The Memory Mystery

Artificial Intelligence may not yet replicate feelings of joy and sorrow, though it does manage to show expressions that express sympathy with both. Still some way off feeling nevertheless. It is only a matter of time – and much sooner than we think. Meanwhile, AI is teaching us a lot about the memory. It may be simplest if we take a look first at the body. Exercise is essential to keep the body in trim but excessive exercise can cause a lot of damage – even to the point of fatality.

The heart needs to be worked out a little but put it under excessive strain and it won’t handle it. As every sports person discovers when they age, knees and hips have a clear answer to excessive use. They stop working and get painful. Our brains are different from – but part of – our bodies. Actually, for the most part they have many similarities to the rest of us only in micro from. What is the impact of exercise and no exercise of the brain? We are still learning learning.

Our memory is somewhat like the computer cloud. You can stuff a lot of information into it. Getting it out again isn’t always so easy. Google Search has made cloud access little short of miraculous. We do not have a Google Search in our brain, yet. No doubt we will but it will find the limitations of human speed somewhat daunting. For in the years since Oscar Wilde could rap out a smart retort our thinking speed has actually got slower. The weight we have put on our memories is telling.

Now we have information flooding into our heads – so much, in fact, that our skilful short-term and long-term memories, so capable of identifying their different jobs in the past, have begun to overlap each causing our memory to stumble and sometimes fall. To compensate for this we think more slowly. Unfortunately that is exactly the wrong thing to do. Memory paradoxically improves as you think faster and gets worse as you slow down.

We have yet to discover the cure for Alzheimer’s disease and old age dementia. We are told that probably will be quite soon. Meanwhile we can help ourselves more than we are doing at present by taking some obvious but not always easy steps. First, we can try not to overload our memories. We can spend some time every day reflecting on what we have learnt, on what is happening in the world (or at least in our part of it) and by concentrating on what is short-term memory demanding and what is more appropriate for the longer view.

Next we teach ourselves – or get someone to teach us – how to think faster. It is not easy but it is possible for anyone to learn this. It involves taking the risk of occasionally looking foolish but “The world is changed not by the self-regarding, but by men and women prepared to make fools of themselves.” (P.D. James) Incidentally, our TMI Programme ‘Sum it up; Spit it out; Make it stick’ has been very successful at helping people think faster and improving their stature.

Much of the catastrophic memory failure we see today is due to these issues. They do not suddenly show the drama of physical illness. They creep up on us with little warning when we are not prepared for them. Our concept of ‘retirement’ bears some of the blame in that those who have lived by their brains often think retirement allows them to play golf, eat and not do much else.

The truth is that nobody should ever really retire. Their happy, healthy life is assured only for a while whatever they do. They should use that time to enjoy the fruits of their collective wisdom and make whatever further contribution they can to the planet. They have much to offer.

If we don’t overload the brain and learn to ‘spit it out’ when asked a question, we shall improve our memories as well as our presentation.

And we shall enjoy the extra life we obtain as a reward for our efforts.

The memory mystery is why on earth we don’t all do just that.

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