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Martha Weinman Lear, Plumbing the Forgetful Mind

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Martha Weinman Lear, Plumbing the Forgetful Mind

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Martha Weinman Lear, Plumbing the Forgetful Mind

Martha Weinman Lear, Plumbing the Forgetful Mind

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Bodies, selves: Author Martha Weinman Lear writes often about medical and behavioral issues, notably in the New York Times Magazine column 'Body & Mind.' Martha Weinman Lear hide caption

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Martha Weinman Lear

For all of us who have ever wandered into a room only to freeze, wondering blankly, "Why did I come in here, again?," Martha Weinman Lear has an answer.

Lear, the author of Where Did I Leave My Glasses? The What, When and Why of Normal Memory Loss, discusses the twin issues of memory loss and aging — how much forgetfulness is normal, when does it occur and what can be done about it?

Lear is a former staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and the author of The Child Worshippers and Heartsounds.

Excerpt: Where Did I Leave My Glasses?

Where Did I Leave My Glasses?

Chapter One: Say Hello to Whatsisname

THE NAME PROBLEM

SCENE: Aboard a Manhattan bus, as reported in The New York Times

DRAMATIS PERSONAE: Two middle-aged women debating what film to see that evening.

"I want to see the movie, you know, with that woman with the long brown hair."

"Which movie is that?"

"You know, the one with that guy in it."

"The guy who was married to the singer?"

"No, the other one."

"Oh, that movie. I know the one you mean. That short, funny guy is in it."

"Right, right!"

"I heard it's not that good."

"Who said that?"

"A guy in one of the newspapers. I can't remember which one. He's also on TV."

"Oh, I know who you mean. I'm surprised. The woman you listen to on the radio loved it."

"This guy said it was tedious and too long."

"Then let's see something else. What about that movie with the plane?"

OH, HOW POIGNANTLY THIS speaks to me. I feel as one with those women on that bus. I am those women on that bus.

Here am I, chasing some elusive name up and down the windowless corridors of my mind—Yoo-hoo, name, wait for me!—and the merry little bugger keeps outrunning me, pausing every now and again just to give me the business, make me think I can grab it, and my annoyance turns to frustration, then to indignation, then to impotent laughter—I? practitioner of words, fumbling around in the dark for a Tom, a Dick, a Harry? How absurd.

I begin the usual lament: "I can't remember his name, it's right here on the tip of my tongue, this is driving me crazy, you know, way back when Whatsisname was president, the Contract with America guy, what the hell was his name?"

Perhaps a housemate tries to be helpful, as mine does: "I think it begins with a C."

If you're lucky, he or she does not follow up, as mine once did, by waking me in the pale light of dawn to announce triumphantly: "Newt Gingrich!" (And then the predictable exchange: "You said it began with a C." "No, I'm sure I said a G.")

Names, names. They are the thorn in our communal Achilles' heel.

Question: What can you most reliably depend upon yourself to forget?

It is the question I put to everyone I interviewed for this book (including the experts, most of whom are barely into middle age, but their memories aren't what they used to be, either).

And the lead entries were:

1. Where did I leave my glasses?

2. What was I just saying?

3. What did I come in here for?

4. What did I ask you to remind me to do?

5. What's her (his, its) name?

All strong contenders. But the fifth won hands down.

There is a striking consistency to this stuff. For almost everyone with normal memory loss, names are the first things to go. The genes do bless some of us with better memories than others. But, beyond the imperatives of genes, there seems to be some universal wiring system designed by master electricians of unknown origin for the precise purpose, I sometimes think, of driving us nuts.

In the sweet fullness of time, we may notice ourselves beginning to have trouble locating other sorts of words as well—common nouns, verbs, adjectives, whatever. My husband and I are both writers and work in adjacent rooms, and the SOS's ricochet back and forth.

"What is the adjective for when something is impossible to deny, when we say that it offers blank-blank proof ?"

"Irrefutable?"

"Yes! Irrefutable!"

But nothing gives us more trouble than people's names. We all know it. We just don't fully understand it.

What is the logic here? Why specifically names? I wondered, as I went scurrying in hapless pursuit of them. And this was just the first of a cluster of W questions. As in: Who forgets names? Does it happen to all of us in the normal course of aging, or do some of us manage to finesse the price of admission? And what is actually happening that makes us forget names? (Yes, yes, we're getting older. But what is actually happening in there?) And when does it, whatever it is, begin to happen? And where is the name hiding in that maddening interval between the moment it disappears and the moment it pops out again? And what, if anything, can be done about it?

So, to begin: Why do we forget names?

For openers, because they don't mean anything.

