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The Memory Game

Our memories can be mysteriously fickle. One writer considers her own (ever-changing) sense of recollection.

By Daphne Merkin
A table with a vase of paper flowers Jason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin

Although I have no doubt that these exercises had their uses (if only to help keep me on my toes), the sad truth is that more and more often these days, my mind steps into a gap instead of a secure foothold, and I am lost as to where I read something or what year I went to London with my daughter or whom it was that I meant urgently to get in touch with after I bumped into her two days ago. This sense of slippage may also have something to do with the multitasking pace of my current life as compared with the fierce focus I had in my younger days. Contemporary existence demands so much splitting of attention―between phone calls, e-mails, text messages, Twitter, and the constant allure of online shopping, not to mention TV and DVDs―that only the most strong-willed go through life in an undistracted fashion. The problem in turn with being so distracted is that we inhabit daily experience in an absentminded mode and, as a result, have more difficulty forming strong memories, as though the passing moment didn’t leave enough of a trace. The puzzle of memory―specifically, instances of involuntary memory that are produced by cues as opposed to voluntary, consciously retrieved memories―was of supreme interest to the literary artist Marcel Proust, for whom a small cake called a madeleine was the key to unlocking In Search of Lost Time, seven volumes of some of the keenest social observation ever written. Proust, in turn, was thought to have been influenced by the theories of the French philosopher Henri Bergson, who, in his 1896 book, Matter and Memory, made a distinction between habit memory (as in learning a poem by heart) and the sort of impressionist memory that reveals itself in sudden flashes. But the reality of different kinds of memory had been recognized before Proust and Bergson―most notably by a German psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus, in a pioneering experimental study published in 1885. Up until this study, the bulk of the thinking on memory had been undertaken by philosophers, beginning with Aristotle, and their wholly descriptive approach focused on observation and speculation rather than verifiable experiments.

These days the science of memory is a well-established, thoroughly documented one. Microstudies on, for example, the interrelation between emotion and cognition have resulted in papers, replete with tables and statistical analysis, on such subjects as the creation of false memories, the eliciting of false confessions, and the conditions under which memory performance can be optimized. This last topic is of particular interest, I suspect, to baby boomers who have felt inoculated against many of the by-products of aging (sagging flesh, gray hair, increasing immobility) that afflicted their parents’ generation. Which is why creeping memory loss comes as such an unhappy reminder of mortality, clear proof that not everything yields to cosmetic cover-up or working up a sweat. (This is not to say that physical exertion doesn’t have its place in the overall scheme of things. Indeed, regular exercise is thought to keep the deterioration of memory at bay―as are blueberries.) Perhaps it is also why people who lived in less overstimulated environments―our parents, for instance―often appear to have a better grasp on the narrative of the past.

When it comes to a delicate neurological mechanism such as memory, however, much is surmised and little is proven. What is known has largely to do with the areas of the brain in which memories are formed and stored―primarily the cortex (or surface of the brain) and the hippocampus, which helps access memories in the cortex. It gets vastly more complicated from there. Broadly speaking, one of the major cognitive distinctions is between short-term versus long-term memories. “With the former,” writes Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford University professor of biology and neurology, in a Scientific American article adapted from his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, “you look up a phone number, sprint across the room before you forget it, then punch in the digits. And then the number is gone forever. In contrast, long-term memory refers to recalling what you had for dinner last night, how many grandchildren you have, where you went to college.”

Memory is also divided into explicit and implicit varieties: The former involves conscious awareness of the sort of basic facts they test you on in hospital emergency rooms to assess whether your brain is alive and well (“I am a woman”; “The month is October”; “Barack Obama is president”). Implicit memories, on the other hand, have to do with built-in skills and habits, such as knowing how to iron or to ride a bicycle. Recently, after years of not getting on a bike, I went out for a ride, fully expecting to fall over. True, I was a bit wobbly and acquired some painful black-and-blue marks from my excessive weaving, but what a relief it was to find out that there really are things you don’t forget, even as your retention of the information you gleaned in an article you read in the paper a mere two days ago seems to grow weaker right in front of your eyes.


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