We’ve been watching National Geographic’s Emmy-nominated series, “Brain Games.” With interactive games and hidden cameras, this show reveals how brains process information related to topics like stress, addiction, competition, food, trust and language. And, of course, memory.
One episode on memory, “Remember This,” starts out by stating that memory is faulty. Almost immediately, we become witnesses to—along with about 20 other unsuspecting participants in the film—a mugging in a park.
A police officer starts interviewing the witnesses to find out how many people were involved, what they looked like, what was stolen, what they were wearing, and other pertinent details. It becomes absolutely obvious that not one person can remember all the details. Ironically, those most sure of what they recalled seeing or hearing are the least likely to describe details correctly. And as interactive audience members, we, too, realize that memory is unreliable.
In essence, our short term memory doesn't save everything it sees. It is highly selective. The brain’s hippocampus receives information sent by our senses and then must decide what to reject and what to save. Information for saving gets sent to long term memory for later recall. Anything else will be lost from short term memory in about 20 seconds.
There is no permanent mechanism for storing short term memory. It is built to help you function in the moment. Open the fridge and take out the milk, find your car keys, close the door to the bathroom, cross the street. Only by creating a narrative with the items you want to remember can you possibly lock details into your brain and move information from short term to long term memory.
Some information is so primal and instinctive, however, that it makes an impression on your brain almost instantaneously. This includes faces. Our brains are hard wired to recognize faces by binding together elements and interpreting lights and shadows that create a three-dimensional shape. Sometimes just a part of the face—the shape of an ear, an exposed neck—are enough to allow for facial recognition. Think of Holocaust survivors who identified their Nazi guards without the slightest hesitation.
If you’re not certain about a memory, your brain sometimes makes things up. Unconscious transference occurs when you recognize someone or something and create a new memory based on your fragmentary existing memory. You reconstruct the fragments by filling in the blanks to create a whole. With so few fragments to work with, your memory might be different every time you think of a specific incident.
If you don't actively use memory, over time, you could lose it. Like most things we cherish in life, we take memory for granted. Without it, small chores like brushing our teeth or making tea would have to be relearned every day.
With the challenge of our selective short term memories, the degradation of our fragmentary memories, and our habitual use of rote memory in our daily lives, it’s a wonder we don’t all have some form of dementia!
Alzheimer’s is different. Alzheimer’s brains have an added physiological factor where amyloid plaques* accumulate between nerve cells and interrupt the brain’s functional ability, particularly in memory pathways.
As time passes, memory fades. As memory fades, it becomes vulnerable. This is true for all of us, but so much more so for someone suffering from Alzheimer’s. Watching this show made Mom seem merely further out on a memory spectrum than uniquely isolated in her memory loss. I know that’s not quite true, especially given Mom’s total disconnect from time, but it allows me to empathize as my own memory falters.
There are dishes I make almost every week that I remember without looking at the recipe, and then there are those dishes that, though I have made them many times before, because I make them more infrequently, I must use the recipe. Here’s one of those dishes—Chinese beef—that is always appreciated when I make it, but I don’t make it often.
This recipe reminds me of the chicken and vegetable leftovers Mom used to make, but with a bit more panache. Serve on a bed of rice.
1 lb beef, cubed
½ cup flour for dredging
2 Tbsp canola oil for frying (plus more if needed)
1 onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic
2 carrots, thinly sliced
1 head broccoli cut into florets
2 Tbsp soy sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
Pat beef dry with paper towels. Coat with flour in a small bowl or bag, then sauté in a large frying pan covered with a thin layer of oil. Cook meat in batches, browning on all sides. Remove to a separate dish. Sauté garlic and onions. When onions are translucent, add carrots. Cook for 5 minutes. Add broccoli and cook until broccoli turns bright green. Return beef to pan and add soy sauce. Cook a few minutes more, then serve.
*Amyloid plaques are sticky buildup which accumulates outside nerve cells, or neurons. Amyloid is a protein that is normally found throughout the body. For reasons as yet unknown, in Alzheimer’s, the protein divides improperly, creating a form called beta amyloid which is toxic to neurons in the brain. www.memorylossonline.com/glossary/amyloidplaques.html