Why are our memories getting worse?
Men have worse memories than women and the decline starts in our thirties. But something is making it worse
“I want to have those memories,” says Mike ‘Pretty Boy’ Hales. “I want to tell my kids about my career, the excitement, the journey. The places, the people. It’s a rollercoaster. I want to think back to good times, the way I think back to great moments at school. Memories make you happy.”
Mike, 21, is one of Britain’s most promising MMA fighters and, therefore, a man who, as part of his chosen profession, gets punched repeatedly in the head. Getting punched in the head is a well-known cause of memory-loss. This must be a concern for someone so keen to remember.
“I think I speak for all fighters when I say that you don’t think about it when you go into the ring. You’d be too worried.”
And he’s not worried now?
“No. I’ve met a lot of fighters who are really sharp. They train well and they fight well. I know guys who slug it out, or who spar too hard, who struggle to speak. But I try not have a hard fight.”
I hope he’s right. Today Mike is bright and eloquent. But as he tells me about one fight that sounded very hard, how he was elbowed and punched continuously for more than three minutes, and how he didn’t feel a thing while it happened, I fear it’s the confidence of youth – of someone who doesn’t yet know what it’s like when the hard drive in your head starts to falter.
We’re having this conversation because my hard drive is faltering, and I want to know why someone would willingly allow a big fleshy hammer to be taken to theirs. If you’re over 30, yours is faltering, too, by the way, because that’s when our memory starts to deteriorate, whether you’re getting punched repeatedly in the head or not.
It’s the age when the amusingly awkward yet unthreatening instances of forgetfulness begin to creep in: the tip-of-the-tongue pub quiz frustration, the mortifying name-blank. “He was in that thing with the woman and the hat,” you might say. Or: “Nice to meet you. Oh yes, of course, I remember. Lovely to see you again… Tony? Sorry, Caroline.”
To add some gender-differentiating salt to the wound, this decline will happen faster in men. So, should we be worried that, one day, ‘amusingly awkward’ will become ‘horrifically debilitating’?
“In general, we all lose some memory faculty,” says Dr Ronald Petersen, a professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic. “We all slow down a bit. Later, in your sixties or seventies, you might struggle more with names, have those ‘senior moments’, or find it harder to learn new things, but unless we suffer disease or injury, we get by.”
That’s a relief, right? Avoid the horrors of conditions such as Alzheimer’s and we shouldn’t notice much beyond the odd ‘intro round’ failure. It’s nature. Great. But what if our experience isn’t natural? What if we’re getting ‘senior moments’ when we’re not senior? What if our memories are malfunctioning beyond the norm? Worryingly for me, these are not ‘what-ifs’.
For years now, I’ve been forgetting names, places I’ve been and things I’ve done or said, even days later. I’m sometimes unsure if a memory is real, imagined, or both. My childhood is now just a series of snapshots, my twenties almost mythical and my autobiography burned before it’s been written. At my most dramatic, I feel like Marty McFly slowly watching his image fade from a photograph, as his existence, his identity, goes with it.
Again, I’m not alone. Again, it’s you keeping me company – and this time the problem isn’t so benign. Sorry. A 2013 Trending Machine poll in the US found that people aged 18-34 had become more forgetful than people over 55. As we have established, this is not how nature works. So what’s changing? And is there anything we can do about it?
“If someone in their twenties, thirties or forties is having these kinds of symptoms, it’s almost never disease,” says Petersen, responding to my anxiety-ridden question about a collective early dementia. “It will be other things. It could be medical or psychological, or it could be something else.”
In order to understand what these other things might be, we need to understand what memory is. We all know it’s important. We all relate to what ‘Pretty Boy’ Hales said. But memory is far more than nostalgic recollection.
“I think people underestimate memory,” says Dr Richard Allen, an associate professor at the University of Leeds School of Psychology. “It’s vast and complex and central to who we are and what we do. Without it we would be like newborn babies.”
What most of us think of as ‘memory’ is technically known as explicit memory, part of our long-term memory; it’s the pub-trivia mine and where we store life’s most precious moments. It isn’t like CCTV, though. You can’t leave the camera on and scan the footage later for relevant information.
“Memory is a filtering process,” says Paul Jarman, a consultant neurologist at HCA Healthcare UK’s Wellington Hospital. “You won’t remember everything, so you select what you want to remember, which means you have to pay attention. Those memories are then filed away. If you don’t file it, you will never have that memory.”
