Good news about memory | Sunday Observer

Good news about memory

13 November, 2022

When I was in school I had to memorise poems, meaning of words and grammatical rules. Although I really did not like memorisation methods, they paid rich dividends in later life.

Due to modern educational methods, memorisation is no longer practised. Even if you ask a student to memorise a poem, he is not obliged to do so. While teaching I would often ask which of the students could quote a poem. Only once did I even get a student who could do so. It is a pity that modern educational methods have ignored memorisation completely.

The main reason appears to be that students are no longer taught how to live, only how to pass examinations. As a result, a whole side of the self is gone forever.

Despite great strides in education, we often meet people with poor memories. You may have seen office workers ploughing through the papers on their tables trying to find something or the other. Some of us forget the names of people and where they live.

Still worse, you cannot recall where you left your bunch of keys or glasses. Psychologists have tried to find the reason for memory loss and why memory betrays us on crucial occasions.

Momentary loss of memory is quite common and you should not be worried about it. What is more, it is not a sign of Alzheimer’s. People between 65 and 75 face only a four-to-ten per cent chance of Alzheimer’s versus 20 to 40 per cent chance for those over 85. However, almost all of us will be tipped by forgetfulness as we age. Memory may begin to get a little shaky even in our late 30s, but the decline is so gradual that we do not start to stumble until we are in our 50s.


Neuroscience researchers have paid much attention to what is called ‘age-associated memory impairment’ (AAMI). However, they have found that memory still remains a mystery. The brain has billions of neurons (nerve cells). They have thousands of connections with neighbouring neurons. The pathways are so complex that even a supercomputer would not be able to keep track of them.

New information is absorbed and processed into memory in the hippocampus, an organ in the centre of the brain. The memories are stored in bizarre patterns in various parts of the brain. There is a separate part of the brain which remembers the names of plants and animals. In another part the names of machines and other man-made things are stored.

The brain remembers nouns and verbs separately. The memory power of children is stronger than that of adults. However much we are advanced, our memory begins to play tricks when we age. Marilyn Albert in her research found that lesser educated people suffer greater memory loss than highly educated people.

Although we distinguish between short-term memory and long-term memory, psychologists have come up with five types of memory. For instance, our semantic memory helps us to remember words and symbols. Even adults clearly remember the words they had learned as children.

Similarly, we do not forget religious symbols and trademarks. You can enlarge your vocabulary until death. That is why some newspapers and magazines carry vocabulary enriching exercises. Unlike children, adults are drawn to them.

Remote memory

Our implicit memory helps us to remember how to ride a bicycle or drive a car. They are skills that depend on automatic recall of a series of motions. I know of a man who drives a trishaw even at the age of 96. Even a very old person can swim if he has had some experience in swimming. If for any reason you lose the implicit memory that is a clear sign of mental deterioration.

Our remote memory stores data collected over the years from books, magazines, newspapers, or conversations. Remote memory is likely to diminish in old age. The process of diminishing could be delayed by constant accumulation of information as you age.

I have seen very old people copying important facts and figures in notebooks. They also try to understand complex grammatical rules. Some of them do crossword puzzles not to win prizes but to keep their brains active.

Our working memory is also called the short-term memory. This is necessary to work in an office or school. The short-term memory does not last long. A bank officer will know how many Rs. 5,000 notes are in a bundle and its value.

In conversation memory will help you to remember the other person’s name and his interests. It also helps you to remember several matters simultaneously. Sometimes you carry on a conversation over the phone while attending to a routine job.


Your working memory deteriorates in your 40s or 50s. You will also take a longer time to recall facts and figures. Most companies employ young people as cashiers as their working memory is powerful. If an elderly person is used for the job, he will find it difficult to do it properly.

You are also gifted with an episodic memory which helps you to remember recent events and experiences. However, your episodic memory weakens as you age. Then you begin to forget where you kept your glasses or the bunch of office keys.

Some years ago, postmasters had to learn the Morse code that was used in the transmission of telegrams. Some postmasters who were in their 40s and 50s found it difficult to learn the Morse code, while the younger officers completed the course easily. Similarly an older person will find it rather difficult to operate the computer. Such skills have to be learned when you are young.

Unlike cells elsewhere in the body, neurons do not divide. They age, shrink or die. When you reach 70 some of your neurons may be dead or so feeble that they no longer can transmit electrical charges efficiently.

However, you do not have to worry about it because there are billions more neurons remaining. According to research, although the brain cannot grow more neurons, it can probably sprout new synapses late into life forming connections with one another.

Good news

The good news is that the brain can grow more synapses when stimulated and challenged. Therefore if you are an older person, you have to engage in challenging tasks such as learning a new language or trying to remember a large number of difficult words.

Smart people process information very deeply. Some of them are interested in subjects such as artificial intelligence or logic. When you try to learn something new and difficult, you will build networks of neurons. You may have heard of famous people endowed with extraordinary memories. For instance, Julius Caesar could dictate four letters to his secretaries simultaneously.

Blind John Milton composed ‘Paradise Lost’ in his mind 40 majestic lines at a time and then recited them to a scribe. Conductor Arturo Toscanini knew every note of more than 400 scores, from Bach to Wagner.

War-time British Prime Minister Winston Churchill could recall so much Shakespeare that he could mouth the bard’s words from the audience, much to the distraction of the actors on stage. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates remembered hundreds of lines of source codes for his original Basic programming language.

With some effort any average person can boost their memory power. If you are unable to remember names, look at and listen intently to everyone you meet. Then quickly invent a dramatic image to associate with that person’s face and name.

University students use mnemonic devices to pass examinations. For example, if you wish to remember the five types of memories, remember the word WIRES – working, implicit, remote, episodic and semantic.

Do not let the brain idle, exercise it. At any age, you can study something new, exciting and challenging. Until a memory pill is invented, exercise your memory for better results. [email protected]