For anyone over 50, so called ‘senior moments’ are words that often crop up in conversation, referred to as a bit of joke to hide the underlying anxiety that they may be the sign of something far more sinister. Facebook is awash with memes for the middle aged and seniors, quipping about remembering the hit parade of our teens and forgetting what we came upstairs for. So, what are these lapses, what can we do about them and should we be worried?
How Memories Are Made
First of all, if you refer to the articles on this website explaining how memories are made, you can see that remembering stuff is actually quite a complicated process. Our brains are constantly sifting through the information it receives from our senses, prioritising and processing it. The brain of a teenager may only be juggling school and social activities and much of the burden of remembering everyday stuff is borne by parents and teachers. As we get older, however, we have far more responsibilities and far more to process and remember in the course of the day. How many of us have the luxury of being able to shut off thoughts about grocery shopping, meal planning, remembering to put petrol in the car, money worries, church meetings, volunteer obligations and so on while we are at work?
Part of the problem with ‘senior moments’ is quite simply that we are trying to remember or focus on far too many things at the same time. There’s a lot of talk about multi-tasking but the reality is more a case of task-switching. Our brains cannot give equal priority to two or more things simultaneously so it is constantly switching between them. The speed and efficiency with which it is able to do this varies between individuals and is also affected by age.
Are We Really Multi-Tasking?
Although it may seem that we are multi-tasking as we talk on the phone while watching TV and cooking dinner, in actual fact our brains are not paying attention to all those things simultaneously. We now know that what is happening is that our brains can really actually only pay attention to one thing at a time and are constantly having to switch, albeit fast, between one task and the next. Some people are better than others at this and as we get older our ability to juggle different thoughts before they ‘decay’ and pass out of our short term memory diminishes. This leads to situations like forgetting what we came into the room for or misplacing objects.
According to recent research by Reem Alzahabi at the Michigan State University, there are some things we can do to improve our task switching skills and stave off some of those embarrassing ‘senior moments’. Here are some tips.
- Give yourself sufficient warning to get back to what you need to finish when something interrupts you. Build an association between the task that was interrupted and something else so that it becomes a ‘bigger’ thought. For instance connect remembering to put the milk back in the fridge while making breakfast with remembering to add milk to the shopping list.
- Pay attention to what you are actually doing when putting things away or placing items. Look at what you are doing and create a mental image of the object in its location rather than thinking about something completely unrelated while you are doing it.
- Do the same routine in the same order. Get together everything you need for a project and line them up in the order you will need them before you start so that you can move smoothly from one thing to the next without having to break off and become distracted. Remember the idiom about getting all your ducks in a row?
- Look behind you before you get up to leave, particularly in a public place. Our natural inclination is to think about where we are going next rather than what we have done in the past so we forget to look behind us when we leave a place. That is how coats, phones, cameras and the like get forgotten on public transport and in theatres. When you get up to go, check around you and make a conscious effort to remember when you had with you when you arrived. That way you are less like to lose stuff.
- Talk to yourself or read out loud when you are trying to remember. Yes, younger people may look at you strangely but when you verbalise you are actually building a much stronger neural pathway, reinforcing the information in your mind and making you less like to forget.
- Practice retrieving things you have lost or put away. Recreate all the steps leading up to placing – misplacing – objects. Train yourself to recall your actions leading up to an event or action. It is easy to drift through the day without really paying attention to what we are doing, particularly when doing stuff that is repetitive and dare one say, boring. How often do you find that you have arrived home with no real recollection of how you got from work to home? Try to think back about the route you followed. Were there new road works? Did you see someone you recognized? Building up your abilities to recreate and recall situations can help you look for misplaced items and remember things later.
- Don’t beat yourself up if you forget something. There are big personal differences between individuals. Focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t and don’t spend so much time worrying about forgetting that you don’t pay attention to what you are supposed to be remembering. You cannot forget what you did not know in the first place so being receptive to information with no distractions is the first step.