This long-term memory shouldn’t degrade with age. Quite the opposite.
“Working or short-term memory tends to deteriorate with age,” says Allen. “Long-term memory actually starts to increase to an extent from around 30. Its capacity is virtually limitless.”
For the unnatural rise in forgetfulness among younger people to occur, part – or all – of the memory process is being impeded. The spanner in the works, it seems, could be that catch-all culprit: modern life.
“I call it Busy Person Syndrome,” says Jarman. “Everyone is always busy, with work or family or life in general. They’re on social media, the internet, email. There’s so much information that it’s harder to absorb. We’re not paying attention. Parents who are on their phones while they’re with their kids won’t remember those moments. People on their phones at concerts won’t have the same level of presence. The information superhighway isn’t just causing a lack of focus, it has produced a false sense of memory.
Scientists at Harvard University, documenting their research in Scientific American, wrote: “Using Google gives people the sense that the internet has become part of their own cognitive tool set. The immediacy with which a search result pops on to the screen of a smartphone may start to blur the boundaries between our personal memories and the vast digital troves distributed across the internet.”
Memory has always been collaborative, to an extent. If you don’t know, you ask someone who does; you collectively recount shared events by bouncing your memories off each other. Now, with Google and chums, you have a god as a best friend. And while there are clear positives here for our collective memory, Allen suggests there could be a downside for our individual memories. “If we are using the internet as an external memory,” he says, “we might not be practising retrieval from our own. It’s so easy to get information that we don’t always use or need our long-term memory.”
It’s easy, and tempting, to blame the internet, but let’s not. There is no evidence to suggest that it has lessened our capacity to remember. Let’s instead blame ourselves for becoming lazy; for being so easily beguiled by the convenience, curiosity and temptation placed in our hands. We’ve all done it: headed straight to Wikipedia rather than trouble our own brains, had one eye and thumb on social media during a gig, had to rewind the TV because we were checking emails and thought we could concentrate on two things at the same time.
Some stresses of modern life are beyond our control – we can’t make the economy stable or stem the tide of 24/7 advertising, information and opinion – but we can choose how we interact with certain elements, and we choose, too often, to be Greek sailors distracted by the Sirens. This is an act of irresponsible self-harm. We’re probably risking our future memories as much as Mike Hales is risking his – but at least he’s trying not to get hit.
So how, apart from putting metaphorical wax in our ears, can we get back to being better at remembering things – autonomously, at least? Idriz Zogaj, co-founder of mental-health app Remente and memory athlete (Swedish memory champion 2004-08 no less), says training memory is like training your body; you just need the right techniques. I ask him for the simplest.
“If something is on the tip of your tongue, think around it,” he says. “If you’re trying to remember the name of a film, think back to where you saw it, who you were with. If you’ve left your desk to get something and forgotten what it was, imagine returning to your desk. It will often come back.
“To retrieve older memories, sit or lie down and relax. Let yourself daydream. In your mind, walk around your old school or your childhood home, and memories will start to kick in.”
And the easiest way to make new ones?
“If you like something or find it funny or intriguing, you will remember it. If you have a friend who seems to have a great memory – say, for conversations – they probably just take more of an interest in things, in details. So find a way to make what you want to remember interesting. Use your imagination. If you want to keep something, you need to focus on it. If you are distracted, you can’t focus.”
Petersen agrees: “People in their thirties and forties with memory problems need to slow down, to declutter,” he says. “People have to check Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, emails. It’s a flood of information, most of which isn’t important, but it takes up our bandwidth.”
It feels as though we’ve taken memory for granted; we’ve assumed, surrounded by this vast hive of information, that if we don’t remember, someone – or something – else will remember for us. We’re not only putting dust sheets on irreplaceable memories we stored in the past, but not paying enough attention to create new ones. You can’t go back and re-remember something. You can’t rewind life. You get one shot to keep what you see, hear, feel.
We need to take better care of our memory, use it more, give it something to do. The consequences of neglecting it are terrifying. The human race could enter a goldfish-like state where everything is new but slightly familiar. OK, maybe not that. But imagine the memories of the times you spend with your family, your friends, the incredible places you visit and sights you see, not being wiped from your mind, or misplaced, but never existing to begin with. Technology might tell you that you were there, but it won’t tell you what being there felt like.
“Take away memories and what do you have left?” say Zogaj. “Rather than ‘I think therefore I am’, it should be ‘I remember therefore I am’. We are nothing without our memories.”