Thursday, July 16, 2015

Why can’t we remember anything?



THE first sign that something was wrong came when I started confusing “brought” and “bought”.
“The house down the road was brought for …” I’d mistakenly tell a friend. Or on television discussing parenting I’d hesitate, my brain rapidly trying to remember whether a child is “brought up” or “bought up”.

I started to fear these mind freezes — communication, after all, is my job.
Other things were forgotten: a plan to meet a friend for coffee; pasta left boiling on the stove as I got distracted checking emails; a dress delivered to the drycleaners yet never collected.
“Oh I do that all the time,” concurred a friend. “I had tickets to the theatre then forgot I’d booked them and we missed the show.”

She pointed out that my brain snap had cost me a pot, hers had set her back $200.
Another friend chimed in saying she always calls her kids by the wrong names. “Amateur,” we laughed in unison, “that’s just bog-standard famnesia.”

Whatever had afflicted my previously smooth -functioning brain was worrying. Because I’m a catastrophiser I suspected Alzheimer’s. Look at Julianne Moore in Still Alice; one day she’s normal, the next she’s standing in an auditorium unable to remember what she was going to say.
But the rational me, the tiny corner in my frontal lobe not taken up with my job, kids’ homework, meal preparation, tax returns, an insurance claim, high school choices, forthcoming travel plans, keyboard batteries, Facebook, Twitter, laundry, passport renewals and a family-wide underwear crisis — well, those few unoccupied cells knew something else was at play.

My mind, I reasoned, is about the size of a soccer ball — give or take a few centimetres. Yet I was continuing to pump stuff into it as if it was one of those giant inflatable human-hamster zorb balls that people inexplicably like to roll around in.
Worse, I was trying to perform two dozen different tasks with my swollen zorb; was it any wonder stuff was falling out?

Apparently not, according to Professor Michael Saling from Victoria’s Austin Health who, I suspect, boasts a brain as ordered as an Ikea sock divider.
“This expansion of information in our age has happened so fast, so expediently, that it’s bringing us face to face with our brains’ limitations,” he explained in one of the six international newspapers I read online every day.
“Because devices we use have perfect memories there is almost an expectation building that we too should have perfect memories.”

Humans, he pointed out, can only process a maximum of seven things at once.
Only seven! No wonder my brain was imploding. I’m the mistress of multi-tasking — there are never fewer than 10 tabs open on my computer and cooking dinner is dovetailed with homework supervision, laundry folding, listening to a podcast, eyebrow plucking (not over the pots), phone calls and internet banking. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done a single thing from start to finish. I can’t even hug my kids without breaking off to remind them of something they have to do.

In response to this demonic need to multitask, life has become shorter, sharper, bite-sized and brisk.
My gym sessions are now 45 minutes rather than an hour. I urge the kids to play the 20-minute Monopoly Deal card game not the extended board version. Baking has been reduced to a three-ingredient, 15-minutes-in-the-oven version of Anzac Slice. And I got several nods at book club when I suggested becoming an articles club since that’s all anyone has time to read. Even writing — the one thing I lose myself in — is increasingly dispensed in staccato bursts.

Well that was a month ago. For the last few weeks I’ve tried single-tasking and it’s a revelation. I started by leaving my phone at home when I went for a bike ride. I now switch off notifications when I need to write well and the words come easily, enjoyably. I’ve made dumplings from scratch with my kids, and cuddled them without a postscript of instructions.
I’ve been to the movies mid-morning so I’m sufficiently alert to ponder the themes. Weeks later I’m still ruminating on a line from Ben Stiller in While We’re Young. “Until I met you,” his character says to his young hipster friend, “the only two feelings I had left were wistful and disdainful.” Provocative isn’t it?


Mostly I’ve simply loved inhabiting one task: picking herbs; talking to a friend; chopping vegetables; reading a newspaper; listening to a song; tidying my wardrobe. Each thing feels complete in its own right, not a splintered part of something else. What’s more, my brain’s no longer forgetting things — there’s no need to hesitate when I say single-tasking has brought me a lot of pleasure.

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