We have been married for 57 years and there is one thing that has remained constant over the years and, in fact, is taking place more frequently as we age. It is this: We can be in the same place at the same time doing the same thing and have completely different memories of what happened. Generally, we are both convinced that our memories are the correct ones and have a feeling of sadness that our partner in life is so confused. Our memories of where we spent last Thanksgiving differ, we can’t agree on what we had for breakfast, or what a friend told us last week. And neither of us can remember where we put our cell phones. I think I remember feeding the dog this morning.
“The older I get the more clearly I remember things that never happened.” – Mark Twain
An article by Julian Matthews (sociology researcher, University of Leicester (England), in Neuroscience News, January 1, 2019, provides some insight into why we remember what we do.
There are three important aspects to memory:
- Encoding: how we get information to the brain
- Storage: how we retain information over time
- Retrieval: how we get information out of the brain
What we perceive is strongly tied to our past experiences and what we believe is coming. We all focus selectively, only seeing parts of what is happening to the exclusion of other things taking place. What we focus our attention on directly affects what we remember. This is why eye witness reports of an accident often differ. It is why we have different memories of what we did at the beach. Our memory depends on where we focused. We cannot focus on both the volleyball game and the pretty girl with the dog. Volleyball game? I don’t remember a volleyball game.
Memories are first stored as short-term memories and they can quickly go away as my personal experience demonstrates. Short-term memory dissipates quickly and becomes even more frequent as we age.
When we are storing messages, there can be blank spots in our memory where personal biases often fill in the blanks of missing memory creating a firm belief that something is true when it is only a stored perception, not objective fact. It is hard to let go of stored memory even when it is contradicted by objective facts or even video of an event.
Context plays a big role in how we store experiences. For example, if we lose our car keys, they are more easily found if we know we lost them in a room or the backyard. Focusing on the context of where the keys were lost, not on the missing keys alone, helps us remember.
Storage works better when events are hooked to previous experiences or memories. Julian Matthews points out the letters C,I,A,A,B,C,F,B,I are hard to remember unless they stored in a way that relates to existing memories. CIA, ABC, FBI is much easier to store and therefore be remembered.
Julian Matthews’s article refers to a study in the 1970s showing that we can store at least 10,000 pictures in our long-term memory. Most of us have better recollection when we associate events or things with pictures. For example, I could never remember the name of the cactus “ocotillo’ until I pictured an octopus sitting in a cup of tea. The name of the cactus is now easily retrieved.
How we retrieve our memories is a complex process because it requires combining objects, places, and people into a single meaningful event. This often results in the familiar phrase: “It is on the tip of my tongue but I can’t remember it right now.” Because long term memory is seeded in a long-established context and has been retrieved over the years, it is generally easier for aging people to retrieve than short term memory. As we are reminded most every day, such retrieval can include perceptions different from someone else’s memory of the same event.
INTERPRETATION OF MEMORY
Closely tied to memory is interpretation. For example, U.S. Constitutional interpretation should be about text and history, not personal values. And yet, all of us have difficulty separating our interpretation from objective facts and our selective memory. Personal history and biases always play a role in how we remember external events.
How do we figure out whose memories and interpretations are correct when memory seems to be in the eye of the beholder? While there may be no perfect interpretation of events, it is important we share our perspectives with each other in order to understand and appreciate the other and attempt to identify and agree upon external facts. While we may be tempted to ignore documented facts because they challenge our warped memories, it is all the more important to be open to shared experience and objective facts.
WHEN MEMORY LEAVES
6.5 million of the 54.1 million of us over the age of 65, or one in eight, have some degree of Alzheimer’s dementia according to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. The percentage of people with Alzheimer’s increases with age. When dementia is present it affects both the patient and the loved ones. Those with dementia may experience a wide array of emotions that are out of their control. It is important the loved ones listen and show they are there for them, try to enjoy the moment and not dwell on the future, and even use humor when it feels right. Feelings towards those losing memory are more important than agreeing on specific memories.
“I Remember It Well,” from the 1958 Lerner and Loewe film Gigi, is a duet about an older couple who remember their first date quite differently. It was originally performed by Hermione Gingold and Maurice Chevalier. The following excerpts are from the film’s classic song:
We met at nine. We met at eight
I was on time. No, you were late.
Ah yes, I remember it well.
You lost a glove. I lost a comb.
The brilliant sky. We had some rain.
You wore a gold gown. I was all in blue.
Am I getting old? Oh no, not you!
How strong you were, how young and gay
A prince of love, In every way
Ah yes, I remember it well.
As we age, our relationships depend not so much on our specific memories and interpretations that so often differ or may be lost, but on what lies at their foundation. The song reminds us that under the specific details of memory and interpretation rest love, care, and respect. It is this foundation that moves differing memories from judgment to understanding, often tempered with a touch of humor.
With love in his eyes the elderly Maurice Chevalier smiles at Hermione Gingold and sings, “Ah yes, I remember it well.”
Written by: Hartzell Cobbs
Hartzell Cobbs is the retired CEO of Mountain States Group (now Jannus, Inc.), a diverse nonprofit human service organization.
Now Available: THE MOON at the WINDOW
***All royalties from “The Moon at the Window” go to support the work of Smart Strategies for Successful Living.
About the Author: With a sprinkling of exuberance and vitality, Dr. Cobbs is an accomplished author of three books and numerous articles published in different venues throughout his life. Dr. Cobbs’ first book, Thanatos and the Sage: A spiritual approach to Aging (2008), offers a thought-provoking interpretation of the interplay between how to live life with meaningful intentions and the eventuality of coming to terms with death. His second book, Ravenwind (2019) delves into the raven’s role as it relates to Native American myths, legends, and folktales and global history. His reflections on the spirituality of living and dying depicted in his books are threaded throughout the short essays posted on the website for “Smart Strategies for Successful Living” and in his latest book, The Moon at the Window.
Smart Strategies for Successful Living provides an international format for writers to share research, thoughts, and experiences on aging well. One of our writers, Hartzell Cobbs, has compiled and edited articles from the past four years and put them in book form. “The book reveals the thoughts and emotions old age has dealt me” says Hartzell. “I have been surprised by how many aging people have similar experiences to my own.” The book has its genesis in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, and concludes with reflections in the silence of the Arizona desert.
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On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, a special thanks goes to Hartzell Cobbs for his brilliant works as a guest writer and for donating the book royalties from “The Moon at the Window” to us. We greatly treasure his talents and generous support of our website.