Is it our imagination, or have people been getting more forgetful lately? The protracted stress of the pandemic combined with the gloom of the news headlines has seemed to make many of us otherwise normal folk feel like forgetful scatterbrains lately! So, we suspect it’s good news, in a way, when the Wall Street Journal publishes an article essentially saying that episodes of forgetfulness and memory lapse appear to be reaching epidemic proportion. (Note that article access may require a subscription.)
In her article, reporter Elizabeth Bernstein examines some recent data to corroborate the idea that people of all ages are having a tough time keeping things straight these days. As a means of coping with our news-saturated world, Bernstein also provides some insightful ways to address some of the root causes of stress-induced memory lapse. We hope as you read this that your reaction will be like ours: “Whew – it’s not just me.”
Senior Moments Aren’t Just for Seniors These Days
Bernstein begins the article with the story of Grant Shields, an assistant professor teaching a college seminar, who experienced a lapse in memory in front of his students. He had forgotten the name of his teaching assistant—an embarrassing mistake—and struggled to recover after the lapse.
But here’s the kicker: Bernstein writes, “Dr. Shields is 32 years old. He’s a memory researcher. And he was teaching a class on how stress affects cognition.” Ouch.
Moreover, Shields isn’t alone. “Short, temporary instances of forgetfulness—those ‘senior moments’—are happening to more of us more often these days, memory experts say,” Bernstein writes. “We’re finding it difficult to recall simple things: names of friends and co-workers we haven’t seen in a while, words that should come easily, even how to perform routine acts that once seemed like second nature.”
Between stresses and changes personally, locally, and globally, everyone is in a state of transition and flux. And those moments are rife with memory lapses, no matter who you are.
Like Computers with Too Many Open Tabs
Sara C. Mednick, a neuroscientist and professor out of University of California, Irvine, says, “Our brains are like computers with so many tabs open right now. This slows down our processing power, and memory is one of the areas that falters.”
It’s no secret that the past few years have added both chronic and cumulative stress to pretty much everyone’s mental and emotional plate. Bernstein explains, “Research led by Dr. Shields shows that people who have experienced recent life stressors have impaired memory. Stress negatively affects our attention span and sleep, which also impact memory. And chronic stress can damage the brain, causing further memory problems.”
The Cost of Information Overload
We live in an age of near-constant “TMI”: too much information. “We’re terrible at paying attention,” Bernstein writes, “constantly scrolling our phones while we’re doing other things, which neuroscientists say makes it hard to encode memories in the first place. And it can be hard to remember something out of context, such as the name of the co-worker suddenly talking to us in person, rather than on Zoom.”
The “new day, same routine” nature of our daily lives during the pandemic has made a difference, too. Since every day has felt essentially the same, it’s hard to remember what happened from one day to the next. Neuroscientist Zachariah Reagh puts it this way: “Memory benefits from novelty. When all of our experiences blend together, it’s hard to remember any of them as distinct.”
Some Memory Decline is Part of Aging
We all know that the declining of memory as we age is fairly normal, but the rate at which people age is unique from person to person.
Dr. Reagh explains, “Some studies show that memory ability peaks in people’s 20s and gradually declines from there; others suggest the sharpest decline starts around age 60. If you’re worried about your memory, you should see your doctor, especially if other people notice your memory loss.”
Boosting memory is something we can all do. Here are some recommendations from the experts:
Be gentle. “Forcing yourself to try to remember something is counterproductive. You’ll become frustrated, and that frustration allows the emotional part of your brain to override the parts of your brain that retrieve memories,” Bernstein writes. If you’re struggling to remember something, let it go for a while, take some deep breaths, and try again later.
Multitasking doesn’t help. Do one thing at a time so that your brain doesn’t have activities competing for attention. Give special focus to tasks you usually do on “autopilot”, like handwashing or brushing teeth.
Calm down. Your frontal lobe is responsible for memory-making, memory retrieval, and regulating your stress, so it’s important to “exercise” that part of your brain by letting it calm down. Daily meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, taking a gentle nature walk, connecting with a loved one, and quality sleep are all great ways to soothe your mind.
Wherever you are, be there. “Give your full attention to people when you talk with them,” Bernstein writes. “Doing so will help you better recall what you want to say in the conversation—because your brain won’t be distracted or overtaxed—and remember what was said.” This means putting down your phone, turning off the TV or radio, and really listening to what someone is saying to you.
Bernstein ends her article with a great quote from Dr. Jeanine Turner, a professor of communication at Georgetown University. “We need to approach each conversation intentionally,” Dr. Turner says. “If we don’t have a deep connection, how can we ever expect to remember what happened?”
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(originally reported at www.wsj.com)