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How to remember not to forget

india Updated: Mar 21, 2009 22:10 IST
Indrajit Hazra

Thirty-eight years ago, through the good offices of my parents, I became a volunteer in an experiment. Some of the results of that decades-long study were made available to me last week, coincidentally at the same time a set of results from another experiment was made public. And both findings don’t make — now what’s the phrase? Ah yes... — pretty reading.

Timothy Salthouse, Professor of Psychology, has been working in his lab at the University of Virginia, measuring every man’s (and, indeed, schoolboy’s) obsession: the speed of thought. The not-so-young-at-all professor has found out that the first age at which people show a marked decline in brain speed is 27.

Rather early to slide down the slope, don’t you think? After all, barring those nifty poets, composers and mathematicians
(not to mention, the more mature child actors who peak in their late teens), most of the other talents reach the Big Top much later. But could it be that even these ‘late bloomers’ are simply tapping reserve fuel?

Whatever be the case, Salthouse’s findings match the experiment of which I continue to be a card-carrying guinea pig. It’s clear that doing things simultaneously — something that made me earn the tag, ‘Jack of some trades, Master of none’ — is something I find increasingly difficult these days. I can still walk and chew gum. But walking, chewing gum and thinking is becoming hard. (Some unofficial research-buddies of mine have, of course, blamed the Blackberry in destroying my enviable multi-tasking faculties.)

Now I can’t remember whether my 27-year-plus brain in 1989-1990 had started its vertiginous descent at that period of my life or not. With Rajiv Gandhi and V.P. Singh as Prime Ministers of the country, the Berlin Wall coming down, and my entry into college where I met women fellow students for the first time (barring a brief spell in middle school that I have wiped out of my head for tactical reasons), there was much data to be processed anyway. But had I started showing early signs of my current mental and intellectual confusion during that pivotal year?

I don’t know and I don’t remember.

Which proves — what’s his name again? Ah yes... — Salthouse’s second major finding: that, on an average, one’s memory stays intact until the age of 37. Which also means that passages in my head that lead to the seat of memory have started getting clogged and will become increasingly difficult to reach as I start growing even older.

In his short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, F. Scott Fitzgerald has his reverse-ageing hero reaching ‘aged infanthood’ with similar consequences: “He did not remember. He did not remember clearly whether the milk was warm or cool at his last feeding or how the days passed — there was only his crib and Nana’s familiar presence. And then he remembered nothing.”

Now with Salthouse’s findings backing up those from the experiment I’m in, even without the dangers of a Benjamin Button-like reverse-ageing, I need to prepare for a blank, memory-less head. (Which can be an advantage when I think of some memories, especially of that last drinking binge, that I still vaguely harbour.)

One tip provided to me by my old and long dead friend, the 16th century Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, is to make mental rooms inside my head and put memories in them according to categories. So in the room marked ‘humiliations’, I can have the memory of wetting my pants in Class 1 along with last year’s...oh well, never mind. The room marked ‘Mmm’ will definitely have my first shave as well as....huh, sorry, lost you there for a second.

As for why this strange, convoluted column this Sunday... sorry, what was I saying?