How often do you fail to remember the name of the person who just said hi to you but YOU KNOW YOU KNOW who they are? This common problem is often referred to as Tip of the Tongue State. Find out what to do to correct this every day memory problem in this video.
There are lots of reasons to feel negatively affected by the world around you. Personal struggles, mental, physical, financial, just to name a few, may be affecting you now more than ever. Psychology explains much of human behavior by looking at motivating factors. Some motivators are positive, like using the promise of a walk outside at the end of the work day to push through. Other motivators call you to action all the same, but have a dark side. For example, I’m guilty of telling my children that if they don’t behave according to expectations that I will take away their TV time. Most people, including my children, respond better with a positive motivators.
Like motivation, the way we view the world can be shrouded in positivity and negativity. The more I spend my working life online, the less I spend talking to students and colleagues face-to-face. This experience has shifted the amount of time I seem to be alone with my thoughts — SO MUCH MORE.
I’m reminded that my memory reflects who I am and largely shapes my inner voice. The idea that our memory shapes our personality is one I never get tired of considering. Charles Fernyhough, author and psychologist, describes how memory forms identify in more detail here. If you too find yourself alone coping with our current world more than ever, emphasis on the following memory processes can make your LIFE MORE POSITIVE.
Positivity Bias, also called the Pollyanna principle (named after a book character similar to a modern-day Disney Princess – think Amy Adams as Giselle in Enchanted), is the human tendency to focus on the positive. Bias refers to a general cognitive term, not necessarily always with a negative connotation, in which we are more likely to think one way over the other. This is great news as life seems to be stacking on the difficulty. Just today alone I’ve chatted with two people about how easy it is to focus on negative aspects of life. Maybe it is a small mishap like spilling your morning coffee on a computer or something life-changing like losing a job. Either way, the cumulative effects of daily life can be draining. Those who believe good outweighs the bad are likely to be happier and more resilient in the face of life’s biggest challenges.
Forgetting.Daniel L. Schacter’s groundbreaking work on memory suggests that the secret to a good memory may be forgetting. Consider being able to remember too many mundane details of your life: what you ate each day, the clothes you wear, and all the conversations you have. For a very small number of people this ability, known as hyperthymesia, or highly superior autobiographical memory, is more of a curse than a blessing. Remembering what you did each day may turn out to be a fun party trick; however, for many of these people remembering everything personal has led to depression. Think of it this way. When we have a bad breakup as a teen or suffer an embarrassment at the office most of us, overtime, consider the event less terrible. A dulling of the severity or negativity of the memory has occurred. This normal course of forgetting allows us to become wiser and learn from our experiences. It also gives us the opportunity to reshape our thinking and put negativity in the past. Not being able to forget details of extremely negative events, like a traumatic car accident or a violent act when remembered, can lead to Post-traumatic Stress and anxiety.
As much as we may wish for a better memory, forgetting has its advantages!
Reminiscence or discussing the past can also be a favorite way to live in the present reality. Psychologists have discovered a reminiscence bump for memory; individuals older than 40 tend to remember positive events from their teens and twenties more than self-knowledge for other time periods. I think my grandpa was right in how he thought of the past. As a small child I recall his monthly magazine called Reminisce, which I’m delighted to see is still in publication. I would eagerly crawl into his lap to help him with each edition’s notorious seek-and-find game, the where is “Hattie’s Hatpin Contest.” Chances are you may not even know what a hatpin is. As a child of the 1980’s I only saw the one “I found” within these magazines. I suspect what makes this publication so popular and timeless is that we can always relive the past. Through music, laughter, photographs, and video we now more than ever can relive a happy memory of the past.
My students in human memory class are writing a blog for a final course project. This assignment was given in advance of Covid-19 and they could write about ANY topic related to memory. To my surprise, several students decided to write about mental health. This got me thinking about the natural connection between mental health and memory.
