My brain’s so last-millennium, but, hey, it works

The human brain is a powerful organ.

It’s so powerful that when you’re young or middle-aged, you don’t pay much attention to it. You don’t have to.

It’s there when you need it, helping you learn all sorts of complicated new stuff and remember things—even coming up with dazzling solutions to problems when you least expect it.

Facing the fear of forgetting

However, as you age and read scary news about Alzheimer’s Disease—and it’s all scary—you grow concerned. You may ask yourself whether your brain will keep doing what it’s been doing so well for so long.

Or will nasty plaques and tangles accumulate unseen in there and slowly wipe out your ability to think or remember or do the simplest task by yourself?

Or even if that doesn’t happen, how about your ability to remember the names of people and places and things from the distant past? Names of movies and TV shows and actors and baseball players and songs and co-workers. Names of all the classes you took and the people you went out with and the books you read and ….well, the list goes on.

I worry about this a little, and I’ve noticed that sometimes it takes a bit longer than it used to for me to recall a name. But I’m not really concerned because the way I see it: my brain is like a rolodex.

Don’t remember those? Well, before everything went digital, people had them on their desks at work.

The brain as a metaphorical rolodex

A rolodex had a stand and a wheel where you could insert cards with people’s contact  information.

It was sort of a status symbol. The more cards you had in yours, the more powerful you were. Which led to a sort of Rolodex Envy in some circles.

I realize that this metaphor is so last-millennium. Still it’s useful because—if you think of retrieving a name from a card on a rolodex—it’s clear that the more cards in it, the longer it may take.

Especially, if they’re all jammed in there haphazardly. And having cards in alphabetical order obviously doesn’t help, if you can’t remember the name of the person, place, or thing you’re trying to remember.

A real life example of how this works

A few weeks ago, I went to IHOP for breakfast. I got the Senior Special 2 x 2x 2 (skipping the 2 bacon stripes), paid the bill, and was on my way out when I heard music, the first four words of a song, “You….are….so….beautiful”

Only those words, and I was out the door. I said to myself, “That is…….[pause as the cards whirled by]…….Joe….Cocker.” I had his name before I got to my car, and I hadn’t thought of Joe Cocker for years and years.

You’ve never heard of him? Think Woodstock. Never heard of that? Well, it’s all last-millennium.

I’m not the only one

I didn’t think so much about this, until a week or so later when it happened again. Only this time, it happened to someone much younger than I. (Let’s call him Lawrence.)

We were chatting at a gathering when someone came up out of the blue and asked him the name of a little cake or biscuit which he’d mentioned months before when he was telling a story.

Lawrence was caught completely off-guard. He wasn’t expecting the question. He didn’t remember the name. So he went on talking to me. And a few minutes later, he said “kasutera.” That was it.

He had the answer; he just needed time to rifle through the rolodex cards. And he did it while he was talking about a completely unrelated matter.

How about you? Do you sometimes forget the name of someone or something that you know?  Do you worry when that happens? Do you do anything special to try to remember? Or do you just relax and trust that the answer will come? Do you ever get really frustrated and go Goggle it? I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

image by toky

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  • Haley Schaeffer 11/14/2013, 12:17 am

    Agree Carley! This is a great article and we are gonna share it soon so our students can use it as a resource.
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  • Carley Savoy 11/08/2013, 10:45 am

    Thanks for the story! We are trying to educate and learn more about dementia that consume the lives of seniors. Thank you so much for your work!
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  • Madeleine Kolb 06/10/2011, 12:31 am

    Thanks for the story, Arthur. I’ve read stories like that, but it sounds more like dementia than the ordinary slowing down of recall of names or other words that occur as we grow older. Usually, the name comes if you don’t force it. It’s in here along with all sorts of miscellaneous information from the past.

  • Arthur 06/09/2011, 3:03 pm

    Aging can be funny. This story is maybe not true but… two guys chatting at a bar and one asks “where did you holiday?” and the other guy says “Whats that green stuff growing over the garage?” His mate says “Ivy?” and the questioner turns to his wife at the next table and says “Ivy, where did we go?”
    I’m 77 and know the feeling! Can’t grow old gracefully so I’m doing it disgracefully like sending you this story. Take care and trust your intuition.

  • Madeleine Kolb 05/12/2011, 3:25 pm

    “I have NEVER remembered names even when I was very young! So nothing changed.”
    An excellent point. If remembering names was never your strong point, how can aging be the reason you’re not so good at remembering them now?

