Memory: A Mind Game

Published October 28, 2014
In order to illustrate just how bad my memory has gotten, I was going to tell you the word I couldn’t retrieve in conversation recently. But honestly, I can’t remember what it was. So instead, I will tell you what happened the other day. Lynn, one of my closest childhood friends, a friend I went to Nursery school with, and who was the Maid of Honor at my wedding, drove from New Jersey into Manhattan to meet up at a restaurant with me, and three of our other friends. We don’t get together as often as we should; but Pam had flown in from LA. All five of us grew up together in New Orleans, and each of us feels a sense of pride in that, our shared childhoods, magical. New Orleans is a place where people dance in the streets to jazz music chugging beer from plastic To-Go cups. (Sometimes, they are topless.) Spanish moss drips from giant Oak trees. Wrought iron balconies and cobblestone streets decorate the French Quarter. New Orleans has color, history, pizzazz. My childhood memories are vivid as if they just happened. I’m not talking about the big things like when I got pulled over by a policeman for the first time, at fifteen, for speeding. I’m talking about the daisy placemats under bowls full of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup in Pam’s kitchen, and spending the night at Lynn’s, and singing along to a Peter Rabbit album; an album that if I heard today, I could still sing every word. I’m talking about how I could tell you the names of every teacher I’ve ever had since kindergarten and the names of classmates I haven’t seen in over thirty years. People often tell me it’s incredible how much I remember from my past, my memory flawless. At least my long-term memory is flawless. My short-term memory is a different story. This brings me back to the restaurant. The waiter comes to our table and we order. Pam brings up Mathew McConaughey, whose name I can never remember how to pronounce; but I googled it to confirm spelling for this post, and after seeing it- I think I’ve got it. (Check out Doodle Power.) Pam says, “You know the movie he was in last year? The one he won an Oscar for? Um,” she hesitates, “what was it called?” “I’ve got it,” I say. “Give me a minute.” I stop to think and then a few seconds later, as if it were a really big deal, I blurt, “Dallas!” “Yes, yes,” Pam says. “Buyer’s Club. Dallas Buyer’s Club.” This strikes me as funny. We’re getting older and the fact that a simple conversation takes our collective memory to complete a sentence feels like some kind of comedy routine. The five of us discuss how our memory is slipping. We share our strategies, our tricks for remembering; and I find this fascinating. Freddi says she sees words as shapes. Kim says she sees words in colors. Earlier in the day, I couldn’t remember a distant relative’s name and neither could Pam. It took Kim a minute, but then- boom- she knew, “Ruth,” she said with excitement. (When something is retrieved it is thrilling. It’s like you won something big; proof that you’re not as old as you thought you might be, or that you don’t actually have Alzheimer’s.) “That’s how I remembered Ruth’s name,” Kim explains over lunch. “Ruth is brown.” I reveal my trick, which is that I go through the alphabet and, somehow, this jogs my memory. When I couldn’t remember the name of the actress in When Harry Met Sally, I recited, in my head, “A,B,C…” And then, miraculously, I got to M and what wasn’t there was. Meg Ryan. A few nights ago, I woke up in the middle of the night and remembered I needed some things from the pharmacy. As you might recall from previous posts, if I don’t write things down, I’m bound to forget. I knew remembering everything I needed to buy the next day was unlikely; but it was the middle of the night and I didn’t want to get up. I didn’t want to turn on the light or get a pen. So, I constructed the list of things I needed to buy in my head: Toothpaste, Vaseline, Advil. I used a mnemonic devise, which was to take the first letter from each word, scramble the letters and create a new word: VAT. In the morning, that word helped me to recall the items on my list. (Read these memory booster suggestions and other articles on memory in Psychology Today.) Scientists used to believe that the adult brain was a fixed organ. It was thought that past a certain age, your cognitive abilities couldn’t change. New evidence shows this to be false. It shows that the brain is actually malleable and not only can it change it does change with every new experience. Presently, Pam is learning to play guitar, Kim is studying fiction and over the last few months, I’ve learned a lot about social media. There have been challenges in these ventures; but if I remember correctly from my childhood, which of course I do, my friends and I are like the Timex ad: We’ll take a licking but keep on ticking.
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