Grit Blogs > Of Mice and Mountain Men

Brain Rot

A photo of Allan DouglasOK, I admit that I *have* passed the half-century mark in age, but I do not consider myself old, although the term “old” does seem to have taken on some fluidity over the years. When I was a kid, 35 seemed ancient, when I got to be 35, 65 was old.  Now that I’m mid-50’s, old is somewhere above 80. And I most certainly do not consider myself to be the least bit senile, although … I have caught myself having what some would call a “senior moment” now and again. 

Just the other day, it was a Saturday, the day I always fix a nice breakfast for my sweetie – omelets are my specialty, but I can do other things too – I found myself standing in the kitchen, with an array of delicious food stuffs neatly arranged on the counter, but could not for the life of me remember what I had planned to cook. I stood there for several moments, looking at the items I’d laid out hoping for a clue. Finally it came to me and I forged ahead again. But it was embarrassing, even though I was the only one who knew about it.

Except that now you know, but you won't tell on me will you dear reader?

It wasn’t the first time, I can’t even count the times I’ve gone into another room to get or do something only to wonder, “Why did I come in here?” That is disconcerting.

But I’ve been absent minded all my life, even as a kid I had a terrible memory. Not that I was stupid, I was actually quite bright; scoring well above average on all the IQ tests they did on us in school, but I had a hard time remembering things that had no practical and immediate application, as I saw it. 

I was an airplane buff. I had dozens of model airplanes hanging from my bedroom ceiling. I knew each of them on sight, and could give you statistics and anecdotal information on most any aircraft ever built. But ask me what the capital of Rumania is and I was a blank.

My buddy Mike says that brilliant people like us just have so much stuff stored in our brains that it tends to get difficult to find the one item we need when we need it. That’s why I like Mike so much; very sensible that guy! Mike likens our brain to a cluttered attic filled with some valued treasures scattered amid piles of useless trash. The problem is in deciding what is junk and what is treasure and keeping the treasure within easy reach.

Mike also quotes Sherlock Holmes as having said that he deliberately forgets useless information so he retains only the important stuff. It’s sort of like cleaning out a closet, or my shop, or a basement.  But how do we quantify what is “useless”? How many times have we tossed out some item we haven’t used in 5 years only to need it the next week? And how do we “erase” this junk knowledge to make room for new stuff? Hmmmm… Sherlock could do it (or so he claimed). But then he was fictional wasn’t he?  So he could do lots of stuff “real” people can’t. The Incredible Hulk, for example could… oh, well, let’s not start down that path.

Perhaps the solution is to develop a sort of cranial card catalog – like a mental FAT table (stands for File Allocation Table and is used by computers to know where to look for data placed in storage media) – to help us retrieve the data we need when we need it instead of 5 hours after the need occurred. I have read a few such suggestions, like making a clever rhyme out of people’s names to make them easier to remember. Just don’t blurt out the “clever” mechanism instead of their name! I’ve tried that and found that remembering some clever rhyme was even more difficult than remembering a simple name.

I have found that grasping their hand during the introduction hand shake and studying their face intently while repeating their name out loud 3 or 4 times really helps to keep their face and name connected in my mind, but the effort is wasted because it creeps them out so badly I’ll never have occasion to need to recall this information again!

There are all manner of dietary supplements that claim to increase memory, or at least slow its degradation, but I’ve had little discernable success with those. Working puzzles and playing games that make you think does seem to keep the brain juices flowing so you don’t end up sitting on a park bench drooling on yourself and wondering how you got there. But I’ve found no game or puzzle that increases the ability to rapidly and accurately recall stored information.

The accuracy thing is a biggie for me. I am hesitant to engage in live discussions of topics that require the regurgitation of factual information because even when I can recall some tid-bit of news or statistical data, I seem to get it all twisted up. Then someone has to go and correct me, which leaves me feeling very foolish indeed. So I will share opinions, but just nod and smile a lot when they get into technical discussions.

