Memory is a strange thing.
I can't remember what I had for dinner last night or the name of a casual friend I often see at the community center, but....
I can give you the name of every kid who ever threw up in my grade school class, along with the circumstances, the color and consistency of the vomit and who cleaned it up. For example, one day in second grade, Phyllis MacElvoy threw up a prodigious amount of curdled milk through her fingers as she sat in class. My desk was across the aisle from hers, so my view was up close and personal. I was both horrified and mesmerized. When Sister Claudine asked who would like to clean up Phyllis and her desk, hands shot up all around me. I did not volunteer. I was too busy willing myself not to retch along with my classmate.
Those early memories can, indeed, be lasting ones. What do you remember from your early years? How many senses are involved in these memories? Sometimes a memory is simply a sound or a smell.
My widowed paternal grandmother moved her two children from Tucson to Los Angeles when the youngest, Molly, was not quite five years old. In later years, Molly's recollections of Arizona were vague except for her memory of the way the desert smelled after a rain, the air rich with creosote.
What lives on in your memories -- the happy times or the challenging ones?
Some studies have found that negative events and information are more likely to be stored -- and sometimes distorted -- in one's memory than positive events. One study has proposed that this focus on the negative may be a way of enhancing a person's ability to deal with such events should they recur.
But the positive memories from our earlier lives can be lasting and life-enhancing, too.
Sometimes memories are warm -- like those I have of myself at the age of eight, just returning to full-time school after a two-year recovery from polio. I recall walking around the school playground holding onto the sash of Sister Mary Virginia's habit, feeling safe and reassured by her loving presence. Only a few months ago, still a nun but now using her birth name of Rita McCormack, this beloved lifelong friend told me that seeing me so small and vulnerable, standing by myself on the playground, brought back memories of her own childhood: being out of school for two years as she battled TB and the pain of going back to school to classmates who had all but forgotten her. And she had reached out to me from her own painful memories as I struggled to fit in.
Sometimes the memories start out painful but become positive. One moment from my college years has lingered for decades in my memory. It was a windy, bone-chilling day in January and, as I stomped through the snow to class, I was thinking how tired I was of the pressures of putting myself through school, struggling to keep my grades up so that I didn't lose my scholarship, dealing with the rigor of a challenging program and the angst of being perpetually lovelorn. "I'll never forget how hard this was. Ever!" I muttered to myself as I stomped along the icy sidewalk. "I'll never become one of those nostalgic alums!"
I was certain at the time that I would always remember my college years as a time of hardship and existential loneliness. But my recollections of those years have expanded over time. Now my memories of Northwestern are largely about life-changing lessons learned both in and out of the classroom and of special friends from that era -- some of them close, lifelong friends -- who are evidence that I was never really alone in facing the challenges of my young life. I haven't forgotten the financial pressures of that time nor the pain of unrequited love. But I've grown in gratitude for what I did have and the blessings I continue to enjoy because I chose to go to Northwestern. And I'm happily looking forward to attending my 50th college reunion in the fall.
The fact is, our memories are changeable, influenced by a variety of factors, including naturally occurring distortions. Dr. Daniel L. Schacter, a noted research psychologist, has noted that "Memory is inherently a reconstructive process whereby we piece together the past to form a coherent narrative that becomes our autobiography. In the process of reconstructing the past, we color and shape our life's experiences based on what we know of the world."
In his research, Dr. Schacter has identified several types of common distortions. There is "imagination inflation" that can range from someone remembering a real event with some embellishments that they are certain did occur to having a false recollection of an experience that did not occur. Sometimes imagination inflation will shape a memory to match a person's current self-image. Other distortions: remembering the gist of an experience but forgetting specific details and recalling post-event misinformation which can lodge stubbornly in memory along with the real event.
