Apr 15

“Remember”: L. Genova On Forgetting

Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting is new nonfiction by neuroscientist Lisa Genova. Genova is also the author of several novels, including Still Alice, about a 50-year-old professor who’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It later became a movie starring Julianne Moore.

Although aspects of Alzheimer’s are addressed in Genova’s new book, Remember is more about the kind of memory issues everyone faces at times. As her publisher’s blurb reminds us, “Just because your memory sometimes fails doesn’t mean it’s broken or succumbing to disease. Forgetting is actually part of being human.”

The three-part structure of Remember includes How We Remember, What We Forget, and Improve or Impair. In brief:

  1. Remembering has a great deal to do with the amount of attention we give something. (Interested? Or not?)
  2. We forget a lot of things, and that’s okay. (Multitasking impairs memory.)
  3. There are things we can do to remember better. (Sadly, solving crossword puzzles is not one of them.)

In addition, from the Publishers Weekly review: “She explains the different kinds of memory (such as working memory and muscle memory) and the pitfalls inherent in each (such as how relying on working memory can lead to forgetfulness, and muscle memory can sustain bad habits), before exploring the functions of forgetting and the distinction between normal memory failures and something more serious. Genova blends popular science and self-help, providing lay reader-friendly descriptions of the function of memory and sharing tips for better memory in a helpful appendix.”

And from Kirkus Reviews: “In conversational language, Genova details how the brain processes events and how we have the power to help select what transfers from fleeting knowledge to long-term memory. For example, while it is common to forget the name of a person you briefly met, you can also train yourself to improve attention to such details and improve recall. ‘Memory is the sum of what we remember and what we forget,’ writes the author, ‘and there is an art and science to both.'”

So, how do we actually train ourselves regarding recall? One Goodreads reviewer says she learned the following: “…I need to pay attention to details I want to remember, decrease distractions, rehearse facts, self-test (quiz myself on what I know), attach meaning to moments, use visual and spatial memory, use lists, and keep a diary. I loved the idea to replicate context during memory retrieval, too. So if I study for a botany test while drinking a Mocha Frappuccino, I’ll try to drink the same thing while I’m taking the test so that I can recall information better.”

What about reducing your risk of ever getting Alzheimer’s? Suggestions include a Mediterranean diet, sufficient vitamin D, avoidance of alcohol (including red wine), physical exercise, getting adequate sleep, preventing and/or dealing with cardiovascular issues, managing stress, doing meditation, and learning new things.

Jun 17

“Forgetting”: Douwe Draaisma Sees As Inevitable Necessity

Whereas author Douwe Draaisma, a professor of psychology in the Netherlands, has already focused on the phenomenon of memory in such books such as Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes our Past (2012) and The Nostalgia Factory: Memory, Time and Ageing (2013), now his preoccupation is its counterpart, forgetting.

In Forgetting: Myths, Perils and Compensations (2015), “Draaisma’s mission is to persuade us of the necessity of memory absence and loss, and explain that what our brain chooses to forget teaches us much about the tiny fragments it blesses by retaining” (Jane Graham, The Big Issue).

As he’d stated in The Nostalgia Factory, forgetting is inevitable no matter what the memory-boosting marketers promise. “…(M)emory is not a muscle that can be built up through mental gymnastics,” writes Heller McAlpin, Washington Post, about Draaisma’s opinion.

Quoting him: “After the age of fifty we fight a dogged battle with forgetting — not for the first time, since this is something we do all our lives, but we tend to be defeated more often.”

Some Quotes From Draaisma’s Recent Interview With Gareth Cook, Scientific American

Roughly three in four first memories are associated with negative emotions.

Considering that we forget so much more than we remember, it is fair to say that the core business of memory is forgetting.

Sadly, or perhaps fortunately, there is no such a thing as deliberate forgetting. Rather the reverse, we seem to have a very tenacious type of memory for the things we would gladly forget, such as childhood humiliations, embarrassing situations or scenes you had rather not witnessed. But even if there were some technique of forgetting, of editing at will what you remember or forget, most people tell me they would hesitate to do so.

Without painful memories you may find yourself repeating painful situations. So, not being able to forget what you dearly would like to forget may actually be a blessing in disguise.

Some Quotes From Draaisma’s Interview With Yale Books

I was intrigued by the phenomenon that my dear colleagues sometimes remember my ideas, but seem to have forgotten that is was my idea. This is a case of ‘cryptomnesia’…When someone presents an idea, different aspects of this situation get processed in different types of memory. Semantic memory takes care of the meaning of the idea, its connection with other ideas, and so on. Autobiographical memory retains the fact that it was this particular person who came up with the idea. Semantic memory helps you remember the facts, the information, but does a poor job in retaining the circumstances in which you acquired these facts.

When you wake up from a dream you wake up with the final scene in the dream-story, for instance that you are trapped in a cellar. Then you try to reconstruct how you came there and may remember that you were hiding there because someone had entered your home. So you try to reconstruct your dream by following it against the direction of time, backwards. And this implies that you have no help of what normally helps you to remember stories, such as the fact that causes come first and effects later or questions first, answers later. And since working backwards is a time-consuming thing, the beginning of the dream will have faded once you get there. Remembering a dream is like watching the movie Memento.