I know I am not alone in any of this. Most of the people I associate with seem to have much of the same trouble I do, so maybe it’s all perfectly normal for people our age. Or maybe it’s a byproduct of modern life.

Perhaps living on a planet that is literally bathed in microwave energy from our communications devices, eating genetically engineered broccoli and hormonally enhanced chicken, as well as imbibing all manner of chemicals as additives to our food, personal care products and drinking water has had an effect the researchers are afraid to tell us about. I don’t know for sure… maybe at one time I would have known how to test for such things, but at the moment… I forget.

Please remember to visit again sometime, until then; may the best laid plans be yours.

allan douglas
10/17/2010 2:40:30 PM

Thanks for dropping in Cindy. I know someone who does that half-finished sentence thing occasionally. She just sort of trails off like she lost interest in what she was saying. I figure if it was THAT boring, I don't need to know either. Although sometimes she does pique my curiosity with the spoken part and I have to poke her (verbally) to get her running again before she forgets. I've never heard of the brandied raisins thing, but it seems to me that alchohol tends to contribute to memory loss more than retention. But hey; who am I to criticize, right?

allan douglas
10/17/2010 2:30:20 PM

Dave, Always a pleaseure to have you drop in for a visit. I have recently abandoned my electronic calendar for two reasons. One: it helps with that simplifying thing - what doesn't fit in the day-block doesn't get scheduled, so I have to prioritize better, and two: my computer keeps crashing and I'm sick of calling all my relatives begging for birthday and anniversary data on their family. Along the same vein, I've decided to enter into a forced exercize of my brain muscle by turning off my password remembering thingie in the computer - talk about a mental work-out!

cindy murphy
10/16/2010 8:12:20 PM

Too funny, Allan. I could soooo see myself doing the same - laying out an array of food, and forgetting what I was going to cook. I drive my family nuts sometimes...often, actually; at least twice a day. I start a sentence, and leave it hanging mid-way through. The teenager, dripping sarcasm: "Mom, are you going to finish your sentence?" (She knows I'm not.) Hubs blurts out random things in hopes that one of them will complete my thought. The nine year-old just rolls her eyes. After the sarcasm, blurting, and eye-rolling is done, I've forgotten what I was going to say. Mom was big on memory-enhancing dietary tricks. When Dad was alive they ate brandy-soaked white raisins; she read somewhere that it was supposed to improve memory by eating a certain amount each had to be that certain amount; no more, no less. After seeing a giant jar of the things on her counter once, I asked her how many. She couldn't remember, (that could have something to do with the brandy, I'm thinking). My brother and I found that jar while cleaning out her house after she died this spring. It was shoved way back in the corner of a bottom cabinet, as other things replaced its spot front and center. It was black and toxic looking. It's been over 13 years since Dad died - I'm sure it's at least that old. She probably forgot it was in there. Enjoy your day, (and remember you did).

nebraska dave
10/15/2010 6:09:52 PM

@Allan, your friend Mike and I have the same philosophy. I too believe that after 60 years there’s a lot of information stored in my brain so when I go to look for something it might take awhile to find just where I put it. Dates and times are becoming increasingly difficult to keep straight. Thank goodness for electronic calendars. I rely on them tremendously. When I think back thirty years ago my calendar of eventful things was only a couple during the week but now it’s 10 or 15 things, meetings, and events to keep track of. I think that life is a little busier today than years ago. I’m on the back end of life and seriously trying to simplify the schedule. I’ve always had difficulty with names but have learned to just ask a couple times and forget about being embarrassed. After a couple awkward moments I remember the name. It’s quite amazing that I can actually remember what I’ve talked about the last time I talked with the person but can’t remember the name. There just must be something about remembering names. More people have trouble remembering names than any other thing. Some years ago I had aspirations of completing my college degree. I quickly discovered that my brain was not used to being in the learning mode. After a year it was much easier. The degree never happened but I learned that the brain is like a muscle, “you don’t use it you lose it.” Have a great brain active day.