27 May 2012

Oh Memory Where Hast Thou Gone

HEADLINE: Computer use plus exercise may reduce age-related memory loss 

A study by researchers at the Mayo Clinic shows that the combination of computer use and moderate physical exercise appears to decrease one's odds of suffering from age-related memory loss.
I wish the Mayo Clinic researchers had included me in their 926-person study. I would have told them their data were suspect because I’ve used a computer for many years, exercised for about a year, and my short term memory has neither improved nor worsened. I don’t fall into the 36 percent cognitively normal or the 18.3 percent that showed signs of MCI (mild cognitive impairment). 

As I have grown older, my short term memory has seemed to gradually disappear. Sometimes the loss has not served me, a reader and sometime writer, very well. In my last post on literature and genre, I forgot to include the URL of the essay to which I referred. My biggest sin in that post was not acknowledging my debt to Janice Law for her article on the subject in Criminal Brief on May 16, 2011. Also Deborah for her January 26, 2012 article in SleuthSayers.

Loss of my short term memory is annoying because it interferes with my reading. Memory is necessary in reading any type of narrative but it is especially important in reading fiction. E. M. Forster in his Aspects of the Novel says that fiction demands intelligence and memory. He goes on to say, “unless we remember we cannot understand.” The loss of short term memory can be disastrous in reading mysteries, for if it misses a clue and doesn’t recognize the red herring, the twist, or the surprises enjoyment of the story is also lost.

Thinking about memory and reading, I did what I always do, googled and binged the words “memory” and “reading” to get more information on the relation between them. I learned that two types of memories are involved in reading, and I suppose writing also, short term and working.

A definition: “Working memory refers to the processes that are used to temporarily store, organize and manipulate information. Short-term memory, on the other hand, refers only to the temporary storage of information in memory.” 
I tried wrapping my mind around that definition and concluded that it is a difference that is no difference. It certainly doesn’t help me with the problem of sometimes being unable to remember what I read on page 3 that now connects to what I’m reading on page 10. In my reading experience, I find that I not only must recall information stored in my memory, but also manipulate and organize that information if I’m to participate wholly in the story.

Like a writer whose creative juices have dried up, a reader whose short term memory has deserted him may slip into deep depression if he doesn’t do something to compensate. To compensate, when I’m reading pbooks, I put a pencil check mark near a word, sentence, or metaphor that I think I’ll need to remember later, and then mark the page with a paper clip or post-it. The system works reasonably well for me. Reading ebooks, on the other hand, I’m struggling to find a way to mark what I think I should remember.

The narrator in Stephen King’s short story “The Things They Left Behind” says “Memory always needs a marker....” I suppose it does. My problem is the marker has disappeared taking my short term memory with it.


  1. I try not to think of it as short term memory loss, but as cleaning out the little gray circuits.

  2. Louis, I can certainly relate to your column today, and you did a wonderful job dealing with the problem!

  3. Superb article on the topic, Louis. I wanted to say more, but I forget what it is.

  4. I've always thought that stress has a lot to do with short-term memory loss. Since I've retired and am no longer required to make so many decisions and do so much multi-tasking, my memory has improved...I think. But then if it hasn't; I might not remember.

    Great piece, Louis.

  5. Excellent article. Even though I know I am not alone with these little memory lapses, I like to see it all documented.

  6. An absent-minded professor once said his memory was like pigeonholes at an old-fashioned post office. At first he happily filled the slots, but as the pigeonholes grew full, things started falling out the other side. I think the man was right, Louis.

  7. Thanks everyone.

    Leigh, I like the post office metaphor.It's the way I feel sometimes

    Janice, I never thought of it that way, but hey, maybe it makes room for more memories that will be long term memories in the future.

  8. I try to see the memory lapses as mobile Swiss cheese - sometimes the hole's here, sometimes it's there, and sometimes I just have a plain great grilled cheese sandwich. I think...

  9. Frankly, Lewis, your post has me wondering if (hoping??) you might know which part of memory deals with connecting a person's face to his/her name. I have a terrible time remembering names.

    And, I’ve used several gimmicks suggested by others, over the years:
    (A) Ask the person to spell his/her name. I tried this once — the guy’s name was Bob.
    (B) Use the person’s name three times, in direct address, the first time you meet him/her. I tried this too, on numerous occasions. It never resulted in success. And, half the time I forget the name before I get a chance to use it a third time, anyway.


    P.S. Please don’t tell my wife, but this is the reason I called her “Sweetheart” for the first three years of our marriage.

  10. Excellent article! Thank you. Ron

  11. Dix,
    I know I'm in good company now, for I too can't remember names. Faces yes; names no. Some of my most embarrassing moments have been seeing a high school classmate at one of our meetings and not being able to call his or her name. And I'm editor of the class newsletter.

  12. (Laughing) Oh, Louis, I totally understand, buddy! Believe me!


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