You’re trying to stay organized, so you buy a file cabinet and start putting stuff away – tax returns, receipts, bills, important documents, warranties, and all the paper trappings of our lives. Things start out pretty well, but as you accumulate more and more paper, your filing system is likely to turn into a rat’s nest where you can barely find anything.
By the time you’re on the wrong side of 70 like me, you may well find that your mind has become an organic over stuffed filing cabinet. It gets harder and harder to find anything – stuff is misplaced, sometimes tangled up with something totally unrelated, and becoming less and less accessible.
Some of the problems make no sense at all. For example, I lived in Houston for a number of years and two streets, Kirby Drive and Buffalo Speedway were all tangled together in my mind. I never could keep them straight. I knew exactly what was on each, I could drive their flawlessly, but the chances were very good that I’d say one when I really meant the other one. Somewhere in this maze of neurons inside my head, the two were linked together because to me they “sounded alike.” The scary thing is that I was in my late 40s and I was afraid that they’d be hauling me off to “the home” in the near future so I could spend the rest of my life sitting in a corner counting my navel, (one – one – one – one.)
Like most people, I have a hard time remembering names. One of the guys I worked with for a number of years was named Travis Barton and, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember his name for ten seconds. OK, am I losing my mind? Is senility right around the corner? If so, it’s been coming on for a long time. As it’s a big concern as you keep adding years, I’ve given it quite a bit of thought.
First, I think our minds are kind of like that file cabinet.
After a while things get misplaced, get cross connected, and generally less organized as we pile more and more experiences into it. You’re trying to remember something, and stumble on something you haven’t thought of in half a century – and then can’t remember what you had for breakfast.
So what do we do? I can’t say anything definitive for anyone else, but I’ve learned some coping tools. First, when I’ve got something cross connected like the two streets, I stick a mental yellow Post-It note on it that says, “Confusion ahead – stop for a second and straighten it out before you open your mouth.” The cross link is still there, but there’s a little speed bump that slows me down long enough so I get it right.
Travis gets another yellow Post-It note. This one is attached to his image in my mind. I’ve tried to put “Travis Barton” on the note, but that doesn’t seem to work. Instead my note says “Austin.” When I encounter that hint, I run down a thought chain – Austin is in Travis County – and Barton Springs is a prominent local swimming spot. Since I put on the little note, I can always remember his name. Important things get their own notes – a plain red one that means, “Don’t forget this, you fool!” When I use a Post-It, I mentally picture myself sticking it on the information to reinforce the association.
I keep the notes to a minimum with my “external memory” – I write it down.
Beside my keyboard is a notepad where I write down any stray thoughts. An idea for Manopause? An idea for my website? Something for me to look up to refresh my memory?
My external memory extends in a lot of directions. I always know where my keys are because they are either clipped to my belt or they are on the kitchen bar within one inch of where they always are. Same with my glasses and my phone. Next to my keys is another little notepad of all the things I need to do when I’m out and about. Things to get at the grocery store, the pharmacy, everywhere I go. As soon as I think of something, I write it down right then – no waiting. I’ve got one of those pill organizer cases that I load up once a month. It’s there on the bar, too, so I can’t miss it.
My biggest external memory is the web.
As soon as I think of something, I go look it up. Doesn’t matter if it’s three in the morning – I check right then. This is often trivial, “What was that store name in New Orleans?” “Wonder what ever happened to somebody?” I’ll see something on a web page, and immediately pop up Wikipedia or whatever to verify it, learn more about it, or dismiss it with confidence.
Do I forget things? Yep. Do I forget more than I did 50 years ago? Yep. But with a little mental assistance I remember the important things – even if I don’t remember breakfast – mostly because breakfast is not important enough and would just clutter up my file cabinet.