walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Can't Remember What I Forgot_, Sue Halpern

Subtitled The Good News from the Front Lines of Memory Research

I have some memory problems, which superficially seem related, but turn out not to be (in my judgment and hey, it's my memory so I think I should be included in the decision making process). The long-standing problem (forgetting nouns) has long been associated with the prodrome of a migraine and I sometimes have difficulty with no ensuing migraine. The more recent problem has been the why-did-I-go-down-to-the-basement sort of forgetting -- getting lost in the middle of a process. For most of my life, I've used my internal dialogue to keep track of what I'm doing. Recently, between newborn, toddler and the holidays, I sort of turned it off to keep it from driving me absolutely bananas (and, also, everyone around me). As a result, I can't remember what I'm doing. Duh. If you have a mechanism for remembering and you _turn it off_, it sort of makes sense there'd be a "memory problem" afterwords. It's back on and calibrating and I'm Much Better Now, thank you very much. All of which has absolutely nothing to do with this book.

In theory, I should adore this book. Ms. Halpern has a lovely authorial voice. She's chasing down the relevant scientists and quizzing them about their work and what's in the popular press on the subject of memory and attempting to draw useful connections between them for all the people hitting midlife, seeing their parents' generation lose memory to Alzheimers or other, and wondering if there's some way to stave that off or avoid it altogether. She does a reasonable job of making the work of the scientists and drug development crowd accessible. She does an excellent job of inducing skepticism (I'm assuming this was on purpose) towards the promises of Pharma (everything is five years away). She charts some of the wrong turns and dead ends of the past and recent present -- including her own ideas. At one point she describes an idea she had as a freelance journalist: go down to the local health food shop, buy some of the more popular items, try them out on herself and report on the results. Once she had personally _encountered_ a health food shop, she realized what a bad idea this was.

And she even remembers and mentions the disaster that was tryptophan a couple decades back.

She concludes with a very positive outlook on exercise as a way to extend memory function and improve cognitive reserve and explores some of the research backing why that happens. We know it works -- there's a ton of large longitudinal studies that show the correlation too strongly to really question (much) any more.

Why, then, do I not love this book? The answer, I suspect, lies in her trip to the health food store. It also lies in her learning a variety of memory techniques, from the ancient stash-stuff-along-a-known-trail to the MindMaps (TM) of Tony Buzan (whose work I suspect I first encountered in 9th grade, around the same time I read _A Whack on the Side of the Head_ which is not by Tony Buzan, even tho I thought it might be), to the say-it-hear-it-visualize-it. I could not shake the feeling that this particular author really, really, really wanted to find something that would Fix the Problem. A pill. A puzzle. A trick. If need be, an exercise routine.

I'm actually not interested in Fixing the Problem. I would far rather understand how the brain and the mind works. And people who are focused on fixing the problem (or, worse, and I suspect a lot of the people she talked to, looking to make money off people by selling them something they say will fix the problem) often blow right past the really interesting side bits.

If you're a basic science person, or trying to understand how memory works, this isn't the book for you. If you are worried about your memory, Halpern can hold your hand for a while and walk you through the morass of competing ideas and claims. That might be helpful, but not for me.

For me, this is a book I mostly finished because the cable went out. Which says a lot about someone, most likely me.

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