Memory Health is Sleep Health:
You may have heard about the connection between sleep and memory. During sleep, memories are consolidated, into neural structures of the brain to a more long-lasting state. Although the most durable memory could take months or years to consolidate, good sleep hygiene elevates our chance of remembering. Many psychological studies have shown the role between learning something, and then sleeping adequately. Sleep’s ultimate payoff may be better memory. Sleep seems to offer a restorative process for brain health. Getting the recommended 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night does more than just make us feel refreshed. Non-neurons called glial cells clean and prune unnecessary cells while we sleep. Bottom line is that adequate sleep makes us more energized, our brains healthier, and assists us in remembering. I recommend sticking to a sleep schedule and taking steps to promote sleep during this time. The National Sleep Foundation has some great tips here.
Memory Health is Positive Self-esteem:
Have you heard of the Pollyanna principle? My students have no idea who Pollyanna was but I give them a good analogue – a Disney princess, particularly the character Giselle in Enchanted played by bubbly actor Amy Adams. Pollyanna is a woman from a classic book of the same name, written by Eleanor H. Porter. She becomes this psychological term’s namesake because she is always looking for the positive, even in terrible situations. It turns out that most healthy adults have better memory for positive events than negative. But, add a sprinkle of optimism to negative experiences, or maybe just a little time and reflection and you can remember things in a slightly better light. Take a terrible break up. In the moment it seems like you cannot feel lower. You may not eat, you may cry a lot, and mild depression is common. Many people manage to grow through a bad breakup, reporting years later that they “learned something”, “grew as a person”, or “it wasn’t really that bad.” Thinking positively can lead to greater optimism in the present. Having an overall tendency or bias to remain optimistic has memory benefits; you are more likely to remember positive experiences over negative.
It is important to realize that no amount of positivity can replace the real despair of death or major loss of income. People during this time may need real help. I’m particularly impressed by the American Psychological Association’s commitment to providing pandemic-related resources.
Memory Health is Overall Wellness:
Our thinking can be dramatically influenced by how we live our life. Maintaining positivity and clearer thinking can be enhanced by managing our health through diet and exercise. Go outside and see how people social distancing are spilling out of their houses to enjoy nature. When you are out think about connecting to nature in a deep and meaningful way. Wellness also is maintained by socialization. If you are tired of spending time on the screen you can still connect. Family and friends may be pleased by receiving a card or a phone call. Maybe these “archaic” methods of communication can become our favorite again.
Memory health is mental health. Take control of your sleep, take control of how you view the world, and take control of your wellness.
Chances are this time of unknowns with social/work/family change has you, and your friends and neighbors, on edge. With social distancing though you would need to be a fly on the wall in the homes of your friends to share the reality of this change. Because we are all in this together but actually may be alone, here is some insight into your mental response to the current situation.
Those who enjoy long stints online or gaming with little face-to-face contact may be better equipped for this new found isolation. It seems like many in our culture are comfortably connected on social media more than they are with face-to-face socialization. Author and researcher Sherry Turkle has asserted in her book Alone Together that a generation has learned to expect more from technology than one another.
This mix of stress and enhanced digital connection got me thinking about how our experience through Covid-19 isolation will influence our memory.
Knowledge of memory tells me one thing primarily — Do your best to cope during this time because you will remember it! Our brains encode new and unique experiences more than common ones. As my late grandma would say, “enjoy your life now as it really speeds up as you get older.” She was right by the way as grandmothers always are! This quickening of life is partly due to ‘the same old same old” experiences occurring as we age. College, marriage, birth, and career experiences mark our earlier years and their uniqueness stamp out and slow down time.
For many, this virus crisis will account for something memory researchers call flashbulb memory. First described by psychologists Roger Brown and James Kulick, these memories take on a characteristic like an old flashbulb camera. The light from the bulb illuminates the scene and a picture in time is created. Generations have experienced these indelible memories during the death of JFK, 9/11, and now perhaps a new generation with the corona virus.
