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How We Learn, Why We Sometimes Forget and Which is Which?
by Marjorie Dorfman

There are many myths associated with our abilities to learn and forget that have circulated as if they are truth. The following are some that dare to strut before our tired eyes. Here’s hoping some bogus clouds will burst upon a new and knowing horizon and that YOUR middle age is filled with wonderful thoughts and memories.

According to Massachusetts General Hospital’s publication, Mind, Mood and Memory, there are many myths associated with our ability to recall the events of our past. See how many you recognize and have possibly even believed before. (Even if you would prefer to remain in the dark with self-induced amnesia.)

• Brain cell supply dwindles over a lifetime

This simply is not true. While we may lose nerve connections and form new ones as our brains respond to new knowledge, most regions of our brains maintain about the same number of neurons all through our lives.

• Long sleep is good for memory

Well-structured sleep at the right time and of the proper duration is all we need for effective learning. Everyone is different in regards to how much sleep they require and the best formula for good sleep is to listen to your own body and do what it says. (Lie down, you fool.) Go to sleep when sleepy and sleep as long needed. It is the natural healthy structure of sleep cycles that induce good learning.

• We can boost our learning with memory pills

There are no memory pills out there. Face this fact and don’t ever forget it. It is true that many drugs and supplements indirectly help memory by making us healthier in general, but do not expect "pharmiracles" to help increase the ability to recall events and things.

• People differ in the speed of learning but they all forget at the same rate of speed.

Actually, the rate we forget is pretty much the same, no matter how smart we are or think we are. They key to both learning and slow forgetting concerns representation, that is, the way knowledge is formulated. The key to making items easy to remember is to formulate them well. The ultimate test on the formulation of knowledge lies in the way it is stored in the mind. The fastest learner is the one who can instantly visualize and store knowledge maximum "connectivity" imagery.

• All learned things are locked inside our heads.

This is not true. Our memories are not locked away; they are rearranged and repainted. Even if we find the key (proper association) we may find that the "memory room" we have entered has been remodeled.

• Learning by doing is the best way to learn.

In the area of procedural learning (for example, swimming, typing, playing instruments etc) this is true, but in other areas, it ain’t necessarily so, as the old Gershwin song goes. Learning by doing is very effective in terms of the quality of memories it produces, but it can also be very expensive in terms of time, material and organization. Sometimes, a picture downloaded from the Net, for example, can take sixty seconds and speak a thousand (or even more) words.

• Forgetfulness is an indication that your brain is not functioning properly.

Unless forgetfulness is interfering with normal functioning, it should be considered a normal part of the aging process that keeps minor information from cluttering up the brain. Consider the following example: It’s one thing to forget where you put your glasses and quite another to forget that you wear glasses!

• If you are worried about your memory loss, you probably have Alzhiemer’s Disease.

No myth could be more incorrect, as people with AD cannot recognize their condition and can only understand it in terms of how those close to them are affected. Unless people around you are honestly concerned about the degree of your forgetfulness, don’t worry about it. Your memory loss is more than likely within the normal range of the aging process.

• Memory cannot be improved by training.

Yes it can. It is possible to learn strategies to improve memory performance. These usually involve techniques that help process and store information in an organized manner so that it is accessible when needed. (This is unlike whatever you need to find in a disorganized desk drawer, which never really is where you left it anyway.)

• Easy to recall memories will last a lifetime.

Ease of recall relates to a concept known as retrievablity, while the duration of memory is related to stability. The truth is that it is how often a memory is repeated that makes it secure in our minds and not how easily we can recall it.

• Alpha waves are best for learning.

Learning in a "relaxed state" runs the risks of its proponents falling asleep on the job! Being free of stress, distraction and fatigue are vital to learning and can sort of be considered relaxed, but steer clear of products and services promising fast learning through the inducement of alpha states. Usually, alpha waves appear right before you fall asleep and they are more often associated with the lack of visual processing than the absence of stress. Alpha wave "machinery" is not mandatory to enter the "relaxed state." Better spend your money and time in a peaceful environment for learning as well as in skills relating to time and stress management and conflict-resolution.

• Trying hard to remember will increase your ability to remember.

Memory does not involve effort and if you don’t use proper memory skills to fix information in your mind, you may not remember it, no matter how hard you try.

• To remember, you must believe you can remember.

Memory is not like wishing on a star or something reserved for the whims of Tinkerbelle and her ilk. There is no magic of any kind attached to the process of memory and you can remember well whether you are sure of yourself or not.

So take these myths to heart and don’t listen to them or let them take up space in your thinking. We all get older and pay a price for it. Smile, however, whenever you consider the alternative!

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2007

Reference sources:
Mind, Mood & Memory, Massachusetts General Hospital, October, 2006