it stagnate or not retain new information that's going to be useful for us. Patient H.M (named upon his death as Henry Gustav Molaison), having lost his hippocampus due to a brain surgery for epilepsy, could not make new memories, only go over old ones - this is something we find desperately sad.
From the age of 27 to his death at 82, he was studied by a team of neuroscientists who learnt more about memory function from this guy than ever before. His profound amnesia taught us how memory functions. He could remember his childhood and the stock market crash of 1929, but he couldn't remember anything in the few years leading up to the surgery. Having severe anterograde amnesia meant that he couldn't form new memories, and he poignantly described it as:
'like waking from a dream...every day is alone in itself'
Scientists learned through Patient H.M that memory is held in different parts of the brain. For example, Henry may not remember having learnt a task, but each time he performed it, his performance improved. We can learn new motor skills just be repeated practice, even if we might not consciously remember them. The discovery that we have multiple systems for memory located in different parts of the brain.
Clearly, memory is a complex thing. To say 'honey, you're so forgetful doesn't really tell us much about what is going on in our brains when we 'forget' something.
The fact that I lost the car keys two weeks ago is a case in point. Stress, for example, impacts on memory:
The other thing that happens during stress is the activation of the anterior pituitary gland’s release of ACTH, which in turn activates another part of the adrenal gland to dump cortisol into the bloodstream. In the short term, cortisol can have many beneficial effects for combatting stress, such as mobilizing white blood cells and enhancing the immune system. But cortisol binds to cells in the brain’s hippocampus, the area that converts new experiences into memory. This binding actually disrupts the memory-forming process. Ultimately, if stress continues, the synaptic regions deteriorate, making the impairment permanent - cc Psychology Today
Deep in stressful work mode and hyper anxious times, the increased cortisol in my system stops me remembering what I'm doing. I haven't forgotten because I'm stressed - I just did not really form a memory about what was happening around the event I was supposed to remember, like the fact I'd slid the car keys in the insulated bag we'd taken to the beach for a picnic after a surf last week. I have to make sure that I actively try to retrieve the information, for example, saying: 'I am putting the car keys in the bag' three times may have helped me recall it later, because it means I'll have better encoding. Place the things I have to remember into a story, and I'm more likely to remember: mangos, coriander and tofu would be easily forgotten at the supermarket unless I had imagined wearing a hat of mangos, Carmen Miranda style, whilst slapping a mannequin made of tofu with a whip of coriander.
Furthermore, technology affects our memory. Consider the water analogy again. We're constantly pouring information into our glass water memories that some memories are bound to splash out. We simply fill up. We also might fail to pay attention because we are quickly flitting from one task to the text. We also can refuse to struggle to remember things (and therefore have a good imprinted, encoded memory function) because we know we don't have to - that information is already there, so what is the point in making an effort to remember it?
This can have apocalyptic repercussions, as explored in the Nick Clarky Waldo's dystopian novel 'The Feed'. The prologue outlines a world about to crumble - not so different to this one. Tom tries to persuade his wife to switch off her Feed, where is she in a never ending feed of information and connection, augmented with everything about what one experiences in real life. Advertisements are quick codes which cause relevant ads to display when you look at them - a VR algorithmic nightmare for those of us that despite Google and Facebook for that reason. When the Feed goes down, chaos of course ensues. What struck me about this book was the struggle that characters had to remember - they never had to before. As all information is digitised, why remember a recipe, a book or how to do anything if you simply pull it up in your internal feed? Thus they must learn and retain the most basic of skills - how to light a fire, for example. The explorations of memory were the most fascinating element of this novel for me.
We all know the feeling of having all the tabs open in our browsers, and twenty billion passwords you haven't got a hope in remembering.
Somehow we have gone from four digit pins to streams of numbers so long that it hurts even thinking about them. Capital letters and exclamation marks confuse eight digit passwords you think you've memorised, and which darn email address did you use with that sign up? Some are pen and paper people - but I'd lose the pen and the paper. We can also get blindly confident that we had saved something when we hadn't. Thought we'd sent it to the email address we were going to save it, and placed an encryption on it and felt quite tech savvy and smug about it, only to realise that...
...you'd lost the keys for your Whaleshares account.
And hence, my friends, whilst you should always pay attention. You might have twenty tabs open, and might be cocky enough to be able to downright crow that you've never lost a password for anything online before (which is a bit of a lie, because sometimes you do, but you have enough information to get back in again, like the street you grew up on or your first pet) and you might think it's safely on your clipboard - but you can never be sure.
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