Nancy’s Memory Model
I’ve worked with many people with memory problems before becoming one of those people myself and I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, so I’d like to share some of my conceptualizations of human memory. It may help you to understand what is happening in your own brain (although in a non-scientific way) as well as to understand those aging around you. Sometimes if we can make sense of things like this, it helps us to be more patient and less blame-ful. This is useful for those around you and for the one closest to you (yourself).
Connecting the Dots and Filtering ———- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Have you ever noticed how different people’s memories of the same event can be? Our perceptual world is so complex that many people can observe the same thing and see very different scenarios. You may be familiar with the story of the seven blind men and the elephant (or was it six?). They attempt to identify it using other senses. So one feels the tough hide and guesses a crocodile, another feels the trunk and thinks it’s something more like an anaconda. A third feels the tusks and believes the animal is hard, smooth and narrow. This misidentification continues across various aspects of the elephant, without even considering smell or sounds. In a similar manner, we each see and otherwise sense different parts of the same event. Especially when you factor in a time delay for remembering that same event, I think of it as a picture with many holes in it. For two people with good vision and memory, those holes are small and the memories are similar. Like the start of the dashed line above, it is easy and clear how to fill in the gaps. However, if a person has a brain injury, dementia, or other impairment, the holes can become very large. As they become larger, the stories may become much more disparate or even outrageous as the person attempts to make sense of the fragments that remain. For an example, I saw a woman in the nursing home who was missing her mother and wished her mother would come to visit. I finally asked the patient how old she was, to which she quickly and correctly responded “90”. I mused “Wow. Your mother must be getting REALLY old.” She answered “Oh, she’s younger than I am.” She went so far as to make her mother younger than herself to preserve the idea that her mother was still alive and to make sense of what she had been saying. Fascinating, isn’t it? The phrase “your argument doesn’t hold water” fits so well if you visualize the brain as a big sieve. The worse someone’s memory, the bigger the holes s/he has to fill in to make the story. Somewhere, we psychologists begin to call it ‘confabulation’, which essentially just means that s/he has to fill in bigger holes than we do, but we often interpret this as something totally different as if they are making things up and we don’t.
Our memories also vary due to ‘selective memory’, akin to ‘selective hearing’. We tend to remember what is important to us for whatever reason and forget things that don’t mean much to us. Since we each have different values, interests and emotional responses to things our memories pass through all those ‘filters’ causing huge differences even in people who consider themselves similar to each other.
Searching in the Closet
Another way I think of memory is a giant storage closet. Most of us have ways of organizing our ‘stuff’ (internal or external) so that we can find it when we want to use it. I tend not to be much of a housekeeper, so I have trouble finding things fairly often. I’m afraid my brain is like that, too. Now I think there’s too much in there and things either fall out or I simply can’t find them. Often I KNOW it’s in there – SOMEWHERE. Names seem to be particularly difficult, perhaps because they don’t necessarily mean anything about the person they’re connected to, whereas other words usually have some consistent meaning. Lately, I’ve been cheering myself when I get a name right! The other day I got two at once! Most things are stored in more than one place. Much as I try to always put my keys in the same place, sometimes I forget and leave them in my pocket or put them down in a random place and then can’t imagine where that was when I need to find them. Memories are stored in multiple ways so I can’t always find the name by going through the alphabet or thinking of how I knew the person. It may take another cue or associated memory to refresh the name I’m looking for. I’ve heard that the brain keeps working on it after we quit, which explains why that darn name may pop into our heads a couple hours later.
The ‘crooked knife cabinet’ featured above was made (by my talented husband) for a gentleman to store his collection of crooked knives. This example of organization and fastidiousness provides a marked contrast to my haphazard style of throwing things in the closet. It helps make the point of how different people’s styles, brains and memories can be! In fact, the picture I found is without the drawers (which are beautiful, too) so this might actually exemplify someone with a great storage facility but some significant challenges in the organization. The brain is so complex that all things are possible.
So next time someone recalls an event differently from what you remember, try to understand that you may just have perceived different parts of the elephant and you may have located different pieces in your memories. If s/he keeps repeating the same information, s/he may have a more serious problem and not know s/he just said it. This can become extreme. I’ve seen a man who didn’t know he’d just had three cigarettes and been sick (so he wanted another) and one who didn’t know that he was having gall bladder attacks due to eating too much candy, so he would raid the candy machine and eat as many as he could get his hands on. After the social worker started to keep a bag of his candy bars for him so that she could help ration them, he became upset one day that he couldn’t get HIS candy so he called 911. I believe people do the best they can with whatever abilities and disabilities they have, or however their memories resemble Swiss cheese. Thinking this way helps me to be more accepting.
Silver Nugget #1: If you start to become frustrated with someone else’s “misperceptions”, envision their brain with holes in different places and different sizes from yours and with different filters and try to cut each of you a break. Sometimes it’s tough to fill in those really big holes!
Silver Nugget #2: Calm down when you can’t find something in your ‘brain closet’. Maybe if you back up and relax it will fall out!
Next week: “Tricks to Trade” I’ll share more memory stories and tips for remembering. Enrich the blog by adding yours!