Saturday, September 15, 2007

What's Cluttering Your Brain

I am a recent convert to crossword puzzles. After reading that they help preserve cognitive function, I stopped thinking of them as a way my husband wastes time and started seeing them as protection against AAMI, otherwise known as Age-Associated Memory Impairment. I measure my progress by days of the week that I have any hope of completing the New York Times crossword, which ascends from easy to hard starting on Monday. I am now up to Wednesday (sometimes). But I can’t say I’m pleased.

The problem is not, as I had imagined, confronting the magnitude of what I don’t know.

The real horror is what I do know. Spiro Agnew? Nixon’s vice president is part of American history so I don’t begrudge him space in my brain. But Ara Parseghian? What’s he doing in there? When he was coaching the Notre Dame football team (the “Fighting Irish,” I somehow recall), I was marching on the Pentagon. I didn’t follow sports then and I don’t now, yet an amazing amount of sports trivia seems to have lodged in my head. It takes up space that could more practically be devoted to remembering my own cell phone number, or the first name of my best friend’s brother.

It seems I am right to resent this useless clutter of mental junk. According to Tuesday’s New York Times, new research suggests that if I were able de-accession worthless (to me) debris like Ara Parseghian’s name and occupation, I’d be better able to recall things that are truly important. Just as I thought. I used to imagine the brain as a bowl of ping-pong balls. At a certain point the bowl gets full and then you need to remove one ball to add another. Now I see the brain as more like a ball of Velcro, indiscriminately picking up lint as it goes along, and eventually losing its stickiness. It is much harder to pick out random bits of lint than a ping pong ball.

Another memory expert, Michael Anderson of the University of Oregon, argues that “forgetting is adaptive, that people actively inhibit some memories to facilitate mental focus.” This may mean that our “senior moments” are actually a sign that the brain is functioning as it should. All well and good. But why can’t I confine my senior moments to items like 41 Across: “Myrna of Love Crazy.” Loy’s name is inexplicably stuck to the Velcro, as is the name of Asta, her movie dog.

Professor Anderson told the Times reporter, “Your head is full of a surprising number of things that you don’t need to know.” It certainly is, as my brief crossword career has so abundantly demonstrated. An ideal memory improvement program, the professor suggests, “would include a course on how to impair your memory.” Would such a course enable me to forget 54 across: Natalie Wood’s 1965 title role, Daisy Clover? If so, please sign me up.

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