My hope is that this period of time expires quite quickly. If it does we can be sure we are all under acute stress. These short periods of stress call upon the sympathetic nervous system to do its job; think fight or flight. During these times of stress our senses, including cognitive abilities like decision-making and memory processes, are enhanced leaving us with vivid memory. Spending two weeks in the house, with or without family members, can lead to enhanced memory for this time. The other option, which no one wants, is to deal with chronic stress. If the effects of Covid 19 are long-lasting then our body releases chemicals that negatively effect our memory, sleep, and other bodily functions.
Okay, so in the best case scenario I have two takes-aways:
1.) This unique time of our lives is so unusual that the days are likely to feel long and we are likely to remember this time period well.
2.) Our stress level, whether acute or chronic, will determine how our brains and bodies respond to this time period.
From a psychological perspective I suggest the following:
Avoid social comparison. As much as social media might save you during this time (think workout and educational videos) comparing your experience to others is dangerous. You do you!
Don’t believe everyone else is FINE. Chances are our view of others dealing with this situation (think social media family pictures of game-playing, working out, and writing poems) is curated so THEY ALL look happy and well.
Take care of yourself and your loved ones first. Try to focus on some basics: eat well, sleep, get outside, laugh, and lower your expectations. This last one is for me so I’ll say it another way. Be kind to yourself and others.
Think of how you can help others where you are. Make a phone or video call to someone more isolated than you, donate to a food bank or your local United Way.
Mom friends and acquaintances often ask what I know about how having children influences thinking and memory. Phrases like “mommy brain” and “brain fog” have become part of a social response for memory issues that occur before or after having children. My children are a bit older now, 3 and 7, but I still find myself forgetting a name of someone I have met several times, or walk into a room suddenly unaware of why I am standing there. These issues are embarrassing but typical. Yet, I think we all look for answers when it comes to memory errors.
For all the moms (and other tired caregivers out there), what does current research have to say about the effects of motherhood and memory?
First – how might cognition change during pregnancy?
Findings reveal that as a whole, cognition in pregnant women is uninterrupted throughout. A review of over two decades of research found a small impairment in remembering names and words (1). A separate study on pregnant mothers and a non-pregnant comparison sample revealed that spatial skills (assessed by asking women to remember where a series of squares were presented on a computer screen) were worse at the end of pregnancy and just after giving birth (2). Wow – this seems promising! However, ask anyone who is in their last few weeks of pregnancy and/or first several weeks after birth and they might tell you more than just their vocabulary and spatial memory took a hit!
Secondly – are any cognitive changes long-lasting?
The findings here are promising too! A large sample of women described in the British Journal of Psychiatry did not show any long-term cognitive decline either four years or eight years post-partum (3).
Thirdly – does the brain physically change during pregnancy and motherhood?
Research has shown that women after pregnancy have less gray matter in their brains (4). Brain cells called neurons are covered by a fatty white-looking substance called myelin. It protects the cell and allows it to send a message quickly to other neurons. Other brain cells, glial cells, can be found near the surface of the brain. They are gray in color because they have no fatty myelin. Less gray matter was found in areas of the brain that help women socialize with others for up to two years after pregnancy. One theory is that reduced matter areas are helping assist moms in connecting with their babies – although the story isn’t complete.
Finally – what is left to learn?
This is truly the most interesting question. My brief coverage of the science leads to one strong conclusion – NOT ENOUGH RESEARCH has been done on mothers to know for sure how having children impacts the brain and cognition! The quality of the research is limited to small samples of mothers and often does not include comparison samples or samples with mothers of different race, ethnicity, or social class (5).
There is another major take away for mothers. Many caregivers are forgetful because of stress!
