I’ve been thinking a lot about how the brain learns and unlearns. As we observe my husband’s mother, who is deep into the latest stage of dementia, we see that she is unlearning on a daily basis. Unlearning seems to mean that she has lost the ability to retrieve and process much of the information that resides or resided in her brain.
On the other hand, my dad and many other people his age, continually joke about memory, or more specifically forgetting things. One has the sense that, as they consider and reconsider memory issues, their brains are functioning quite well.
Fiftyish, aging child that I am, I frequently try to remember something, but then find I cannot quite retrieve the information. Who doesn’t talk about “senior moments?”
About eight or nine years ago at Brown University, where my daughter attended, I learned a lot about memory listening to a 45 minute parents’ weekend lecture. The neurology professor, whose name I cannot remember just now, shared some interesting and reassuring facts.
- As we get older, we file information less efficiently in our brains, and when we do file we are less effective at cross-referencing.
- With fewer cross references it can be harder to locate a “forgotten” fact we are seeking, especially if we haven’t thought about it for a while.
- When we search for a bit of information, a chemical marker (neuron?) goes out searching for it. I picture this process rather like warp-speed searching through a drawer of an old-fashioned card catalog.
- The brain’s fact search continues until the information is found then notifies us that the search is completed, which is why an hour or a day later I suddenly wake up in the middle of the night or remember something at a funny time.