Sometimes these distortions can lead to family conflicts over what happened -- or didn't happen -- in the past. In the best case scenario, we can listen to each other's differing memories with with love and an open mind, viewing divergent memories as a learning opportunity. Listening to the way a loved one views the past and how this colors his or her world view can be a chance to get to know him or her in a while new way. It can also be a chance to look back with greater understanding of family conflicts and how these might have started long ago.
And as we age, our memories become a new concern. Why is it that long-term memories seem so secure while short-term memories can be so fleeting? It has to do with our aging brains.
After peaking in the early twenties, brain volume gradually decreases. By the forties, people begin to notice that they're not quite as good at remembering new names. As we grow older, multi-tasking doesn't come as easily as before. Decreased blood flow to the brain, especially to the hippocampus, can make new memories harder to retain. And we become more forgetful.
While we may joke about "senior moments", there is always that fear that memory lapses mean the beginnings of dementia. Most of the time, our lapses are due to age-related forgetfulness: losing keys, forgetting the names of acquaintances, or walking into a room and wondering "Why did I come in here?" These lapses, in general, don't interfere with our ability to function effectively in our daily lives -- from household and hygienic tasks to professional activities and social interactions.
Those with dementia, on the other hand, struggle with everyday tasks, suffer from disorientation, an inability to make rational choices or to recognize the reality of their situation or, eventually, even some of those close to them.
One of the clearest descriptions of senior moments vs. dementia that I have heard is this: "Forgetting where you put your keys happens to everyone but forgetting how keys are used and what they're for is a sign that you may well have dementia."
Another observation: those who worry about losing it are usually fine. Many of those with dementia have no sense that anything is wrong with them. They may blame others for the changes in their lives. A friend of mine who suffered from Alzheimer's, for example, was outraged that his wife wouldn't let him drive and he often talked about needing to look for a job.
Perhaps such lack of awareness is protective. Being aware that you have cognitive deficits and possible dementia is devastating. I once had a neighbor who was a well-known research psychologist and in the early stages of Alzheimers when he and his wife moved into our community. He spoke to me several times about his feelings -- ranging from joking ("Can you lend me some brain cells today?") to deep depression ("If I had the courage, I would kill myself.") And, more recently, a close friend's husband who is suffering from advanced Parkinson's and dementia told his wife during a painful, lucid moment that "I can accept not being able to walk and spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair. What I really can't accept is the fact that I'm losing my mind."
His grief and fear resonates with many of us. The tragedy and terror of dementia has touched many of our lives, as we have watched beloved relatives or friends suffer, and can haunt our dreams with fears for our own future.
While research continues to look for causes and more effective treatments for dementia, we do know that, even as we age, there is so much we can do to help our brains stay younger.
We know, for example, that staying physically active -- even simply taking a daily walk -- can help that blood flow to the brain. One recent study found that the least sedentary of subjects over 65 had the lowest risk for dementia while the most physically inactive subjects had a dramatically higher risk for Alzheimer's disease, comparable to those with a gene mutation that carries a high risk for Alzheimer's.
Learning new things -- a new language, a musical instrument, brain-challenging activities like Scrabble and crossword puzzles -- can help. So can getting enough sleep, avoiding smoking, and having a supportive network of friends and family.
Living a healthy, active, social lifestyle can help our brains -- and our bodies -- to work better and longer. There are no guarantees, of course. But taking these steps can enhance our lives in so many ways as we grow older.
In the meantime, it's not at all unusual to find that while we have an endless variety of long-term memories, more immediate ones can be ephemeral.
Like so many my age, I have these vivid flashes from long ago: barfing grade school classmates, the look on my father's face when he discovered that, at age three and trying to be helpful, I had polished the kitchen floor with my mother's cold cream and all the words to the Bucky Beaver jingle for Ipana toothpaste back in the Fifties ("Brusha, brusha, brusha with the new Ipana, with the brand new flavor! It's dandy for your teeeef!")
My memory is amazing, indeed.
But...has anyone seen my keys?