I would argue that stress is responsible for a large piece of the memory problems of caregivers. If you are stressed over meeting the demands of parenting, your attention is often divided between the stress you feel and the task you are trying to accomplish. You certainly cannot remember the names of people you meet on the soccer field because your attention is tuned into your lovely child playing soccer or the incessant “mom, mom, mom/dad, dad, dad) coming at your heels from a two-year old. If your attention is always split between two things, you will remember very little and you are also likely tired from the effort required to do many things at once. Spending several hours or days with increased stress can overwork your brain and your body. Overtime, your brain produces stress hormones that can disrupt body functions like thinking clearly but can lead to depression and disease.
Whenever possible focus on ONLY one thing at a time. There is no such thing as a champion multitask-er. For physical relief from stress, the Mayo clinic has great advice on how you can change your behavior. For more serious issues in parenting and stress, the American Psychological Association offers science-based parenting resources.
Ouellette, S.J., Hampson, E. (2019). Memory and affective changes during the antepartum: A narrative review and integrative hypothesis. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 41 (1), 87-107.
Farrar, D., Tuffnell, D., Neill, J., Scally, A. & Marshall, K. (2014). Assessment of cognitive function across pregnancy using CANTAB: A longitudinal study. Brain and Cognition, 84(1), 76-84.
Christensen, H., Leach, L.S., Mackinnon, A. (2010). The British Journal of Psychiatry, 196 (2), 126-132.
Hoekzema, E., Barba-Müller, E., Pozzobon, C., Picado, M., Lucco, F. (2017). Nature Neuroscience 20 (2), 287-296.
Duarte-Guterman, P., Leuner, B., Galea, L. A.M. (2019). Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 53.
“Why can’t I remember the name of someone I JUST MET?” “Is there something wrong with me.”
Nope. There is nothing at all wrong with you. When meeting someone new, remembering their name all comes down to two things:
1.) ATTENTION and 2.) ASSOCIATION.
Focused attention is the first step toward remembering. Focusing your mental energy has limitations. For one, you only have so much mental energy to go around. Once you’ve committed too much of it to one task, there may not be enough left to focus on anything else.
Attention is best understood using a visual metaphor. Imagine you are watching a Broadway show. In the opening scene, a magnificently bright spotlight shines down on one singular person. As the show goes on though, lights illuminate the entire stage and a cast of characters and other visuals wonders of the stage are revealed!
When we meet someone new, they need to take the spotlight. And frankly, most of us are not able to put the person front and center. Three characteristics of attention further reveal why we often fail at remembering names.
SELECTION. The spotlight (our attention) needs to be directed singularly at the person. This is a challenge despite our best intentions. Any number of distractions may prevent us from focusing. For example, an impatient child might tug at our pant leg and prevent us from hearing the name. Our own thoughts can be just as distracting. Often when we begin to listen to someone’s name we get in our own way of remembering by worrying about our next response. This shift of attention to our thoughts may lead to missing the name and conversation.
SHIFT. If we are lucky enough to notice our attention being divided, we do have a chance to shift our focus back to the conversation. I suggest immediately repeating their name back to them. You have only one chance in the conversation to recover and this is it. If you get it wrong the person can kindly correct you, keeping you on course for a successful interaction.
DIVIDE. As the conversation begins to flow it is normal for your attention to drift back and forth between the person and your own thoughts. Dividing your attention in this way allows you to ASSOCIATE their name.
Association means connecting. No one is particularly good at remembering a name without a good connection. Psychologist Gillian Cohen refers to this problem as the Baker-baker paradox. Remembering that a woman’s last name is baker is much harder than remembering she is a baker. Why? Because baker the job is very visual. Come on, you know you are thinking about bread baking…..and of course…the hat!
Most associations won’t happen so easily though. You need to connect the name to something interesting or unique. This can be quickly done by associating a feature of the person with their name (maybe he is wearing a hat of a particular sport’s team you like, perhaps you like her earrings). Asking them about this feature will hook the name in your memory and give you a better chance to remember it. When I meet a new student I ask them something about themselves. This usually sparks a brief conversation and I can hook the details in memory along with their name.
