Remembering is so complicated, how do we do it …. ?

I’m still reading Searching for Memory:The Brain, The Mind and The Past. It’s a long book and I may be at it for some time, but never fear. That doesn’t mean that every post will be about it, especially as I’m finding it somewhat dispiriting. Most of the book is about the complexities of remembering. It’s not just that memories aren’t like the movies. They’re the product of scraps of things actually remembered, and of the hard work of reconstruction of time past—using the expectations, the imagination, the general knowledge of the self and life, and God only knows what else.  As I said, I’m still reading.

Nevertheless, Daniel Schecter, the author, does close on an uplifting note (yes, I’m one of those people who read the conclusion of a book before its middle):

On balance, however, our memory systems do a remarkably good job of preserving the general contours of our pasts and of recording correctly many of the important things that have happened to us. We could not have evolved as a species otherwise. Memory is a central part of the brain’s attempt to make sense of experience, and to tell coherent stories about it. These tales are all we have of our pasts, and so they are potent determinants of how we view ourselves and what we do. Yet our stories are built from nay different ingredients: snippets of what actually happened, thoughts about what might have happened, and beliefs that guide us as we attempt to remember. Our memories are the fragile but powerful products of what we recall from the past, believe about the present, and imagine about the future.

One more note: Schecter cites the tendency of older people to think about the past. There was a time when it was thought that “living in the past” would produce depression and despair. The attendants in nursing homes discouraged it and recommended bingo instead. Today, older people in institutional settings and without, are encouraged to tell their stories of the past.
Schecter worries that computer memory is replacing the story teller in our culture. If he were writing today instead of the 1990s he might be reassured: the many, many blogs by older writers on the internet are filled with stories of the past. The genealogy and the oral histories that it encourages are greeted enthusiastically by the culture.
Schecter argues that elderly story tellers play a major and creative role in connecting the past with the present. One of the most damaging things done to Native American societies was the discrediting of the elderly story tellers in their midst.

In today’s Time Goes By (still the premier blog for issues related to aging), Ronni Bennett talks about a New Year’s article by Oliver Sacks in the New York Times about the plasticity of the brain and how it can be rewired by most of us. He writes:

While some areas of the brain are hard-wired from birth or early childhood, other areas—especially in the cerebral cortex, which is central to higher cognitive powers like language and thought, as well as sensory and motor functions—can be, to a remarkable extent, rewired as we grow older.

While this is no longer news, it’s  just as exciting as it was the first day it was cited. As usual, Sacks makes the subject come alive with stories of individuals who have put it to the test. But he also poses some interesting questions: “That the brain is capable of such radical adaptation raises deep questions. To what extent are we shaped by, and to what degree do we shape, our own brains? And can the brain’s ability to change be harnessed to give us greater cognitive powers? ….”

My favorite example is that of Eliza Bussey, “a journalist in her mid-50s who now studies harp at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, who could not read a note of music a few years ago. “In a letter to me,”  says Sacks,  “she wrote about what it was like learning to play Handel’s “’Passacaille:’” ‘I have felt, for example, my brain and fingers trying to connect, to form new synapese. … I know that my brain has dramatically changed.’”

And since I’ve been trying to play the piano again in my late 60s and 70s—hoping against hope that there will be no arthritis, no stroke, not anything, to stop me… Eliza Bussey’s story is one I especially like.

Photo by Jeff Greenwood. Flickr. Creative Commons.

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One thought on “Remembering is so complicated, how do we do it …. ?

  1. Dear Elaine,

    I haven’t visited for a while so hadn’t seen your lovely new theme. It looks great.

    As you rightly say, I don’t think that “living in the past” necessarily causes depression – it rather depends on the memories, doesn’t it? However, I do think that depression can cause problems with retrieving memories in our brain’s hard-drive At least, that seems to be my own experience.

    Regards,

    Marilyn

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