(This is another special posting by Suzy. I hope you enjoy it.)
We’ve been caring for Walt’s mother. In a sad classic of a story, her decline began with a fall two years ago this May. Before that she was a busy, bright, articulate and charming lady. At age 92, she was still driving, playing bridge with her friends, making her own clothing, and enjoying visiting, partying and shopping. Now she is becoming a shadow of herself, which is frightening, bewildering, exasperating and vexing to all of us. Much of her difficulty just now is focusing on her memory, or diminishing ability to access her memory, which has led me to think of what one’s memories really are.
We all spend much of our life building our memories. We do it with our daily activities. Early on we learn a language. We do it with our education as we learn the tools to navigate our daily lives, and to obtain and hold a job in our contemporary world. Connected to education are our cultural memories and societal histories. Then there are the memories that make up our personal histories.
When we learn a language as a baby it seems easy. That’s most likely because we don’t really remember the learning. I have heard that the earlier we begin a language the quicker we are able to learn it. I think that’s because children don’t need as much language to successfully communicate. If we wait until we are closer to adulthood, it seems more difficult to learn a new language. Maybe that’s because we have more to learn. Now the goal is to talk about ideas with a semblance of correct grammar, read literature at a reasonably sophisticated level, and do some writing as well as just taking care of basic day-to-day existence. Somehow we manage to keep distinct any languages we know so as not to create a maddening olio of words. It’s a remarkable feat. If we neglect our secondary languages they recede into our minds until they are past recall. More frustrating are what we euphemistically refer to as “senior moments” when the words of our primary language begin to slip just out of reach, leaving us with our mouth open like a guppy.
Habits, at their best, are convenient short cuts in our behavior. Some things we do so frequently that we build a habit so we can complete the function without devoting all of our attention to how we accomplish it. As we eat our food we can carry on what we perceive as entertaining conversations because the actual act of cutting the food, placing it on a utensil, and putting it in our mouth then chewing and swallowing is done without focusing on how we make it happen. Most of our daily habits are of this nature. Occasionally, we all succumb to a bad habit. Many of those are just annoyances to those around us. Some are truly detrimental. Hopefully, we’re able to overcome the latter. At least, the theme of much of our New Year’s celebration is on correcting habits of the unsatisfactory variety. Some of us achieve this with a degree of success.
Many of us spend large portions of our lives trying to learn everything and anything that comes to our attention. As children it is easy because everything is new and so we really enjoy learning about all of it. As we reach school age, any number of teachers in many disciplines attempt to focus our interests and help us attain skills both mental and physical, but guided always by our memory of what they taught. Some of us remember more perfectly than others and, hence, get better grades. One pressing line of inquiry is how to help us remember more clearly. We used to be told that in order to learn we needed to focus which could best be done in quiet settings. Then radios and television became more universal and young people began “learning” and “studying” with a constant level of background sound. Now, with all of our electronic toys and gadgets, our young people usually have a phone, soon to become a misnomer for that little hand held device, or tablet device on which they are texting, listening to tunes, monitoring video, or whatever. Several years ago, our eldest son and I had a discussion about the news feed crawls along the bottom of the screen. I’m a news-a-holic and I also like to do needle work. I can’t listen to the news show, read the crawl, and sew at the same time. In fact, I find it difficult to really watch some video being shown and read the crawl at the same time especially if the video is one I haven’t seen before or has action in it. Our son said the latter was no problem. But a couple of weeks ago he, too, admitted to a limit to his ability to split his concentration. One of his acquaintances can text, play video games, and carry on a conversation at the same time. Concentration was a poor choice of words as that implies active, single mindedness. But as we multi-process our activities are we creating clear memories? Will be able to remember them decades from now? Maybe, it won’t matter. People used to memorize entire sagas with great accuracy. Now we learn how to research and find the data we want. Many parents today avoid teaching babies nursery rhymes although it has been proven that learning rhyming and alliteration help a child acquire the ability to read.
What is the difference between cultural memories and societal histories? Cultural memories are those that govern our holiday traditions, clothing we consider acceptable due to event or season, the way we decorate our bodies, the adages and truisms we throw into our speech and such. Because we generally accept these as desirable norms that are held across the classes of society, they are very difficult to eradicate. When a tyrannical government falls these are the behaviors and attitudes that reassert themselves. But they can be changed and it has been done. Formal or societal histories are comprised of stories written by victors of world events or those with socio-political agendas. These are what we are taught in school and go further back in time than anyone living has witnessed. Though as we age we are startled to find some events we have lived through in our children’s textbooks. When we are children we presume that these histories are absolute fact. As we mature we realize that they are colored by the society in which we live, often to instill patriotism or guilt for past actions of some group. When I was a child we laughed that the Soviet Union thought it could change history by simply re-writing their textbooks so their children would learn the State-approved version. We couldn’t imagine parents not sharing the truth with their children, nor that the children wouldn’t stumble across the true history as known by the rest of the world. Over the course of time I have had numerous conversations with people raised in the fear permeated atmosphere created by communist totalitarian states, and have a clearer understanding of how history can be distorted. I’ve also seen events in my children’s texts that are presented in a manner that doesn’t hold to the way I remember them from newspapers written when the event occurred. During a conference I attended for a textbook adoption, I stumbled across one such event while perusing a proffered book. When I asked a member of the team of authors about it, I was curtly told that they had simplified the event so it would be more understandable to students. Which I interpreted to mean it was not so subtle propaganda they hadn’t thought they wouldn’t be questioned about.
Then we have the treasure trove of our own memories. These are the gems that help fashion who we are. Even though a given event may be shared, our own memories give it a perception that makes it unique and special to us. I’m sure you have heard a person close to you relate an event you shared only to have some of the “facts” be different from the way you thought you had experienced the very same happening. Or, even more disconcerting, you find the person telling the story has switched your roles. I don’t mean the sneaky co-worker who wants credit for some coup at the office. I mean a very, innocent switching to roles in a persons mind. Who switched? Did you or did they? For those who are suffering from brain trauma or disease, what is happening to their perception? I had an aunt, who having recovered remarkably well from a stroke, said the most terrifying aspect was that though she had been very aware she hadn’t been able to communicate nor move. She felt she was a prisoner in her own body. My mother developed aphasia due to a stroke and never regained full control of her vocabulary. In frustration, she gave up doing crossword puzzles. Sometimes she would know the word and not be able to retrieve it. A “senior moment” increased by an order of magnitude. Popular conception has it that the older and deeper memories last longer. If that is so, why do many of us suffer the diminution of our vocabularies when language is one of our first mental accomplishments? Is a critical connection lost or do we eventually have too much data in our minds to make access to anything reliable? What are our children, with all of their multi-processing, going to be left with? Do our brains become so full that new, short-term items can’t “find a place to lodge?” So, what is the frustration to those of us who retain an inner awareness, but lose the ability to share what is in their minds with others? How do we handle the anger with ourselves as we watch ourselves slip away? Can we lessen the fear that we will, in reality, no longer be ourselves? Is it better to lose some degree of our self-awareness?
This isn’t a scientific paper. I’m not attempting to delve into the physiologic causes of memory lapse or deterioration. But as I watch loved ones age and loose their acuity I’m left wondering about the very nature of our memories.
The last word:
To me, nothing is scarier than the thought that I might not remember who I am.
Keep your sense of humor.