“Ninety percent of remembering is paying attention.” The scientist definitely got the attention of an audience of 1,000 family members of people with dementia at a conference in West Palm Beach. Those scanning their smartphones squirmed guiltily.
“Most people have to hear something new five times before they really get it – even very smart people,” continued Ron Davis, chair of the Scripps Florida Research Department of Neuroscience. “And it helps to have restful sleep in between to remember long term.”
That brought to the microphone the boomer mother of a 14-year-old. “When my son does his homework, he’s also texting with his friends and listening to music and playing video games – how can he possibly be paying attention?”
The current younger generation grew up with massive assaults on their attention, Davis explained. “They have adapted to it. Their brains are wired differently than their parents’.”
This was not the answer the frustrated mother wanted to hear. She wanted reinforcement to pull the plug on the parallel universe of her digerati son.
Davis sympathized. He’s a boomer, too, just 50ish, with a father and uncles who developed dementia. He reminded the mom that boomers grew up being disciplined to turn off the TV and music on the radio while we studied, and we didn’t have smartphones or video games. The experience of our adolescent years sets up the platform for how the brain works. And scientists have learned from advanced imaging how very plastic and adaptable the brain is from about the age of three through adolescence.
“So it may well be that today’s teens and twentysomethings need to have a multi-sensory experience to learn well,” Davis said. That relieved only some audience members at the conference put on by Alzheimer’s Community Care, an organization that provides day and home care for people with memory disorders.
What about all of us over 40? How do we save our memory when we’re bombarded by a chaos of stimulation? New studies on fruit flies give us good answers. In flies given a single episode of learning, memory formation lasts only a day. But flies given learning spaced out over several episodes are able to remember up to seven days, which in fly brains is equivalent to seven years in humans. This leads to a crucial tip for improving our memories: Space your learning about things that are important.
This is called ”spaced conditioning,” and it is found across all species. “No one really knows why it’s important to long-term memory formation,” says Davis, “but there appears to be something magical about rest periods during learning.” And get restful sleep if you want to consolidate what you learned and still be able to retrieve it months or years later.
The newest direction in memory research suggests that we also have a mechanism for “active forgetting.” This “key” in our brain allows us to save room on our hard drive by deleting memories that become irrelevant over time. This could support the argument of high school students who complain, ‘Why do I need to take calculus to get into a good college when I plan to be an English major?” (Teachers’ answer: To learn how to calculate limits and to develop an intuitive understanding of continuity.)
But we often have problems retrieving things we know — names of dead poets, the star of a 20-year-old film, a grammar school teacher.) These are the “tip of the tongue memories” that won’t come to our minds on immediate demand. Wait five minutes. Don’t think about it. Your brain is still trying to find it. You’ll make it easier if you don’t keep impatiently clicking your neural “mouse.”
Most of us over 40 — okay, 50 — have some trouble sleeping through the night. That’s a natural accompaniment to aging. So how do we cultivate the restful sleep that’s the magical ingredient in preserving memories? He admits to taking Ambien when he travels across time zones.
My secret is non-pharmaceutical. I believe in laugh therapy, so I make myself stay up to watch Jon Stewart and drift off in the middle of “The Colbert Report.”
Journalist and lecturer Gail Sheehy is the author of 16 books about adult life stages, including Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence. This story appears in USA Today