Originally created 07/30/00

Don't fret over loss of memory



Something's happening here. What it is, ain't exactly clear.

- Buffalo Springfield

There I was. Staring at the telephone receiver in my hand and trying to remember my office phone number - a number I probably call six times a day, and volunteer to others twice that much.

I could not do it!

The numerical sequence, usually second nature to my memory, was jumping back and forth in some sort of dyslexic hopscotch.

"..65 ...63 ...61?" I struggled.

For the first time, a slight ghost of panic whispered softly in one ear. "It's starting to happen," it hissed gleefully.

"You're beginning to forget things," it snickered.

"You're getting o-l-d," it snorted.

I began to think of all those stories of which TV seems so fond.

You know. They show relatively healthy, intelligent middle-agers, who suddenly can't remember a thing - children, family, suit pants.

"He used to be a doctor," the announcer says seriously, "now he can't identify the people in the photo on his desk."

Was I really beginning to slip?

Probably not, according to Dr. Barry Gordon.

Writing in Brain Work, the neuroscience newsletter (we columnists read everything), he says it's actually pretty impressive how much humans do remember.

Such recall, he writes, is based on a chain of mental associations, and when that chain is disrupted, we often have trouble remembering what we want to.

It's most common in trying to remember people's names - the top example of forgetfulness.

Like phone numbers, proper names are more difficult to recall because you have to be precise - you can't just be close.

And why do we often think of older people as more forgetful?

That's easy.

In addition to being prone to physical changes that affect memorization, Dr. Gordon says the elderly have more experiences to remember.

In the end, he offers this advice to any of us - young or old - when we run into a mental block.

Think of something else. Go in a different direction.

In most cases, your brain will ease off the block and swing around to the right answer.

Often several strong memories are competing with each other. If you quit thinking about them, they will all weaken .ƒ.ƒ. but the correct one will weaken the least and will probably break through.

See? It's not as bad as you thought. We all forget. And if we didn't, our spouses would be there to remind us.

My wife, for example, is more worried about losing her memory than I am.

The other night after supper, she grimly recalled an office conference that morning in which she had asked the very same question twice, forgetting that it had already been answered.

"I know," I lied mischievously, "you already told me that story."

It took a second for her to realize I was teasing - more than enough time to dodge the couch pillow sailing my way.

My reflexes, it seems, are a little younger than my memory.

Reach Bill Kirby at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 107, or bkirby@augustachronicle.com.