Losing memory 

Maybe it's not such a bad thing

One of the major annoyances of careening through middle age toward death is faltering memory. This is so much an issue among baby boomers that there's an entire industry devoted to staving off what is commonly called "CRS" (Can't Remember Shit).

Besides popping dubious pills like ginkgo biloba, boomers are enrolling in computerized "brain fitness" programs, such as BrainBuilder.com. The biggie in the field, Posit Science, offers one program called "Listen and Do." The $395 program promises to improve "the short-term memory that is critical in almost all cognitive tasks related to thinking," according to an article in the New York Times on May 6, 2007.

Humana offers a Posit program to all its senior members. There's evidence that these programs do help, but it's not a one-shot deal. In the same way that you have to repeatedly torture your body in the gym to stay fit, you have to keep at the brain-fitness workouts, too. Further, the decline of memory and other cognitive functions is physiologically inevitable. The brain-fitness programs principally help counteract decline due to a failure to keep the mind active.

Watching your memory go bad is not fun. As a kid, I had a near eidetic memory. During my years as a reporter directly out of college, I had a reputation for being able to recall interviews word for word and was often accused of carrying a hidden tape recorder. I never needed calendars to remember appointments or lists to remember errands. Although I wasn't always good with names, I never forgot a face, but even that changed.

The first really bad evidence of that occurred almost 15 years ago. I was walking through a parking lot with a friend to a movie. I heard my name called and someone ran up to greet me by name. I looked at him quizzically and finally said, "I'm sorry. I don't recognize you. Do I know you?"

"No," he replied, "but we had sex twice."

About the same time that occurred, I said something to another friend he has never let me forget. He accused me of having a bad memory, and I replied: "I don't have a bad memory. I just can't access it quickly." Sadly, I'm sure other baby boomers know what I'm talking about: Your brain feels like a hard disk spinning while you wait for the right information to pop up on the screen. It's there. It just takes time.

Another friend (who calls himself my "translator" because people so often take me seriously when I don't mean to be) refuses to believe my memory is as awful as it seems. He thinks, instead, that I'm not paying attention. It's true that I often feel like I'm in a fog. Did I mention my hearing sucks, too? Or so I thought. I had it checked, and it appears I really am just not paying close attention.

But this does raise a question that some will find absurd: Why do we have to remember so damn much? I'm serious. There is far more to remember now than there used to be. I'm not talking about the accumulation of experience with years. I'm talking about information overload.

Twenty years ago, you had maybe one phone conversation a week with a friend. Now, people can blather at you on your cell phone 24/7. Further, there's a constant barrage of e-mail. We spend significant hours of our lives on the Internet, collecting information, and, thanks to services such as Google, nothing is forgotten.

People walk around with memory devices suspended from their necks on lanyards. I was at Starbucks a few weeks back and someone I (really) didn't know walked in and said he wanted to show me something. He whipped out his flash drive, plugged it into my laptop and showed me a bunch of pictures of myself on the beach in Pensacola, Fla., from 20 years ago.

"That's kind of weird," I said. "I mean, I barely remember that summer."

"I bet it's coming back now," he said.

"In every excruciating detail," I replied. The trip had wrecked a friendship I eventually patched up, but the memory was unpleasant.

I don't want to remember everything. It's been well-demonstrated that the whole business of "recovering" or reliving memories of trauma can retraumatize people in therapy. Freud knew that from the start: Repression serves a useful purpose. Forgetting is not all bad.

So, yes, aging taxes memory and mine is faltering. But we are not permitted to forget much these days. The rest of you can enroll in memory-improvement classes. I want to learn how to forget without guilt again.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.


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