Memory, Self-Talk and the Age Issue

I went out to a party the other night in the middle of rural Berkshire.  A friend of a friend of a friend (how tenuous is that!) was having a party to celebrate an engagement.

It was at a farming tourist attraction where you can see deer and horses close up.  It was a bring-a-bottle affair with a cold buffet set in the main barn of the farm.

The entertainment consisted of listening to a three-piece band murder all of your favourite tracks alternating with an expensive CD player with a “hits of the 80s” CD; watching initially kids and then one-removed-from-sober adults use the play slides.

It is amazing how invincible a couple of glasses of Rioja makes some people feel); and then good old conversation with people you have never met before.

Invariably the topic headed by the question “…so what do you do then” always comes up if there is nothing else immediately interesting to talk about.  Fortunately I met some people who were extremely good conversationalists, very intelligent, opinionated (in a good way) and a lot of fun so we didn’t have to rely on the good old occupation topic of chat.

Now this is relevant because my new friends were unaware that I work in the memory improvement field and am considered by some to be something of an expert (well Mum thought I knew what I was talking about!).

Usually if people discover how I earn my living, I find myself giving an instant seminar on why people’s memory is not as bad as they think because invariably most people claim to have a bad one.

I am beginning to understand why doctors often keep their job secret because I’d imagine there is nothing worse than a request for an impromptu surgery… “ooh doctor, I have this rash…..”

Anyway so the point of this is that the topic of memory came up spontaneously in conversation when the lady I was speaking too suddenly complained that since she has turned 40 her memory has gone completely (an exaggeration there I feel :-) ) and she is convinced that it has literally dribbled out of her left ear (well that was the one she pointed to!).

She said her memory was nowhere near as good as when she was on her twenties and now at the tender age of 40-something she was resigned to being old and getting comfortable with the inevitable deterioration in her physical and mental abilities.

I was amazed that this intelligent and capable woman could, at what is probably only half way through her expected life span, suddenly write herself off to being old.  Sadly I am continually and regularly amazed that people like her decide at some point in their life that decline and aging are inevitable.

Of course we are going to get older, there is no getting away from that, and certainly our bodies will change and adjust with the onset of time but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be a significant decline.  It is a common belief that our memory will decline as we get older based on what we experience both in ourselves and those around you.

I have a much different belief and that is that my memory will get better and my mental abilities will get stronger the older I get.  It is a belief I am proud of and it is one that serves me well because it is true for me (in my experience so far).

Let me wobble the foundations of this common belief that your memory will get worse with age.  This of course applies to healthy brains and will be different if there is an illness that causes poor memory or failing cognitive abilities.

I have a belief that the apparent decline in memory with age experienced by many people is circumstantial and here’s why I think that:

The reference point that most people use is  – “when they were younger” – and that normally means when they were last in formal education whether that be school, college or university.

They think back to those times and with a tearful gaze of nostalgia (ok so I am being a little dramatic here!) remember how well their memory performed for them compared to the way it works for them now.

Well this is an interesting point because back then when they were working their memory hard it delivered the goods for them but now it doesn’t seem to be doing the same as it used to.

And the reason for this is simple….the saying “Use it or Lose it” applies to your memory.  As people get older they tend not to extend and test the use of their memory as much as they did when they were younger and so by not exercising it as much it won’t perform as well.

Psychologists will tell you that memory is not like a muscle; in fact I heard one say that only the other day on National Radio as part of an ongoing series on memory development.

I think it is a matter of linguistics really because you can exercise your memory and make it perform better and the more you practice and use it the better it gets (just like a muscle).

So whilst it may not actually be a “muscle” its functions and performance improves with the right sort of exercise just like a muscle would.

In my experience I have seen a marked decline in my memory ability because of the “Use it or Lose it” phenomena.  When I competed in the World Memory Championships and was runner up to Andi Bell I could memorise hundreds of numbers in an hour, multitudes of decks of playing cards in 60 minutes and nearly a thousand binary digits in half an hour.

Now that I no longer compete I have little need to memorise those things at that level and so a few years later, I find myself unable to perform those feats purely because I have got out of practice.  However what I do know is that it would not take me very long to get back up to that standard because I know how.

So a big reason for the apparent decline in memory performance is because of not using it as much as when you were younger.

Another reason that is age related but not caused by age is based on our levels of physical activity and fitness.  When we were younger, especially in our formal education, we were probably much more physically active than we may be right now.

In fact we were probably much more aerobically fit than we are now.  With that relatively better level of fitness, more oxygen was getting to the brain than might be the case with our more sedentary lifestyle (by comparison).

And as the brain thrives on oxygen, if its supply is reduced the brain will not function as well.

A big factor, which is sort of coming to the point I started trying to make when telling you about the lady I met at this party, is what we say to ourselves.  I mentioned last week that your recall will get better if you say positive things about your memory.

Well the reverse is also true and what I find tends to happen with people is that they often boast about just how bad their memory is, so much so that it becomes part of their identity.

This usually starts when they have forgotten something that they think they should have remembered and so they start convincing themselves that their memory must be poor.

With repeated affirmations of this type, the subconscious (which is non-discriminatory and will do whatever you tell it to) will respond and will start helping you “forget” things creating a downward spiral where you forget more, keep telling yourself how bad your memory which will reinforce your identity that you have a bad memory so you forget more, which means you keep telling yourself……etc etc

And finally the biggest reason for an apparent decline with memory has very little to do with memory and much more to do with concentration.

Often people are unable to recall where they have left something like their keys, handbag or even the car!  This isn’t necessarily because of a poor memory but more down to not concentrating when they put the item down.

With so much going on in our lives these days we have so much to think about that we often find ourselves operating on auto pilot as we carry out our familiar and routine tasks.  For example have you ever driven to work, arrived their, parked the car and can’t remember anything about the journey? That is operating on autopilot.

When we are on autopilot our subconscious is in control whilst the conscious mind is off with the fairies.  At any time if we need to be back in the moment, we come out of this trance and can deal with whatever it is that needs our conscious attention.

The trouble with being in this trance is that we can’t recall what we did and so when your keys get put down automatically whilst you are thinking about something else your conscious mind has taken no part in the activity and has not a clue where you put them.

This of course is rather inconvenient the following morning when you are late for work and need to find your keys.

So in a round about way I am sort of getting to the point that there are 4 main factors that contribute to the apparent decline in your memory’s performance as you get older:

1. You are not using your memory as much as you did when you were younger
2. You are not as physically active as you were back then and therefore not as much as the brain vital oxygen is being sent into the grey matter
3. You possibly keep telling yourself that your memory is bad and as a result it becomes so
4. If you are not in the moment then there is very little chance that you will be able to remember what occurs whilst you are on “auto-pilot”.

All of these are circumstantial with age and are not the result of getting older because you can use your memory more, you can become and stay physically active and aerobically fit, you can say positive things about yourself and you can operate more in the moment however old you are.

I am sorry but the “My memory is poor because I am getting older” is not an excuse because simple lifestyle and personal development choices that you can make right now can and will have a significant effect on your memory.  In fact your memory will get better as you get older…if you want it to.

Tell me about your memory or ask me a question and I’ll see if I can give you an answer that will help you.