We’ve all had the experience of going to a particular room for something and forgetting what that was. It’s an age thing, right? Wrong, says an eminent neuroscientist.
Daniel Levitin is the 63-year-old American author of several books on the brain. He studies the way our brain processes patterns.
As an aside, he’s also an accomplished musician and songwriter, having performed with the likes of Sting and Neil Young, and been praised by Joni Mitchell. One of his books is called Your Brain on Music.
But back to forgetting what you came for. Let’s say you need a pair of scissors and head to the kitchen to get it. Remembering why you’re going to the kitchen requires short-term memory.
Short-term memory is easily knocked off-course though, even by something as simple as another thought.
“What can I get Sally for her birthday?”
Or you notice a dirty mark in the hallway and wonder how it got there, your phone rings, or your neighbour knocks on the door.
Before you know it, you’re in the kitchen with no clue why.
Dr Levitin has taught university students for decades and points out that they do the same thing. They typically walk into the wrong classroom, turn up without the materials they need and forget what he just told them.
The issue here isn’t age, he says, but the story we tell ourselves to explain it.
Students blame their absent-mindedness on being busy or not having enough sleep. We assume it’s age-related.
Dr Levitin also argues that memory impairment isn’t inevitable as we get older.
In fact, some aspects of memory get better with age. For example, experience improves our capacity to recognise patterns or make predictions.
He says you want the person interpreting your x-ray to be 70 rather than 30 (fat chance).
Why then do we feel we struggle for the right word or name more when we’re older?
Because, he says, we’ve lived longer and have more data to sift through, more memories, and more bits of information.
So it’s likely that your poor memory isn’t a sign of your brain failing. It’s a sign that you’ve been around a while, met a lot of people, and done a lot of things.
Of course, it can also be a sign that you weren’t paying attention in the first place.
Either way, unless we have other signs that there’s something more serious going on, we can stop turning the forgotten scissors into a story about our fading brain.
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