That was the headline on a story that caught my eye in the Toronto Globe and Mail recently. There’s much wisdom in this article and some of the points made really resonated for me. The author, Melinda Beck (a Wall Street Journal writer), makes the point that there are countless things in our life that don’t make a lasting impression on the brain. In short, they’ve been forgotten. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing“, she goes on to say; “Neuroscientists say forgetting is crucial to the efficient functioning of the mind; to learning, adapting and recalling more significant things.” In fact, a wise woman neuropsychiatrist at NYU, Gyatri Devi, said it beautifully: “If you don’t forget, you’d recall all kinds of extraneous information from life that would drown you in a sea of inefficiency.” Reading these words was akin to having an epiphany for me; as I’ve gotten older and found it harder to remember some things (what was that friend’s phone number again?) I have not considered that maybe this forgetting could be a good thing. What a relief to read her article this morning.
There are whole periods of my life that I don’t remember very much. I have really only two memories of my first 4 years of life. One was sitting on a swinging settee in the backyard of somebody who lived across the street; don’t remember whose house/swing it was but I do have memories of sitting for long periods of time swinging back and forth, often lying on my back and watching how the shapes of the trees changed as the bench moved (there wasn’t a roof on that one). The other early memory that I have is when an old woman, Mrs. Rubin, who lived across the street ) fell and broke something and there were ambulances and lots of hustling about; I was mostly just sitting in her living room witnessing the excitement.
My childhood was not an easy one. My parents both survived the holocaust and without saying much more you can easily, I’m sure, imagine that they had more than their fair share of demons to struggle with while learning a new language, a new way of life, and trying to raise a family. I remember walking to school in kindergarten with the boy who lived across the street (don’t remember his name though, but his father owned a bicycle store) and we’d pretend that there were rabid dogs running wild in the neighbourhood; our path to school was planned so that we could dash from tree to tree where we’d hide while scutinizing the next leg of the journey to make sure we were safe. I actually do remember being pretty much disappointed with my first day of school. I’d been excited about starting school since my older sister Fran went to school and she could read and write and do all sorts of things I couldn’t. By the end of day 1 of Kindergarten I pretty much had decided that I’d not bother going any more; after all, we’d only played (with kind of silly toys) and I still couldn’t even read. Sad to say most of my school memories fall into this same category of disappointment. According to Beck, then, I have few memories of these years because they were primarily insignificant. What a relief to read that we’ve focused so much on memory that forgetting has been maligned.
My sister Molly, who’s a great web designer, has her own take on why memory, as we age, is an issue. “My theory on remembering, and why we forget so much as we get older,” she maintains, “is that our brain is much like a computer hard-drive. There’s a defined amount of space for storing information. As kids, the space is relatively empty, so we can stuff in what seems like endless amounts of information. As the space fills up, if we want to put anything new in there, something has to be purged.” This also makes great sense to me. My not being able to remember my best friend’s name from time to time is, in this framework, just my brain sending me the error message “There is not enough memory available to run this program. Quit one or more programs, and then try again.”
There’s a fair amount of research on forgetting these days, and the conclusions seem to be quite consistent. We remember singular, significant events – for example, where we were while watching the recent US election results. Memories of mundane events tend to be forgotten with the brain’s prefrontal cortex doing the sorting for us. Researchers at Stanford University’s Memory Lab concluded that, in short, “forgetting frees up brain power for other tasks. The mind“, researchers claim, “is constantly evaluating, editing and sorting information, all at lightning speed. Your brain is only taking a small amount in, and it’s already erasing vast amounts that won’t be needed again“. There’s no conclusion around the question, however, of whether or not memories for events you didn’t focus on (those of little importance) are stored in your brain like un-watched bank-surveillance tapes. Given what I recognize as a somewhat limited capacity in my brain for memory, I hope there isn’t too much extraneous information being stored!
Just as I spent the summer months cleaning up my office and getting rid of things I no longer needed, and the last month trying to do the same with my home, it’s now time to turn to the same de-cluttering of my brain I think. Already I’ve noticed that when I think back to my years at work it’s the good moments that I remember and the memories of the bad moments – and there were lots of those too – are quite quickly fading away. I’ve often said that there’s an unspoken miracle around childbirth; as painful as it might be within minutes (if not seconds) following the birth of a child all real memory of the pain is gone. If it wasn’t, my guess is we’d all have no more than 1 child. I think that this same process – drop the memories of what isn’t positive and useful in supporting ongoing growth – is a key to a happy and fulfilling retirement.
There are of course the things I want to remember, both about the past and the present. Dr. James McGaugh of UC Irvine, says that: “If you want to remember more about each passing day, one simple method is to keep a journal,, writing down a few thoughts and events every day which causes you to reflect. You’re elaborating“, he claims, “on why they were meaningful, and you’re laying down an additional memory trace.” For me, writing this blog is part of that process of wanting to remember what this whole change in my life is about.