Imagine, for a moment, that you wake up one morning and cannot remember significant details of your life. The address of the house you grew up in, your grandmother’s maiden name, the colour of your father’s hair when you were little, the sound of your mother’s voice; they’re all gone. I read a startling statistic this morning from the New England Journal of Medicine; that any person born after the year 1985 has a 70% chance of having below average retention of long-term memories when measured next to the standard set in the 1990’s in clinical studies written at Johns Hopkins. The standards for memory retention have been reset over the last decade to show that, as time has gone on, the young minds of the United States are more prone to forget…well, everything.
Way back when, we could say that much of the memory loss we experience as adults when trying to recall our childhoods was a direct result of “memory suppression.” Now, we know enough to say that memory loss on such a dramatic scale must be caused by something more than just suppressing bad memories or memories that relate to traumatic events. We also know that most suppressed memories can be called up through therapeutic exercises, but the majority of the cases studied where the memory loss was so great, no amount of therapy could recover the memories lost. So what’s causing all of the memory loss in our generation?
According to studies done by Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University on the affects of stress, a baboon living in the wild under the pressures of societal stress within his or her territorial group would have, after years of continual stress, shown severe neuronal death in his or her hippocampus, one of the key memory regions of the brain. In later years, studies of stress yielded very similar results, that severe stress can intensely affect memory not only in the short term (as in, don’t just cram for tests because the stress of so much information in so little time will kill your performance) but also in the long term. Neuronal death is irreversible, so could our stressful lives be resulting in terrible memory retention?
While this is a viable reason, there’s still something else to consider: our lives are, comparably, not that stressful today in the United States. The average person lives over 70 years, the average health concern is heart disease and weight related issues, the average income is still leagues above many other countries, and socioeconomic mobility is still an incredible asset to our population. Our grandparents and parents were not so lucky. They went through concentration camps, riding the railroads alone from Oklahoma to California to find work to feed their 5 year-old brothers, coming to the US with nothing but a picture of your family and a nickel you found in your pillow on the boat ride over, the tenements of New York, D-Day, Vietnam, Stonewall Riots, you name it…and yet their memory retention is approximately ten times better than ours. How could this be?
Here’s the lesson that I saw in all of this: everything is relative. Many of us in the US do not struggle with the same concerns that our parents or grandparents did and I find many of us complacent in our “stressful” lives. I think the key difference is that, for the majority of the people I meet, the world around them isn’t stressing them out…they’re stressing themselves out. We single ourselves out as the only victims of the stress we’re feeling, we isolate ourselves in our grief. We may not all be coming to America with a nickel to our names, but the stress we endure today takes a more severe toll on our normal biological functions due to our isolationism and the “out of the ordinary” feeling we get when our stressors creep up on us.
I believe this is one of the causes of the outbursts we witness from students under stress. They isolate themselves to the internet, TV, and the four walls they confine themselves in and learn to wallow, digging themselves deeper and deeper into the emotion holes their stressful lives create. My advice? Take some time to think about what made your forefathers so successful, they found groups to work in and they didn’t let themselves shrink away into the, often depressive, confines of their stressed-out minds. Look outside of yourself, don’t circle the drain…we can talk ourselves into a world of unnecessary hurt.
If you find yourself forgetting key things, as I have recently, take some time to evaluate how you handle your stress; do you internalize? Vent to a friend? Take time to reorganize? Make a plan for yourself? I think the sobering statistics on memory are less indicative of our social deterioration (what with all those new fangled things Apple keeps putting out and the black hole of Facebook) and more instructive as to how we can still be functional with new technology and, perhaps, manage ourselves with the wisdom of those who have also known stress and appear to have handled it better.
For a while, lay off the coffee, turn down the liquor, get out a piece of paper and a pen to plan your attack on whatever is stressing you out. I wish I could say I lead by example, but it’s hard for me too…so don’t feel isolated and know there’s a stressed out student of the world, much like you, who is fighting the same urges to crawl into her corner and watch reruns of The West Wing with the intention of starting her work “just after this episode…” Trust me, I’ve been there.
That’s all for now, ladies and gents. Hope you have a beautiful Sunday and an easy transition from the weekend into your Monday.