Memory and ageing

Would we reduce the impact of failing memory, and maybe even of dementia, by formally keeping people in contact with their personal memory devices – song, dance, story, art and landscape?

The many questions I receive about my research on memory tend to fall into three categories:

* How can I memorise better?
* What are the implications for education?
* And is there anything we can do about loss of memory with ageing?

I have been considering the implications for ageing a great deal over the last few years. Being in my 70s, I have a vested interest. I will be writing a booklet about it soon. Meanwhile …

Reader John Seed wrote a fascinating comment:

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I’m fascinated by your book and the possibility that it might help my own fading memory. Do you find that your overall memory has improved alongside your ability to remember those particular things – countries, plants,  for which you’ve built a songline/palace? My memory has been atrocious for years but this doesn’t prevent me from memorising long poems and the like. …

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I am in my 70s. My overall memory has improved massively since I have been using the memory methods – not just the things I am consciously memorising. I am not sure of the reason, though. I suspect it is a combination of factors. I am more confident about my memory but I also set up hooks constantly and make links. I look for them now. Anything I want to remember, I make a funny or wild or quirky link. The more I have been doing this, the more a habit it has become.

One valuable concept is making a Personal Winter Count. The idea is to create a memory device, tried and tested by Native American cultures, which will offer hooks for every year of your life. By maintaining the stories and links throughout life, the hope and belief is that this will provide a permanent memory device to help keep memories alive in old age.

What would happen if we embed our stories in memory palaces around our homes, and link them to music and dance and mnemonic objects, right through life? These are the memory systems used by our ancestors for thousands of years. If we use them deliberately throughout life, might this delay the onset of dementia? Or at least reduce the impact? Might living in our memory palaces keep those memories alive?

I have asked members of various indigenous cultures and the reply seems to indicate that by performing the rituals, the repeating of stories and linking to the memory devices, singing the songs and performing the dances, the impact of dementia is reduced. But these are only anecdotes asked in casual conversation. Enticing though it is, that is not yet evidence.

There have been quite a few reports recently which indicate that the brain retains its links to music and place when other intellectual capacities are failing. This is a few of them.

http://www.theage.com.au/lifestyle/the-optimist/this-former-journalists-weird-idea-is-transforming-the-care-of-dementia-patients-20161215-gtcby1.html

http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/4421003.htm

http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/4524857.htm

https://theconversation.com/the-power-of-our-song-the-musical-glue-that-binds-friends-and-lovers-across-the-ages-73593

Alive Inside is a documentary about the non-profit project Music and Memory made by film maker Michael Rossato-Bennett. This is a sample one of the patients working with the  late Dr Oliver Sacks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QG7X-cy9iqA. The Music and Memory website is here: https://musicandmemory.org.

What if the songs they connected to were more than tunes and tales of love? What if they were songs recording critical information? What of that connection was also reflected in physical memory palaces? Would that make the ‘reconnection with life’ that the Music and Memory people talk about even more effective?

Personal Winter Counts

The Plains Indians of North America use memory devices referred to as Winter Counts. Named because the start of the year is taken from the first snow fall of the year, the animal hides or other fabrics are adorned with a new image each year representing the most signficant event of the year. Other events from that year are then linked to the key event and the stories recalled regularly to ensure the history is not forgotten.


Lone Dog’s Winter Count

Lone Dog recorded his calendar on buffalo hide for the Dakota Nation, each pictograph signifying an outstanding event from 1800 through 1871.

The Wajaje Winter Count provides the early history of the southern Teton Lakota tribes. Beginning with the center glyph, it documents the years 1758- 1759 through 1885-1886.

I have used a  WinterCount to record the years from 1900 until the present with one major event for each year.

At WinterCount workshops, Alice Steel and I talked about the memory methods of the Plains Indians. Attendees then made personal WinterCounts, each symbol representing a year of their lives.  The stories linked to that event, to that year, should be retold and recalled regularly over life just as the Lakota and Dakota did for their community.

The discussions in the workshops were extraordinarily lively, but there was thick at how many years were left blank because they had no memories of them. All headed off with the intention of filling in those gaps.

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