Sunday, July 21, 2013

Usin' the Ol' Noggin: Memmmm'ries...Light the Corners of My Braaaaainnnnnnn....

by Karen Mulder
Diane Keaton's freaky 1987 movie Heaven includes an argument between an on-fire conservative preacher and an atheistic Hollywood scriptwriter. The preacher gets so fed up with the writer’s insistence about the lack of physical proof for God’s existence that he finally yells, “Tell me this: have y'ever seen yer own BRAIN?” A little flustered, the writer snaps back, “No, of course not! If I had I’d be dead!” To which the preacher responds, smugly: “Well d’ya know yew GOT one????!!!”
How do we know, indeed? We now have CAT scans and MRIs and so on; we know it’s there physically, even though seeing our own personal noodle in the flesh is an impossibility. Mostly, we know it’s there by its voices, its suggestions and hints and asides. (Or, um, is this just me?!  Spooooky!) Without it, of course, we couldn’t know anything.
Which is why the brain book industry is especially precious to those of us in a certain age group who are more and more concerned about keeping our brainwaves lively. So far, the best cure seems to be prevention, for which no magic pill exists. Reforming habits is the only tonic.

This generational angst about "losing our minds" is constantly seeking the latest research, some of which plumps the pages of Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan’s The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program (2012). Dr. Small, who directs UCLA’s Longevity Center and co-wrote this with his wife, supplies the reader with tons of reassuring facts, brain challenges, and resources. It's clearly tightened up from their 2002 collaboration, The Memory Bible.  
Journalist Jean Carper’s repeat appearances on the New York Times bestseller roster are sure to be supplemented by 100 Simple Things You Can Do to Prevent Alzheimer’s and Age-Related Memory Loss (2010). Carper, formerly a medical correspondent for CNN, has a personal drive to remain on top of the confusing tangle of new ideas regarding cognitive erosion, especially since a routine blood test indicated that she carries the ApoE4 susceptibility gene for Alzheimer's. Her short, punchy little chapters reinforce some of the predictable prevention routines, like eating the right stuff, moving around, and keeping your brain active, but she also rolls out a few new twists.
Did you know, for example, that maintaining your eyes' health and optimal vision may reduce the chances of developing dementia or losing cognitive function by as much as 63%, according to University of Michigan Health System researchers? Or that ingesting the antioxidant alpha lipoic acid with ALCAR (acetyl-i-carnitine) has impressed biochemists with its ability to fire up the brains of aging mice, at the Linus Pauling Institute and Berkeley? Or that detecting a low blood pressure rate in the ankle (rather than the arm) might warn us about the possibility of future cognitive impairment, according to surveys at the University of Edinburgh and the National Institute on Aging?   
There are more subtle treatises that  cover some of the same ground for those of us who still don’t want to mention the “A” word. Consider You Can Have an Amazing Memory: Learn Life-Changing Techniques and Tips from the Memory Maestro (2011). Ageless Memory (2007) shoehorns 40 years of Harry Lorayne’s practical experience as a leading memory specialist into its promises of grooming razor-sharp minds.
Unlike the world’s fastest typists, who will eventually become obsolete when technology handles voice commands better (so long, Barbara Blackburn, 212 wpm, or Grace Pak for the Smartphone record), Memory Champions like O’Brien (8 times! or…was it 9???) will always remain heroes in their field.
Of course, while these books are loaded with viable tips, they can’t guarantee our delivery from memory loss; both merely offer foolproof methods to help us allay those “senior moments” everyone talks about so glibly. They encourage, commiserate, and soothe us with statements, like 56-year-old O’Brien's insistence that “Age equals experience, not forgetfulness!”
And there are, of course, practical benefits to a stronger memory. Think of the things you could do with all the spare time if you were not always involved in the search for a). car keys b.) reading glasses c.) cell phone d.) Um…I forget.


  1. I have one complaint about my brain's layout-- why is the place where I store faces so far from the place where I store names?
    Example: A photo of the actor who played Frasier's younger brother appears.
    "Oh, I know him! He's uh...."
    The old geezer in charge of memory storage begins his slow shuffle down a very long hallway.
    Two days later, while I'm reaching across a counter for my tuna fish sandwich, a message slams down the pneumatic tubes in my brain and breaks open. My tongue involuntarily reads aloud: "David Hyde Pierce!"
    "Where? Where?" the excited waitress exclaims.
    And now I have to explain the workings of my faulty brain to a complete stranger, or settle with being thought insane.
    Would that alpha stuff shorten the hallway, or get me a younger geezer?
    If my brain is like a computer, why can't I upgrade to a dual-core processor?

    1. Haha, I think my brain has an external hard drive. Unfortunately, it's @ an undisclosed location:)

    2. A clear case of head in the cloud. :)

    3. Well played:) Early week wit!

  2. Though there are about 10 dissertation-worthy threads here, I'm really fascinated with how technology will affect the memory/brain health of future generations. Gioconda, I LOVE that example:) Kids today have IMDB, Google, etc, but I remember being so plagued by failing to remember the entire cast of Star Wars (nerd alert) that I woke @ 3am and had to fast forward my VHS copy to the credits! Ughhhh.

  3. This reminds me of a joke from Ellen Degeneres' stand up: "If you can remember to take gingko biloba every day.... you don't need it"

  4. I have managed to remember all the way back to May, when I read The Righteous Mind (2012), by Jonathan Haidt. On pages 130-131 he quotes the neuroscientist Gary Marcus: "To replace [the traditional view of the brain as] wiring diagrams, Marcus suggests a better analogy: The brain is like a book, the first draft of which is written by the genes during fetal development. No chapters are complete at birth, and some are just rough outlines waiting to be filled in during childhood. But not a single chapter – be it on sexuality, language, food preferences, or morality – consists of blank pages on which a society can inscribe any conceivable set of words. Marcus’s analogy leads to the best definition of innateness I have ever seen: “Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises.”

    1. Is he then saying that language and morality are passed along, in a sketchy way, with the genes?

    2. Hello? Because if he means that, then he goes farther than any modern eugenicist I've read.