Looking for your glasses? Trying to remember where someone lives? What’s their last name, their profession, or that book they said you should read? Becoming forgetful in later years is scary. Our brains are shrinking after all! But, there’s good news. Senior moments might not be quite the nail in the coffin we correlate them to be. Studies are starting to show that when you’re forgetful, it’s actually a result from a process that’s been going on in the brain your whole life. The issue turns up when you’re older because there’s more information to deal with. Here’s what’s really going on.
Filling up the Hard Drive
Imagine if you remembered every little thing that happened to you – ever. Every word someone said, every detail, emotion, recipe. At first it might seem nice, never searching for that thing on the tip of your fingers, but it isn’t really all that practical. Think about it. You recall things you prefer to forget, as well as what you enjoyed. Anger, frustration, boredom, mistakes, and loss would all remain constantly fresh in your mind. There’s a danger, not just in emotional health, but also in having so much information. Which of the last ten internet passwords should you use, for instance? Imagine remembering them all. Impossible. The brain doesn’t want this, so to remain efficient, it dumps what it doesn’t need, clearing space in its hard drive for something useful.
While it can seem very convenient that your spouse doesn’t remember telling you he hated your dress last month, it probably isn’t a lie. As touched on above, the brain is a meticulous machine that’s constantly updating and cleaning information. So, since some stuff needs to go, you might forget an insensitive comment, a factoid, someone’s last name that isn’t as important as the story they were telling you. The brain’s job is to make you function at the highest level in your daily life today – not yesterday, or fifteen years ago. Anything that doesn’t need to be recollected is lost. So if you can’t remember how to do something you used to do many years ago, and you have to relearn, it actually may be a good thing. Old, useless habits are gone, and you’ll relearn a task in a modern, more applicable way now. Your mind selects what it needs.
The General Idea
You probably encounter this a lot. You can’t recall the details, but the general idea is there. That isn’t your brain failing you, rather, it’s being efficient. Like a great editor, the brain keeps only what it needs (see above), and that means keeping what will be useful at a later date. The brain serves as a means to prepare for the future, so the general idea, actually, is all you really need. Memory becomes a representation of the past, rather than a snapshot with specifics. Maybe you really liked someone’s shirt, but you can’t recall where they bought it – the important thing, to your brain, is that you liked the shirt. Your brain isn’t worried about where to retrieve it, which is rather annoying, but at least it’s cost efficient. Generally speaking, having only the general idea is actually an indication of a high functional brain; so next time you can’t recall something, don’t worry, you just have a master mind.