One high school reunion and a bundle of memories spawn a bunch of headscratching. Welcome to Human Memory 101
You know, there’s a cold, cruel poetry to the phrase “over the hill”: At birth, we begin an uphill climb—struggling to stand on two legs, growing, learning, reaching for the stars, rising in stature and status, aspiring to great heights of achievement, etc. Arriving at the top of the hill—life’s peak—we bathe in the sun’s warmth, enjoying equally clear views of all that lies behind us and all that lies ahead. All too soon, however, we begin the inevitable decline, the slow march down the other side of the hill. The force of gravity tugs at our flesh and bones with increasing insistence as we gain momentum on our descent, gradually causing our spines and faces to droop earthward, as if in haste to merge with the soil that waits to reclaim us at our journey’s end.
You’re going to have to forgive me—I just got back from my 20-year-high school reunion, and I’m not in a particularly perky mood. Don’t get me wrong—the reunion was good fun, but there’s no getting around it: This was the freaking halftime party of my earthly existence, a rite of passage for me and 100 or so long-lost peers now taking our first cautious steps on the long hike down The Hill. (Well, to be honest, a couple of the people at the party looked more like they’d been bombing down that hill on dirt bikes for a while now.) I can’t think of a more appropriate setting to discover that, true to cliché, my memory really might be the first thing to go.
The trouble started when Jessie Mello, whom I hadn’t seen in the 20 years since graduation, strolled up to me from across the room. Now, maybe it’s some kind of Rain Man thing, but for whatever reason, I’ve always had an abnormally good memory—spooky good, as a matter of fact—so I was ready for Jessie: I remembered not only her name, but also her brother’s name and even the first conversation she and I ever had at a junior high assembly when we were both 12 years old. What caught me off-guard was Jessie’s purpose in approaching me: She wanted to apologize for punching me in the face at a party when we were in high school.
You’re going to have to forgive me—I just got back from my 20-year-high school reunion, and I’m not in a particularly perky mood.
I paused, Googling my brain cells for the incident in question. Nope, not there. Clearly, Jessie was either thinking of someone else or mistaking a revenge fantasy for reality. “Well, first of all, I accept your apology,” I ventured. “Also, that never happened.”
In the same tone with which you might assure someone, “No, trust me—you do want a breath mint,” Jessie asserted that she had, in fact, punched me. (It seems she’d misinterpreted a comment I’d made about her then-boyfriend and had been rather proactive about expressing her feelings on the subject, and she’d been carrying around some guilt about this little episode all through the two decades that followed.)
Bewildered, I scampered off to ask a few friends if they remembered this happening. The only person who had any information on the subject was my old friend Kevin, who informed me that yes, to the best of his knowledge, Jessie Mello did hit me in the face.
“Dude, get over it,” you say. “Nobody remembers everything that’s ever happened to him. Forgetting an event from more than 20 years ago isn’t a sign of decrepitude—it’s a sign of being human. So don’t play me all that weepy, Dust-in-the-Wind, alas-poor-Yorick shit.”
But here’s the thing: As I hinted a moment ago, I do remember almost everything that’s ever happened to me from about age 3 on. I’ll bet if you showed me a photo of my third grade class, I could tell you the name of every kid in the picture and describe his or her personality in detail. Plenty of people who were at the reunion can vouch for my oddly accurate memory: If they couldn’t remember who someone at the party was, they could discreetly ask me for the files, and I’d whisper, “Tim Brennan. He sold you a bag of oregano once,” or “Missy Reid. Pretty, but she’d need an instruction manual for a glass of water.” (Sadly, my memory is only above average in the realm of the utterly useless: Show me how to change a tire, and you can almost hear a fart noise as my brain forcibly expels the information, but damned if I can’t tell you who sang the theme song from The Never Ending Story.)
As someone who can distinctly recall walking into his second grade classroom for the first time, I found the idea that I may have forgotten getting hit by a girl in public as a teenager—which even someone with a crappy memory might have a shot at remembering—downright bizarre. I came away from my chat with Jessie Mello with roughly the same feeling most people might have if they’d just discovered that long ago, they’d been in a two-year marriage of which they had no recollection. This was about much more than getting punched in the face: For the first time ever, I became aware of a hole in my autobiographical memory … and peering through that hole, I caught a faint glimpse of the Kingdoms of Oblivion, the final destination of all living things.
Memory and the Brain
According to local author and neuroscience researcher David Jay Brown (myspace.com/davidjaybrown; mavericksofthemind.com), who studied learning and memory at the University of Southern California in the early ’80s and electrical brain stimulation at New York University between 1985 and 1986, the reasons that our memories diminish with age are largely biochemical and physiological. “As we age, our brains literally start shrinking, and they function less effectively in general, so they don’t consolidate new memories as well,” he notes. “Fewer neurons are produced, because stem cells divide less frequently in the brain, and studies show that older people have a more difficult time focusing their attention, i.e. filtering out irrelevant information.” He adds that as we get older, our brains tend to produce fewer neurotransmitters and become less responsive to them, and that there’s a loss of connections between brain cells as well as a decrease in blood flow.
“As we age, our brains literally start shrinking … fewer neurons are produced, because stem cells divide less frequently in the brain, and studies show that older people have a more difficult time focusing their attention, i.e. filtering out irrelevant information.” —David Jay Brown, local author
Brown states that although we tend to have more difficulty forming new memories as we age, we’re always capable of learning, growing new brain cells and forming new connections between them. “There are numerous ways to help compensate for the memory loss associated with aging: Mental exercises and cognitive stimulation have been found to help, as have certain herbs such as ginkgo biloba and nutrients such as choline,” he offers, also stating that cognitive enhancers such as Hydergine, Deprenyl, and Piractem have been shown in studies, as well as in his personal experience, to significantly improve memory and cognitive functioning.
