For 30 years, I have talked to people about their memories and, as a neuropsychologist interested in amnesia, I am very interested in brain areas that mediate learning and forgetting.
How memories work
A core brain structure for memory is the hippocampus. The hippocampus (the Greek word for seahorse) is shaped like its namesake. It plays a key role in the consolidation of new memories and in associating a new event with its context (e.g., where it took place, when it happened). For example, you might hear the name Princess Diana. The hippocampus may activate verbal associations (e.g., she was part of the Royal Family), as well as memories of particular images or experiences. When Ihear the name Princess Diana, I recall my brother telling me of her death as I descended the stairs of his home on Cape Cod. I can picture that moment in my “mind’s eye.” Despite my age, my (relatively) intact hippocampus allows me to retrieve a complex set of images and ideas that remind me where I was and who I was with when I heard the sad news of Princess Di’s death.
Memories that last
Some memories seem to age well. Recall of specific “flashbulb” events, such as the death of John F. Kennedy, or where you were on September 11th, 2001, seems unblemished and unchanged over time. However, in reality all memories, even flashbulb events, are malleable; they change as a result of the passage of time. They shift each time you call a memory to mind, as they are affected by other memories that have overlapping elements. As a student of memory, I am just as interested in long-term forgetting as I am in remembering. I am particularly intrigued by changes that take place with regard to autobiographical memory. Autobiographical memory is the foundation on which we derive a sense of who we are, what we find rewarding, and how we define our world. It is integral to how we construct meaning and purpose in our lives.
Autobiographical memory as we grow older
As we age our personal memories become fragile. They become less accurate and lose context. People with neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease are particularly vulnerable to the loss of personal memories, due to the combined effects of their neurological condition and the aging process. They no longer have the same access to important milestones that helped define them. The importance of autobiographical memory is often overlooked. People come to me to ask for assistance with memory skills. I teach them all I know about mnemonic techniques to enhance face–name associations. I review cognitive strategies for new learning. I rarely talk about old memories… their first day of school, their first kiss, music from teenage years.
Tending to autobiographical memory
More recently I shifted my focus in conversations with people who want to talk about memory. Together with a therapist colleague, I started the “memoir project.” Why? I want to help highlight the important role of personal memories in maintaining a strong sense of self. People, even those with mild dementia, are encouraged to review important life events by using personal timelines to identify, for example, key events, food, music, and people who contributed to their sense of self. They may contact childhood friends, college roommates, and family members to remind them of shared experiences and to augment past memories. They often receive memory “gifts” as a result of these conversations — filling in the gaps in a memory that was beginning to fade. And of course, documentation and journaling are critical strategies. The stories people have shared with me have been fascinating. More important is the joy of reminiscence they experience.
Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Hebrews 4:12 | NIV
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Ephesians 6:10 NIV
Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. 1 Chronicles 29:11 NIV
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. Mark 12:30 NIV
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. Ephesians 3:20-21 NIV
So he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.” Zechariah 4:6 NIV
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18 NIV
For who is God besides the Lord? And who is the Rock except our God? Psalm 18:31 NIV
It was not by their sword that they won the land, nor did their arm bring them victory; it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your face, for you loved them. Psalm 44:3 NIV
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. Romans 1:20 NIV
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. Colossians 2:9-10 NIV
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