In a high stakes event like a job interview, you should do anything in your power to remember the interviewer’s name. Even if it is some goofy rhyme or visual (that you probably won’t share with them) that hooks your memory, use it!
Yes, this all takes time, attention, and effort BUT a little work in the front end could save you the embarrassment of forgetting.
My late, 92 year-old grandmother would often remind me that time sped up as she aged. I picture her now the way she spent most of the day, sitting, as she reminds me to enjoy life to the fullest while I am “young.” After spending nearly 3 days shut in with my children to avoid the polar vortex, (seriously it was -23 today) should I believe that “time flies when you are having fun” or “time spent indoors is like watching paint dry?” In this case it would seem to come down to personal experience. To enjoy the day, my kids painted, made a tent, baked cookies, threw a pot of boiling water into the frigid air to watch it evaporate and enjoyed a number of other chaotic and “fun” experiences. Would my 2 and 6 year-old report having a lightning fast day — because they were having fun? Did the day seem painfully long to me, like watching paint dry?
A watched pot never boils. We can stand over the pot, peaking just over the rim to wait and wait for tiny bubbles to fizz to the surface. It seems to take forever! Ah, now when it is slowly boiling, the noodles can go in. The moment we turn our attention to wash the dishes though, you’ve guessed it, the water has white-capped over the side of the pot.
Memories can fill our lives at either a slow or fast boil. Research on autobiographical memory, by David Rubin out of Duke University has led to a theory called the reminiscence bump. The idea is that when we are older than 40 and think back on our personal memories there is a influx or hump. We remember more events from the coming- of-age period of life into early adulthood, compared to other periods. Rubin and many others though have found there are individual differences based on how these memories are remembered.
I think my grandma was on to something. We experience many firsts when we are young (college and relationships, love, travel, gainful employment, and securing fist-time things like cars and houses — if we are lucky). We remember these times because they stand out from all of the other pot-watching. Ageing brings routine. A settling of sorts that seems to make time fly. Days and weeks of work at the same job, no matter how prosperous or exciting, may fail to provide stand-out experiences. Grandma had settled in to a time where she would remember more life events than make NEW memory. She was fortunate to have vivid memories of her past.
We all can improve our memory by talking about events. Children who are asked meaningful questions day-to-day from their caregivers tend to have more vivid and elaborate personal memories. We often talk about our favorite vacations and funny times with family, and even though these memories may change over time, talking or reflecting is a key to recall.
My children will likely remember the unique fun of a “snow day.” And I will too — probably. Overall, we can focus on meaningful experiences to lengthen our lives. In addition to talking and thinking about events, it is important to vary our routine. Sure, for most of us that doesn’t mean travel to Hawaii, Rome, and Australia in one year or a lifetime. We all can learn new skills, walk different routes in the park, or try a different lunch spot. Distinct memories help time-stamp our days and weeks, stretching them out, instead of clumping them into sameness.
I had two weeks to spend with my mother and father this summer. The purpose of the trip from Minnesota to Youngstown Ohio, my childhood home, was to clean out and eventually sell our family home. If you have ever gone through an old room, forgotten drawer, or cluttered closet, you know what happens. Seeing a self-portrait, you created in 5th grade art class brings back vivid memories of your ten-year old self. As you sort through books, barbies, and mixed tapes, you are amazed at the smells, songs, and times that you remember clearly. As I was wading in memories, and lots of boxes, I found that one memory was lost forever.
My father is in late-stage kidney failure. He is on dialysis and has been in a state of cognitive decline for at least four years. He is no longer the formidable and brash, “larger than life” persona he once was; rather, he, like many aged loved ones is rather weak and passive. His personal care has been complicated by the fact that for most of the last 15 years, he was estranged from the family. When my mom began caring for him again three years ago he was already in a moderate stage of dementia.
