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The mystery of memory.

The Mystery of Memory

John K. is a very unhappy and apprehensive middle-aged man. Everyone around John thinks of him as an inexhaustible dynamo of energy and quick-thinking ability. But John has a deep secret, a gnawing worry. He is certain that his mind is failing.

The neurologist he recently consulted conducted extensive tests. No physical or mental irregularities became evident. "I had to tell him that he is overloading with mental activity, drinking too much, and not keeping up with his nutritional needs," the physician explained. "His fears of senility are not uncharacteristic of men who suddenly realize they cannot keep up with the pace they set for themselves."

Fears about mental deterioration are rising. Individuals who ordinarily are not concerned about an occasional lapse of memory become panic stricken when they cannot immediately recall a name, need time to retrieve a misplaced article, or worry about impending senility.

The widespread publicity that Alzheimer's disease has been given by the communications media has contributed to much apprehension. People are fearful and reacting out of proportion to the magnitude of the threat. Alzheimer's disease and other ailments related to dementia are not widespread.

The memory system is intricate and continues to be a mystery to science. Much knowledge has been gleaned, and research is unearthing fascinating discoveries. But no one has been able to identify the location of memory. There are experts who cling to the belief that memory is encoded in particular neurons (brain cells) and that they abide somewhere in the vast areas of the brain.

More recently, that view has been challenged. The dissenters agree that memory absorbs every detail (although it may not be able to provide recall for even a small percentage of the input), but they theorize that memory exists throughout the brain, not localized in a particular repository.

Whichever concept proves to be correct may not matter to nonprofessionals in trying to understand how to prevent premature mental aging and what means can be employed to function mentally with a satisfactory degree of efficiency.

To appreciate the vastness of memory, and the magnificent brain structure in which it functions, it is useless to invoke comparisons to such remarkable inventions as the computer. If a computer could be built to approximate even in a small way the workings of the human brain, a stadium large enough for the Rose Bowl would not be large enough to house it.

When we think of the intricacies of the telephone networks, we may be tempted to search for similarities in circuits, instantaneous connections, and electrical wizardry. But even on that scale, our estimation would be inadequate: the world's entire telephone system may be equivalent to only one gram of the human brain.

It is within this wonderland that the mind and its chief component -- memory -- function with speed and a high degree of accuracy, and thrive upon the activity. Not unlike our muscular structure, memory expands with use.

No doubt there are conditions that can impair the remarkable flow of memory. Because many unconscious bodily functions and all conscious activity are integrated with memory, the integrity of the system depends upon mental and physical health.

People who have experimented with psychedelic drugs inevitably suffer from impaired memory. The elderly who are over-medicated suffer varying degrees of amnesia. Thyroid conditions can affect memory function. Depression will cause memory malfunction.

Too often, aging is inexorably linked to memory malfunction. Statistics, however, prove otherwise. Many people survive into their 70's, 80's, and 90's with mental faculties intact.

The fact that people slow down to some extent as they age only emphasizes the holistic aspect of the body. Arms, legs, and eyesight are expected to lessen in vitality, why not the rapid responses of youth?

Memory in adulthood may not be perfect, yet it performs a myriad of remarkable feats: hundreds of faces are identified, an infinite number of sounds and smells can be recognized, locations identified, colors, taste and contours remembered.

If you can project your thoughts beyond the present, perform flights of memory into the past, imagine the future, use language in its boundless variations, memory is serving you well.

When the mind responds to a food and informs you how much you like or dislike that dish, the vast powers of memory are working. The hazards of traffic, the need to respond to cold or heat, the simple act of avoiding fire are all reassuring evidence that memory is sending signals based on previous experience.

Memory can be trained, disciplined, honed to sharpness at any age. All memory is learning.

Forgetfulness is usually a matter of mental carelessness. It can be reduced to a minimum. The problem is usually associated with lack of attention. People don't forget the pleasant often because their enjoyment calls for intense concentration. What is enjoyed is usually remembered.

The act of forgetting can also be a blessing. If we remembered all of our sorrows, our failures and disappointments, without a doubt the circuits of the brain would be constantly overloaded and clogged.

The art of psychoanalysis recognizes the power of the forgetting process. It is a repression that serves a useful purpose to brain and memory function. We often use it to our discomfort, forgetting that which we do not want to remember. But recognizing the process at work should clear the mystery: repression is the mind's way of keeping out unwelcome thoughts.
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Renaurd, William, Jr.
Publication:Nutrition Health Review
Date:Jan 1, 1989
Next Article:The immune system: a matter of imprint on memory?

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