Some do, obviously—June, Violet, Hill, Baker. (And some have meanings you would not suspect, such as Gloria, which, according to my trusty Webster's, is "a representation ... of dazzling light bursting from the ... heavens" and Betty, which is "a small instrument used by thieves in entering houses." Who knew?) But most names are words with no meaning whatever.

Which is so perverse. Again, from Webster's: "word: a speech sound ... that symbolizes and communicates a meaning..." But it is the idiosyncratic nature of those particular words we call proper names that they defy Webster. Your name refers to nothing except you—and anyone else who may have the same name, which only complicates matters. It has no context. It does not belong to any category of meaning; it does not provide a tie or a clue to anything—except to you.

In short, it totally fails to do what lampshade and shoe and farmhouse do plenty of: trigger an association. Which is a crucial failing, because that is how memory works: by association.

Ah, but wait: If names give us trouble essentially because they are meaningless, they were just as meaningless when we were children, and they never gave us any trouble back then. Why now?

Which brings us to the next W: What is actually happening as we age that creates this trifling, maddening problem?

Actually, three things are happening.

Dr. Norman Relkin, a neurologist and neuroscientist, is the director of the Weill Cornell Memory Disorders Program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. He says: "People ask me 'Why is it that I used to remember names when I went to a cocktail party, and now I can't?'"

And then he explains: Just as names begin giving us grief, two other extremely common problems are kicking in. It is becoming harder to do several things at once, otherwise known as multitasking, and it is taking us longer to process new information.

Thus, Dr. Relkin says, "If you combine the primary decline in naming ability with a decreased ability to multitask, to take in everything that's going on at once at a cocktail party, plus a slowing of reaction time, you can see..."

Yes. I certainly can.

Now, as to the who of it: Do we all eventually, inevitably, experience the name problem?

Answer: Not all but almost. Some rare birds do wing through life, even into old old age (defined by social scientists as ninety plus), with their memory systems totally intact. What explains them?

It is a hot question in memory research now. Maybe those lucky few always ate right, slept plenty, exercised the body, activated the mind—all the things that we are urged to do to improve our memories. (Chess has become a chic recommendation; crossword puzzles, too. Not everyone agrees, as you'll see in Chapter Five. All we know for sure is that they can't hurt, unless you use them, as I often do, to avoid doing whatever it is that you ought to be doing instead.)

Most studies do suggest that all of the above help, but the likelihood is that people with superior memories always had superior memories. Probably they could stay up half the night, scarfing down pizza and watching old Charlie Chan movies, and still have superior memories. Genes, genes.

One theory being floated about among cognitive scientists is that education may also make a difference—that people who have more education may learn to solve problems in more efficient ways than those with less, which may actually, physiologically, modify the way their brains work. I happen to know plenty of PhD's whose memories are even worse than my own, but that is off the point. The point being, if you are well into middle age (generally defined as the stretch between forty-five and sixty-five) with no hint whatever of the name problem, here's to you, kid. You are a rare bird indeed.

Next, then: When, on average, does all this begin?

This one is a thunderbolt, at least for me, from Dr. Relkin: "If you control for education, for socioeconomic status, for all the other variables that might influence this, after, really, the twenties, you start to see some loss of primary memory function." (Italics mine.) "It's something which I think is grounded, now, in the biology of the brain."

New technology, he says, has given cognitive researchers the ability to measure changes in the brain over time. "And with it, we can see that, in the general population, people's brains shrink by about one-half of one percent per year."

"From what age on?"

"In the studies that I've seen, beginning in the thirties."

In the thirties! Whether this should make us feel better or worse, I'm not sure. But it does suggest a snappy comeback if your children ever heckle you, however tenderly, about your memory.

The name problem does not become big enough to start systematically bugging us until pretty well along in middle age. But when it does start: Where are the little devils hiding when we can't find them?

I get the answer to this one from Dr. Yaakov Stern, the head of a team of scientists who do research on aging and memory at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City.

Dr. Stern is a neuropsychologist. His particular interest is in people whose memories remain intact throughout their lifetimes. Like everyone I have met who toils in these fields, he seems to be totally in love with his subject. He is very affable and very tall, and, as he answers my questions, his upper body seems to bend forward, like the body of one of those improbably long-legged birds, with the weight of his enthusiasm.

"One part of the brain has to do with storing memory, let's say, and another part has to do with retrieving it," he says. "The hippocampus and areas around it seem to be very important for putting new memories in, and certain areas in the front of the brain are important for retrieving. It's almost like the World Wide Web—there's a lot of information sitting in there but you need the right search function to pull it out.

