Failing memory

I’ve been a little concerned of late that I’m losing my memory. Or at least that it’s nowhere near as good as it once was. Of all the bads that come with getting older, I fear those that concern the brain the most. My heart goes out those suffering from Motor Neuron’s disease. What it must be like to have an active, engaged brain, while your body shuts down bit by bit is beyond even my vivid imagination. To have a perfectly fit, active, healthy body while your brain unhinges is the stuff my nightmares are made of.

I had a couple of incidents in Costa Rica recently whereby I would have bet the house that I was right, that I’d done what I said I’d done just minutes before. There wasn’t a shred of doubt in my mind. I was 100% certain that I was right. 100% certain. And both times, witnesses told me I was wrong. We’re talking minutes here – the times it takes for a bartender to mix a drink or a waiter to bring the food to the table. And it scared me senseless. I can feel a cold sweat breaking out even now, as I write.

I’ve been watching myself very carefully since and while I have no incidents as serious as those two, I have noticed that my memory is going. It’s getting worse. And yes, a lot of it is walking into a room and forgetting why I was there. Or going to the shop and coming home with everything except for what I went for. Or trying to find my way back to whatever it was I was doing before I got diverted online. Those I can put down to being busy, too busy to be mindful. But the Costa Rica episodes? I can’t explain those.

Meeting up with cousins over the weekend, it was natural that childhood stories would be retold. I have very little recollection of any of them. I have no memory of being in places with people in a given year. And what’s worse, I can remember clearly being places with people in a given year when everyone else swears I wasn’t. So is it me, or is the world wrong?

Working on some course text recently, I came across a reference to a conversation written up by Plato around 370 BC: Phaedrus.  Theuth, the Egyptian god of inventions, was telling King Thamus of the advantages of  a new technology: writing.

Here is an accomplishment, my lord the king, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure recipe for memory and wisdom.

Sounds just what I need. But Thamus was a little sceptical.

Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of their own internal resources.

I’m with him there. I have my lists. I even have lists of lists. If it’s not written down, then I’m guaranteed to forget it. And perhaps in relying so heavily on lists, I’ve lost the ability to remember. I used to be able to rattle off phone numbers and now the only ones I know are my parents’ landline, the landline of a house I lived in in Dublin, and the number of my bank. And that I blame on technology – it’s made it far too easy for us to forget. The list of birthdays I can recall without any aide memoirs is dwindling. As for anniversaries? Enough said.

Anyway, Thamus goes on:

What you have discovered is a recipe for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instructions, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom, they will be a burden to society.

Damning words indeed. In memorising facts, we can sound far more intelligent than we are. In trotting out quotations, we can approach a modicum of wisdom that is suspect at best.

This does nothing to assuage my concern that I am losing my mind – but it comforts me to know that it was being talked about thousands of years ago. I might get lucky. I might get to the end of my days with some grey matter intact. In the meantime, it’s back to practising mindfulness. If I could only remember what it is…

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2 Responses

  1. I definitely empathise with these thoughts. I think it’s important to differentiate personality and habits (some lack of focus and the habit of taking care of 10 small tasks on your way to that room), normal aging (it happens — and while I don’t want to get old, it’s either that or die young), and disease. Neurological disease is what terrifies me. The other two I can handle. BTW, I love your application of Thamus’ advice.

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