Do you know about the memory test? He took the Mini-mental State Exam (MMSE) as part of a veteran’s clinic medical checkup. I remember my mom telling me over the phone that he got a 13 and was asked questions like, remember the words, toothbrush, glue, rabbit and repeat them a minute later and, draw the face of a clock. Not hard stuff. A score of 13 to 20 suggests moderate dementia. Well, I should know how to interpret Dementia. After all I am a Cognitive Psychologist and I teach a chapter in Human Memory class on aging. For the past 10 years I’ve gone through the facts with my undergraduates. “Dementia is not one disease, but a general term for types of cognitive decline. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s. There is no official diagnosis for dementia and most people recognize memory loss when it is too late to intervene.” I’ve even shown a video of a couple, married 50 years, where one partner no longer knows the other due to Alzheimer’s; most of my students watching it in class easily hold back tears.
Back to the end of Day 1 in Ohio. I kissed and hugged my dad goodbye for the night. He took my arm and said, “you are a real nice lady.” The shock hasn’t worn off yet. How could my father not know me? No, I haven’t had time to ask questions or discuss important life lessons with my father!
I am a cognitive psychologist after all so, WHAT SHOULD I DO? As our family makes decisions about the next stage of my dad’s care I wonder, what will he think if he moves to assisted living? How will we be comfortable knowing that he is okay with doing so? How can he speak for himself?
I write this because I want people to know how little we currently know about dementia and how vulnerable I feel about my own knowledge. I probably understand more about how memory works than 95% of the population. How does the average person, who may not understand memory well at all, cope?
I turned to the Alzheimer’s Association. Here I found a 24/7 helpline 1-800-272-3900 and called. The most knowledgeable, well-trained person comforted me on the line. After a short discussion and about the best listening I’ve experienced in a long time, I have a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old, the man on the other line drafted me an email full of resources SPECIFIC to my father. The Alz.org site is full of insight. “Know the 10 signs” lays out behaviors to watch for and explains how to spot these over normal signs of aging. Take sign number 3, “Confusion with time or place.” A person with dementia may lose track of days, the present moment, and the general passage of time. This is sure different than an age-typical behavior of being confused about what day of the week it is, only to correctly remember a few moments later.
I think the public, my students, and me can benefit from learning the most we can about memory. Dementia, like other horrible diseases, is a great equalizer. THIS PUBLIC HEALTH CRISIS DESERVES MUCH ATTENTION. After all, who will you know that loses their memory before losing their life?
Eggs, coffee, blueberries, dark chocolate, walnuts, avocados, kale….
No, this is not my shopping list. It is a list of foods touted by popular press, to improve memory and cognitive function. Recently I asked students in my Human Memory class to investigate a food believed to be related to memory improvement. The above foods made the list along with several other suggestions (e.g., eat the Mediterranean diet, take supplements like turmeric and vitamin E, and drink red wine). Students were required to provide the source of claim — almost always a popular press site. Then they noted whether the article referenced a scientific study and other features of the source’s validity like whether or not the article was sponsored content.
Finally, the students checked our library databases to see if their was any scientific research to support the claim and make an overall recommendation about adding or not adding the food to a daily diet.
You are hoping that now I bring you great clarity about what to eat for an efficient, better than before memory?……………
What did the students find?
1.) Some of the articles were sponsored. So, we can’t be sure there is not bias in reporting to serve the sponsorship.
2.) Most of the articles did reference a research study. This is great!
3.) When articles did reference research, the results cannot (yet) be applied to every-day eating habits.
What does this mean for us?
Although we might like drinking coffee and eating chocolate, we cannot follow a specific guideline for eating this food in a way that would benefit memory. Tips such as drinking black coffee (avoiding sweeteners and sugary cream) are always solid. However, how much coffee is best for cognition is undefined. For chocolate, research suggests a serving of 1 ounce a day would be beneficial. Again though, consider mistakes people might make as they indulge in their “daily” chocolate. I can see my kid generalizing this to eating his hidden away Halloween candy! There simply is not enough evidence to prescribe a diet with any of these foods to see direct memory and cognitive benefits.