On the other hand, having a faulty memory might not be the worst thing in the world. L.A.’s Jill Price, author of the book “The Woman Who Can’t Forget: The Extraordinary Story of Living with the Most Remarkable Memory Known to Science—A Memoir,” is possessed of—or by—a perfect episodic memory (memory of autobiographical events): Mention a random date from within her lifespan, and she can tell you what day of the week it was, what happened to her on that date and what happened in the world at large. (The reverse is also true: Mention an important historical event that has taken place during her lifetime, and she’s quick to produce the date of its occurrence.) Though some aspects of her condition are enjoyable, Price also frequently finds herself overwhelmed by negative memories, which she experiences as intensely as if they were happening for the first time. Interestingly, Price doesn’t have an exceptional memory for things like poems, facts and lists of numbers; it’s only her memory for events from her life that’s overdeveloped. Medical scans have revealed that her brain resembles that of a person with obsessive compulsive disorder, and some psychologists have speculated that her condition is a unique form of obsessive compulsion with herself and her past.
While Price’s autobiographical memory is by far the most complete one known to science, brain aberrations resulting in expanded memory capacity are not uncommon. A study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience in 2007 stated that people with a mutation in the gene for the a2b-adrenoceptor found in the amygdala (a part of the brain that plays a central role in processing emotions) retain memories that certain chemicals in the brain would gradually erase from the average person’s mind.
Approximately a third of Caucasians and 12 percent of African Americans were found to possess this genetic variation, which is specifically related to emotional memory as opposed to other types of memory, due to the fact that the a2b-adrenoceptor’s role is to imprint memories of events in which intense emotion causes the release of adrenaline. The importance of adrenaline in memory storage has been demonstrated in studies by UC Irvine professors Jim McGaugh and Larry Cahill, the former of whom has shown that rats retain information better when injected with adrenaline just after learning a task, and the latter of whom has demonstrated that blocking the effects of adrenaline can diminish human memory.
“Unless something happens today like you take out a gun and shoot me or something, I’m probably not going to remember this interview.”
— Avril Thorne, Department of Psychology Chair, UCSC
UC Santa Cruz Department of Psychology Professor and Chair Avril Thorne offers a vivid illustration of adrenaline’s role in memory formation: “Unless something happens today like you take out a gun and shoot me or something, I’m probably not going to remember this interview. What will happen is that this experience will go into a kind of script memory: ‘This is what happens when you get interviewed by a reporter.’ Unless something really unusual happens that gets outside of that script, I’m just bundling this experience into that little nodule that has the ‘interview’ script memory in it.”
Thorne adds that the most memorable events are those that are highly emotional, be they negative or positive. “It’s adaptive: Bad things tell us what can go wrong, and it’s good to know that if you put your hand on a stove, you’re going to get burned,” she explains. “It’s harder to figure out why people would remember really good events, but I think of it as a way of revisiting the good side and keeping your mood up: ‘OK, things could get better. Everything may be shitty now, but I remember that day when I first fell in love, and it was wonderful.’”
Our relative ease in recalling emotionally charged, adrenaline-raising situations provides a clue as to why memory may have come to be in the first place: as a means of retaining information important for survival and reproduction. (Consider the role of emotion and adrenaline in fight-or-flight situations and in procreation.) In the early stages of human evolution, people like myself, whose brains didn’t properly dispose of unimportant information, died off quickly, while folks like Thorne, who “bundled” data in order to better focus on information relevant to their survival, became our ancestors.
Forgive and Forget
Since returning from the reunion, I’ve e-mailed a few old friends in the hopes of finding out once and for all whether Jessie really did punch me. One of these people was Jade Bates, who was at the party where it supposedly happened. “My memory tends to be pretty faithful about such things ... and I’m getting nothing,” she replied.
Next up was Alyssa Brown, whose house was the site of the party. Her response: “I do remember you being punched in the face by Jessie, who, if memory serves, was, like, a ... girl. Dude: You got punched in the face by a girl.”
Finally, here’s what Kevin, who appeared in the first section of this story, had to say on the subject: “Asking me to recollect an event from 20 years ago is like asking Miley Cyrus to explain string theory. It’s not happening, dude. It’s weird—I can actually remember riding in an airplane when I was 2, but my teenage years? Nah. My id and my ego and the collective unconscious were doing some kind of post-modern dance art ... you know, the kind with the screaming and the flopping on the ground and stuff? However, the main reason I can’t tell you specifically what happened at Alyssa Brown’s is not just because of the nature of my Teflon-coated teen memory, but because I wasn’t there. I just heard about it. And from the barest breeze of a whisper of a memory that remains about the incident, Jessie Mello hit you in the face. Just know that my recollection is worth nothing, since what I barely remember is based solely on what I was told after the event occurred, by someone I’ve long since forgotten.”
You can draw your own conclusions as to whether or not it was me who got punched by Jessie at the party—all I know is that I just took a bunch of online memory tests:
and got absurdly high scores, especially for a grown man who snickers every time he drives by a Fuddruckers.
Looks like I’ve got nothing to worry about: Over the hill or not, I’m still an obsessive-compulsive, maladaptive mutant who would have been literally eaten alive back in the Stone Age.
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