"Remembering names is very different from what we call semantic memory: what a desk is, what a chair is, what animals versus furniture are. All that stuff is ingrained in a very different way from a fact such as your name. But names you grow up with—like the name of my father, say—such names become so ingrained that they may be stored like semantic memory."

Which does not explain my Brad Pitt/Tom Cruise syndrome: "What about when I'm watching a movie and I say, 'Now, I've seen that actor a hundred times and I still can't remember his name.' It may not be a name I grew up with, but it's certainly familiar. Why can't I come up with it?"

"And an hour later, you're standing in the shower, and, boom! the name comes to you. Right?"

"Boom! Right." On good days.

"So it's in there. That's the retrieval problem—that's when you need the search function."

And where is it when we need it? Ah, there's the final rub.

Not to burden any of us with technical detail—we have quite enough to forget as is—but current thinking among neuroscientists is that the brain's frontal lobe, which is involved in the search function, is one of the first areas that start to shrink as we age. Which is normal, friends. "So it may not be the ability to store memories but the ability to retrieve them that is affected with aging."

So when we are trying to pull out a name, the poor maligned object is not willfully hiding there in the fuzzy depths of the brain. It is simply having trouble finding its way out. Patience. That frontal lobe may need time to boot up.

What, then, can be done about it?

Compensatory strategies: that's the operative phrase. The experts all stress that no strategy can recover what has been lost. If my frontal lobe has shrunk, it's shrunk. But we can compensate for our weaknesses by playing to our strengths.

The commercial woods are full of self-styled memory gurus who promise the moon. They run clinics, publish books, produce audiovisual cassettes, advertise widely and sensationally ("I can give you a photographic memory in just two hours! Pay only ..."). Simply master their techniques and practice, practice, practice, and you will "have a memory like a magnet," "achieve the fame and financial freedom you deserve," "entertain your guests and be the life of the party"—a prospect that's enough to send me running in the opposite direction—and never forget another name as long as you live.

It's like all those perennial how to's: How to Get Thin and Stay Thin, How to Keep Married Sex Hot, How to Make a Million in Real Estate. Memory is big, big business.

They all teach basically the same strategies, most of which are variations on strategies that are at least a couple of thousand years old, having been invented by the real gurus: the an-cient Romans. They use elaborate word associations and visual imagery (mnemonics, in the trade; a verbal clue is a mnemonic, so is a string tied around the finger, so is any device that may help you remember). Woody Allen needled them slyly in the 2006 movie Scoop. "I have a mnemonic system," his character says. "Say I want to remember this ashtray. I think of fifty ashtrays dancing in miniskirts."

In my experience, most of those touted strategies are just too complicated to be useful. We do not need to be given complexities to memorize for the purpose of helping our memories. What we need is simplicity.

The programs affiliated with hospitals usually recommend simple devices for remembering names, three of them so basic that you've probably used them intuitively. They are phonemic cueing, which is cueing by sound or by letter; semantic cueing, which is cueing by context; and what psychologists call spaced rehearsal technique, which works by repetition.

Whenever you say, "I think it sounds like ..." or "I think it begins with ...," that's phonemic cueing. It is one of the elegant little mysteries of the mind that you sometimes can dredge up the right initial but not the name—or the wrong initial leads you down the right path, as in my husband's "I think it begins with a C ... Newt Gingrich!"

Frequently I find myself marching through the alphabet in search of a clue: Andrew, Bob, Carol, Donna, Ed ... which is nice when you hit the jackpot but deeply boring. And it doesn't help me hit the jackpot all that often, though it may work nicely for you.

Perhaps the simplest strategy is spaced rehearsal technique, which is just a fancy phrase for repeating something again and again, but over time. Spaced is the operative word. Rapid cramming—muttering someone's name to yourself over and over in rapid succession—is not the best way to commit a name (or anything else) to memory. Far better to repeat it silently when you first hear it, wait ten seconds, silently say it again, wait twenty seconds, bring it back up, wait thirty seconds, repeat ...

It is easy to get into the habit of doing this, and I find it's pretty effective. On a scale of one to ten, I'd give it a seven.

Semantic cueing is a bit more involved but not much. Since memory is helped by context, and names have none, the idea here is to supply one. As in this scenario from Cornell's Dr. Relkin: "You may remember that you met so-and-so (whose name you can't remember) at the zoo. And you start thinking, 'Was it at the giraffe exhibition? At the monkey cage? Who else was with me that day?' ... And since the mind and memory work by association, by bringing up related items, it sometimes greases the wheels of recall." Sometimes, yes, it has greased the wheels for me.

