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Remember When....

A good memory serves us well.  Our recall of directions, people’s names, answers for exam questions – all these and many more useful morsels – helps to position us for success in life.  Most of our present choices and future plans are served in one way or another by our recollections of the past.


Researchers refer to the primary means of achieving this recall as adaptive memory – an evolved system by which we improve our reproductive fitness and odds of survival.  Remembering the past merely to impress others may build self-esteem, but surviving and procreating are critical enough to merit their own unique memory realms.  While your computer’s disk drive may be cluttered with all sorts of trivia, your brain is thankfully a bit more selective.


First introduced by a study published in 2007, the basic methods for studying adaptive memory have since been adopted many times.  Subjects are told to imagine themselves in random scenarios involving survival, moving and pleasantness.  Pop quizzes to evaluate memory recall help researchers pinpoint the so-called survival advantage.  The brain’s development of image processing precedes that of language, and both images and words are classified and saved with similar priority.  If you’ve crammed at the last minute for a final exam, or experienced time pressure while working through a critical problem on the job, you understand the survival advantage.  Our brains are hardwired for self-preservation.


As we age, our priorities shift.  Survival and reproduction lose their urgency.  The past and the future swap places for our mental focus.  Psychiatrist Dr. Robert Butler, who specialized in geriatric medicine in the sixties, was a pioneer in reminiscence therapy – a non-pharmacological source of comfort for older folks.  Dr. Butler found that things which activate the senses – the scent of a special flower, the smell of fresh-baked bread, the sounds of a favorite song, the sight of old photos – also stimulate more vivid memories.  Accompanied by conversational prompts from a therapist or loved one, the stories often pour forth.  It appears that the brain has set many of these old memories aside to be revisited in our later years. 


My wife and I recently spent an evening with her mother, who is in her 99th year.  Mom enjoys a good laugh, perhaps even more so now that the weight of the world (and of raising 7 children) has been lifted from her shoulders.  She loves looking at pictures reminiscent of her past, and sharing the stories that these evoke. 


After adorning her with a fresh flower lei, we joined in watching a slide show of our recent trip to Hawaii, where Mom had once lived.  The familiar scenes, the Hawaiian soundtrack and the orchid scent captivated her.  The video of several family members attempting the Hula brought a sweet smile to her face.  She began telling stories from decades past.  Mom’s recollections seemed to enhance her self-esteem, as if forming a legacy that will bring joy to her remaining time on this earth.


Her amazing memory serves her well.



Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life.  In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics.  Paul has over 50 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders.  His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.




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