Have you ever forgotten someone’s name?
Ever gone down into the basement only to wonder, at the bottom of the stairs, why you’re there?
Ever driven off-Cape and don’t recall crossing one of the bridges to get there?
When you’re over 40, or 50, or 70, you might fear that these memory lapses are a sign that Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are right around the corner.
If this describes you, local author Lisa Genova’s fascinating new book “Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting” (Harmony Books, 2021) is for you. “Remember” is Genova’s first non-fiction work.
In a one-hour Zoom presentation last Thursday evening, Genova spoke about her new book and answered questions from the online audience. The book launch event sponsored by Where the Sidewalk Ends Books in Chatham was attended by 71 people.
The bottom line is, many of us secretly fear that we’re losing our memories. Genova, who holds a doctorate in neuroscience from Harvard University, burst into the literary world with her novel “Still Alice,” which tells the story of a 50-year-old woman suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s. The bestselling book was made into a movie and Genova went on to write four more novels. Since “Still Alice” was published in 2007, Genova has recorded a TED talk, “What You Can Do to Prevent Alzheimer’s,” and traveled the world speaking about neurological diseases.
“Without exception, after every speech, people wait for me in the lobby or corner me in the restroom to express their personal concerns about memory and forgetting,” she writes in the introduction to “Remember.” Does she refer these people to a neurologist? She does not — she tells them that forgetting is “normal” and that memory is “a bit of a dunce.” This gives people a tremendous sense of relief.
When you ask yourself, “where did I put my phone, glasses, keys?” you don’t know the answer because you weren’t paying attention when you put them down. We remember things that are meaningful, new and have emotional import, Genova said.
To improve your memory, you have to pay attention to what’s going on.
And what about names? Genova said that she was once unable to recall the name of the actor who played Tony Soprano. She finally gave up and Googled the answer: James Gandolfini. Proper nouns, city names, Netflix titles — all these “live in neurological cul-de-sacs,” she said. While the word you want is “on the tip of your tongue,” you come up only with related words known as “the ugly sisters of the target.” The “ugly sisters” actually divert you from the correct answer. Hours later the correct name or title bubbles to the surface, and that’s “because you’ve called off the hunt.”
And guess what? This is normal. It even happens to 25-year-olds. “But they don’t sweat it,” Genova said.
As for going into the basement or the kitchen to find a tool or your glasses and then forgetting why you’re there, this is also normal. This is a function of poor “prospective memory,” which means remembering to do something planned for the future — namely, find your glasses, make an appointment, or water the plants when you get home.
Everyone is bad at “prospective memory,” Genova says, and “this is why we have ‘to do’ lists.”
“Flashbulb memories” are our recollections of where we were on events such as 9/11. We feel as though our memories of those events are accurate, but they’re probably not, because we “overwrite” the original, Genova said, and the memory changes with time. “It’s terrifying to think how much weight we give eyewitness testimony,” she added.
During a 20-minute question and answer session, she said that most adults retain no meaningful memories from before the age of four. Some of our earliest memories come from family stories that we have been told over and over again. People who are shown photoshopped photos can actually “remember” events that did not occur — this is known as confabulation.
Can grief impair your memory? Yes, because grief is a stressful time, and stress shuts off a part of the brain, preventing the retrieval of memories.
Sleep is a “very biologically busy time. It’s super important for every organ in your body, especially the brain,” she said. Chronic sleep deprivation causes a form of amnesia. She advised that people take particular care to sleep properly by limiting their caffeine, staying off electronic screens in the evening and even making sure the bedroom is cool enough.
“Every day is a chance to support brain memory,” she added.
And this brings us to the COVID-19 pandemic. She listed the top three stressors as uncertainty, lack of control and social isolation. The pandemic features all three in abundance.
“How many of you feel foggy?” Genova asked. “The menu of things that wake your brain up have shrunk.”
In “Remember,” Genova includes some guidelines on preventing Alzheimer’s disease. They include eating a Mediterranean diet, exercising and learning new things. (They do not include drinking red wine and eating chocolate.) In an appendix, she includes 16 tips on improving your memory — starting with “pay attention.”
Signed copies of “Remember” are available through Where the Sidewalk Ends at 508-945-0499.