Friday, October 21, 2011

Memory in Old Age

by Richard Crews
Loss of memory abilities in old age seems inevitable, but there is actually a lot we can do about it.

Most of us never learn to use our memories well as we are going through our younger years. There are two reasons: One is that our society, our culture (that is, our friends, family, and colleagues) do not expect it of us. They merely observe--as we do--that our mental abilities are sufficient for the life path we have fallen into.

The other reason we do not learn, in the first few decades of life, to operate our memory skills well is that there is no regular training program built into our education systems. In fact, the whole problem stays pretty well below the radar. One picks up along the way that if it is important to remember something, one needs to try a little harder, go over it a few more times, be patient, be diligent. But one is never taught the importance of developing colorful associations, emotional charge, explicit patterns, and multi-modal links.

These are not vague principles; they are specific techniques.

Some people learn them inadvertently along the way. Generally when one does, it is partial and haphazard. Or, because of a head injury or a particularly memory-intensive life opportunity, one is "forced" to confront them directly.

After learning the techniques, one must practice them over and over again--minute by minute, day after day--until they become habitual and automatic (as habitual and automatic as the partial skills and patterns we learned by chance along the way). Then one can remember a name, a face, a telephone number (or an email address), an appointment, a book title (or a URL) as well at age 95 as one could at 25--perhaps better.

If you want to follow-up on this, get a copy of The Memory Book by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas (available, used, from for $4.50 plus shipping). This is a small book; it was first published in 1976. Although I don't think it does a good job presenting the theory and scientific evidence, it is inspiring with compelling and colorful anecdotes, and it presents good practice exercises--especially chapters 2-5.

Please let me know your thoughts about all this. And if you get a copy of The Memory Book and study it, and practice its techniques, please let me know--a few weeks or a couple of months from now--how that works out for you.