Search to remember

Search to remember

It’s not just a slightly sweet tooth that has encouraged me to eat a few chocolates every day. From an early age I can remember that my tendency to black despair, often triggered by not feeling too well, could be alleviated by a little chocolate. I’m not sure there is scientific proof of this phenomenon but it applies to me. At first I thought it was a form of sugar-rush. Many people get quick energy from that. Smokers – I was one when very young – got a similar rush from inhaling tobacco smoke.

Now Janet Jansson, director of biological science at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington University has results, as yet unpublished, that suggest a relationship between the bugs in your stomach and the gremlins in your brain. Germ-free mice fed Lactobacillus microbes developed a “much better memory”. Always good to know where the cheese is.

Part of the trouble old people have with their memories is, I suspect, down to the excessive amount of drugs that they are persuaded to take, all with the best of intentions, all to alleviate symptoms that range from unpleasant to intolerable. You aren’t much motivated to have happy thoughts or remember good times when in pain, nor yet when drugged to the eyeballs. If you can’t stop the ravages of old age you should alleviate them.

I have unpublished results about old age memory, too. I don’t endorse them with the word ‘research’, the sample is too small. Those who have tried it are atypical of society as a whole. They are educated and mindful – a word that covers a multitude of conditions. Generally it means they are bright. When they complain about their forgetfulness I suggest they spend a few hours a week reading philosophy. Nothing heavy, mind, just some of the basics of Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Archimedes, Epictetus. There are plenty of excellent books describing their perspectives in simple and highly readable language.

What led me to think this might be a good idea? I am very committed to keeping people working for as long as they possibly can. Both physically and mentally it helps them stay relevant, possibly the most important attribute of someone living into their nineties. The way I see it is that we amass a great deal of experience in our lifetimes. Most people do this by simply forging ahead, fighting for money, position, acclaim and seniority. It is instinctive to ‘do better’ – and that is before the worldly pressures to excel are exerted on us.

But sooner or later we realise that there is an end game. We will inevitably slow down before we reach it. Perhaps this is a good time to ask what it was all about. Life is, after all, a search. We don’t search very methodically, often not even purposefully, sometimes even wickedly. But at its most basic we are seeking happiness, perhaps something less selfish, more profound. The great philosophers were seeking that, too. Their lives were not cluttered with the gadgetry of science or distracted by the enthralment of canned shock-horror.

Everyone I have met who has become a little philosophical in life has seemed to be increasingly content. Knowing what you know is comforting; knowing what you don’t know is reassuring. I find that those who start to examine what their life is (or was) about have reason to remember its milestones. Capturing the things that made an impression on you and recalling the times when you have made your mark, too, are the chocolates of old age.

Dodie Smith wrote the enchanting novel “I capture the castle” in 1934. Through the eyes of a 17-y-o girl she manages to pull together the poignant and hilarious doings of her penniless, dysfunctional family. We should all try to capture our lives, young or old. They are very precious events. Moreover they are ours.

We may not take them with us but at least we can search for them until the end.

Good morning

John Bittleston

Do you have an experience of searching for who you are?

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