What can you do for your memory?
Suggestions for cognitive improvement walk the line for healthy living. Eating a balanced diet low in saturated fats and sugar, along with plenty of fruits and vegetables is sound advice. Exercise is important but individual differences on best exercises for you and your body is as varied as food.
I suggest, the LEARN method to improve memory: Listen (pay attention), Elaborate, Associate, Re-tell, and Night (get a full-night of sleep). To find more about this method, see my post on Learning Styles.
I have gone back to school now for thirty-one years in a row. Every year since 1st grade, through 9 years of undergraduate and graduate school, and now in my 10th year of college teaching I have looked at the world and my time in it from the fresh perspective of another school year. Not one year since kindergarten have I missed the combined nostalgia and dread children and young adults everywhere likely feel when faced with a fresh start. Consider some of your favorite back-to-school memories: new shoes and backpack, sharpened pencils and crayons, labeled notebooks, joyous reunions, and the smell (good and bad) of the school building. Yet, there are less joyful ideas racing back too: schedules, the end of care-free summer days, piles of homework, and potential problems with teachers and peers.
Studying memory, I am curious about my perspective of TIME through the lens of the school year. Perhaps with a continual re-set of a new beginning I will have better, more distinct memories for each year. Researchers and regular folks alike report that as you grow older life speeds up. This seems to be further compounded when you have children. I am constantly being reminded, to the point of nausea that time is moving too quickly after having children. Look at how much they’ve grown Aunt Dot exclaims year after year at all of those family gatherings.
Do you remember looking up at your parents with almost repulsive curiosity about why your relatives seemed obsessed about YOUR growing? I now see this sentiment centered on my own two small children. Just this summer as my 5 year-old prepares for kindergarten I have thought about how many times he has been asked if he is ready for school. If his experience of time is like most young children, and days and months seem to go on forever, chances are he is starting to think this kindergarten thing doesn’t even exist. Think of taking a two hour drive to the nearest big city. A young child may ask “are we there yet” close to fifty times, if you are lucky.
As we grow, our brains encode our experiences and these memories essentially shape who we are and how we see the world. This self-awareness or autobiographical memory is just starting to take hold in my 5 year-old; most of his previous memories, due to lack of language and neurological developments will fade into nothing. From now until his early thirties though time will seem like a cavern of possibility. I hope he will have no sense of a short life during this time.
If you are in your mid-thirties to forty chances are you are waking up most days wondering how you got to middle-age. Up to this point, time has been marked by autobiographical events (first days of school, graduations, birthdays, holidays, first loves, weddings, birth of children, death of loved ones) that keep stamping our idea of life with new ink. As we have these life memories not only are we creating a sense of identity but we are laying down our ability to think about our past. When asked to remember our past, reminiscing takes shape into a peak of special memories around twenties to mid-thirties. So if you to think about memories most central to who you are/most exciting/most personal, chances are you have what is referred to in memory research as a “bump” or inflection of events recalled during this time. As we age, we tend to have more predictable patterns to our lives (more stability in relationships and jobs). Without unique memories to partition out our lives, when we think back we perceive our life as moving quickly. Marcel Proust in his novel In Search of Lost Time captures this experience with the following, `Growing old; it was a funny thing to happen to a young boy.’ Being surprised now about being in my mid-thirties I have no doubt that if I am lucky enough to grow old, that like Proust I will feel a younger self trapped among the wrinkles!
Never mind being annoyed, if one more person tells me time flies when you have children….
I have become almost painfully aware that my children are growing up quickly. I can, however, take solace in that to their blissfully under-formed ‘autobiographical selves’ growing up seems to take forever. Being around school starts for more than thirty years I wonder…will the newness of each school year help time slow? Will I continue to make enough new and exciting memories to slow the passing of time?
*For a great read on time and memory check out Douwe Draaisma’s
Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past