Association of this kind is a form of elaboration, which simply means taking what you already know and linking it in some way to what you want to remember—in this case, a name.

An example: If the name is Jane, you might establish a link by thinking of her in relation to some other Jane you have known: how you feel about that other Jane or how this one seems in some particular feature—the voice, the coloring, the body shape—similar to, or strikingly different from, that other one. Or you could link her to Janes you have not known: Jane Fonda, Jane Eyre, Lady Jane Grey, "You Tarzan, me Jane" ... Or, if this Jane happens to have great hair, or if you happen not to be enchanted by her, you might make a rhyme: "Jane has a mane," or "Jane is a pain." Although, of course, if Jane is a pain, why should you knock yourself out remembering her name?

Anyway, this is the one that works best for me. I'd give it a nine. (Nothing is perfect.) It is not for no reason that, just as real estate specialists keep reciting the mantra "location, location, location," memory specialists keep reciting the mantra "elaboration, elaboration, elaboration."

Linking the name to visual imagery can work very well, as long as you keep it simple. In the technique commonly taught by the heavy-hype gurus, it is not so simple. You are instructed to find words that can be put together to sound like the name you want to remember, then to use them to create strange mental images—the stranger the better, because strange is memorable.

Example: You meet John Doe. You might transpose John into the mental picture of a bathroom—its tiled walls, its mirror, its sink—and Doe into the image of a deer standing at that sink and looking in the mirror. The name Mary Smith might be visualized as a woman who is dressed in full bridal regalia (Mary/marry) and wielding a blacksmith's hammer.

This technique can become so convoluted it pretzels the brain. One guru I interviewed suggested how to render my own name unforgettable (to others; I tend to remember it): For Martha, he said, visualize a Martian, preferably green; for Weinman, see a tiny man encased in a gigantic wine bottle; for Lear, see that tiny man with a leer on his face, a big lascivious grin. Now put them all together and you've got a green Martian staring at a miniature man in a gigantic wine bottle who is ... Enough, I thought. Get me and that poor little bastard in the wine bottle out of here.

Remember, you've got to come up with this kind of thing quickly, upon being introduced to Whatsisname. Neat trick. Is it possible to learn? Sure. It is also possible to learn Greek.

But when it is kept simple, visualization is an enormously effective mnemonic, because mental images have relative staying power. Most of us retain good visual memory long after our verbal memory has started going a little flabby. Which is to say, you are likely to remember what Whatsisname looks like long after you have forgotten his name.

In crowded social settings, the "Quick, what's his name?" anxiety level may rise sharply, which almost guarantees that you won't remember anything—an excess of nervous adrenaline is flooding the roadways. When this happens, and mnemonics cannot help, I heartily recommend using the dodges that most of us develop to cover our tracks. They are, after all, only mildly dissembling.

Dr. Stern, who says, as many of us do, that he was never too good with names, describes his own method: "I'm talking to someone and a third person comes up and I know I have to introduce them but I can't remember their names. So I say, 'Do you two know each other?' And then I just hope they'll go ahead and do the introductions themselves. Which, thank heaven, they usually do."

I am more devious. The room is crowded, the sound level is deafening, and I am having a conversation, or trying to have a conversation, with X (whose name, of course, escapes me) when Y (ditto) joins us. What to do?

Answer: Nothing. I greet Y and keep talking. If neither of them asks for an introduction, there's no problem. If either says, "I don't think we've met," I say, on a note of high surprise, "Oh, I was sure you two knew each other!" Pregnant pause, which they either do, or do not, fill in with their names. If they do, I am home free. If they don't, I say, "Sorry, I'll be right back" and head for the bathroom, the cloakroom, the bar, anywhere but there.

Now, however, I cannot rely on elaboration or semantic cueing or spaced rehearsal technique, all rendered useless because I don't remember the damn names. You can see the problem. So I am left with phonetics: Karen, Larry, Molly, Nancy ...

Which may work or not. Generally not. But by the time I've gone through the alphabet, those two guests whose names I didn't remember will either have done the honors for themselves or moved along to other guests whose names, let me assure you, I will not remember.

Why fret? So I've blanked on your name and you've blanked on mine and none of the usual mnemonics are working at all. We still have a lulu in reserve and it is, for my money, the best, the easiest, the most efficient mnemonic of them all:

"I'm so sorry, but I've forgotten your name. Would you mind telling it to me again?"

Foolproof. And nobody will ever hate you for wanting to remember who they are.

Copyright © 2008 by Martha Weinman Lear

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Where Did I Leave My Glasses?

The What, When, and Why of Normal Memory Loss

by Martha Weinman Lear

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