    “I learn only a few important words or phrases, or those more difficult for me in English as English is my 4th language. Or 5th.”
    I read of a study a few weeks ago that suggested that being multi-lingual protects people against Alzheimer’s. I imagine that much more study will be done.

  • julie70 05/12/2011, 1:09 pm

    I am 77 this year and yes, I do not remember – often – names, and I was worried 7 years ago. Until I did remember : I have NEVER remembered names even when I was very young! So nothing changed.

    I am still bad for learning a poem by root as I was at 12 years old, but thanks you a lot, my memory is not bad at all and when I construct a new story to tell, usually a personal story I tell at the theatre, I “embody it”. Learn it by imagining the scene in detail and when the time arrives give it back with the words that arrive.

    I learn only a few important words or phrases, or those more difficult for me in English as English is my 4th language. Or 5th. I am still amazed people love to listen to my stories and nowadays I do imagine and build them directly in English. Also of course, alas there are old people who forget with age, I am not sure we do forget, other then those ill, what is important to us, what we care about. As to the rest, do I really care about this person’s name? If yes, I remember it. Otherwise…

    Why should we remember things about which we do not really care? At any age
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  • Madeleine Kolb 04/27/2011, 8:54 pm

    @ Lynne, I know what you’re talking about, and it is truly phenonmenal! I’ve had this happen a bunch of times when I was trying to solve a problem, although it also happens when I’m just trying to recall something.

    It seems to work best when I’m doing something repetitive or relaxing, such as taking a walk or taking a shower. It can also happen upon awakening when the brain is not fully charged up yet, i.e., before coffee. The wonderful part is that the brain comes up with some really creative ideas at these times.

  • Madeleine Kolb 04/27/2011, 8:40 pm

    @Sue, That’s really interesting. It occurs to me that remembering a number is different from remembering a name. When I forget a name and then remember it, I have a feeling of relief. I know that it’s right and not just close. But if you “remember” a number, it seems as if you wouldn’t have that feeling. I don’t know, but I’d guess that the brain handles names and numbers differently. Thanks for sharing this interesting example.

  • Lynne Spreen 04/27/2011, 6:34 pm

    I subscribe to the “full Rolodex” school of thought – if I’ve got THAT MUCH in my head, after all this time, of course it’s going to take me longer to get it out. But I learned a trick that helps:

    Think of your brain as running on two tracks simultaneously. Track 1 is what you’re aware of now. Track 2 is your subconscious. While you’re running on Track 1, your brain can be working Track 2 if you give it enough contextual information. So if you are trying to think of a name and can’t, just think of everything related that you possibly can and then forget about it and continue on Track 1. For example: Joe Cocker. Woodstock. Richie Havens. Freedom! Mud. Farmer Yasgur. Etc.
    Your brain will continue searching based on the contextual info you’ve given it, and when it finds the answer, it’ll cough it up, even if you’re in the middle of dinner, a spirited conversation, maybe even a dream. I wish I knew the scientific foundation for this phenomenon, because it is phenomenal!
    Best wishes.

  • Sue T 04/27/2011, 5:57 pm

    Normally I just have to wait for the item/word to show up. I forget names (this has gone on for a long time), particular words (ditto) … but recently I forgot my debit card numerical password. There was a little damage to the card, so I had the bank reinstall the password and tried it; it worked OK. However, about three weeks later I finally remembered the real one, and realized the one I had the bank reinstall was a previous one. So I even forgot that I forgot. Yuck. Now when I use the card, I have to remember to use the “new old” number, not the one I “want” to use. This may be a good thing (I think), because I have to remember both of them.

  • Madeleine Kolb 04/27/2011, 5:25 pm

    Hey Angela, I agree that relaxing and trusting that the answer will surface is the best approach. Trying to force it seems to only make things worse.

    Another way to keep the brain working well at any age is exercise. There is a vast amount of data showing that “What’s good for the heart is good for the brain.” And it makes perfect sense because the brain needs a good supply of oxygen and glucose to do its job just as all the other organs do.

  • Angela Artemis 04/27/2011, 5:02 pm

    Hi Madeleine,
    Great post. I do find that I forget things more often, I’m attributing to being under stress though – not age. I’m not ready to accept that. I do agree though that as we get older we’ve stored a massive amount of data and it is not unlikely that our brain is going to have to search more to find this information, so remembering could take longer.

    I usually relax and trust that the answer will surface in due time. I’m also taking a lot of anti-oxidants which I believe helps memory.
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