The Old Gray Matter Ain’t What She Used to Be

 Memory, memorization, and modernity
December 10, 2019 Updated: December 10, 2019

Recently, my friend Allen and I were discussing books and literature beside the fireplace in his home in the mountains.

I started to tell him about a novel I’d read and enjoyed, but both the author’s name and the title had slipped away.

“When this happens,” I said, “my mind acts like one of those Magic Eight-Balls we had as kids. Remember those? You’d ask a question, turn the ball over, and an answer would slowly drift into view. That’s how my memory works.”

“Well,” Allen said, “the old gray matter ain’t what she used to be.”

We laughed, continued our conversation, and sure enough, several minutes later, the book popped to mind, the title floating up from the debris accumulated in 60-some years of living. (An ironic confession here: My memory has once again slipped a cog, and I can no longer recollect the book in question.)

Aging, Stress, and Forgetfulness

Many older people attribute this diminished remembrance of things past to aging, and there is truth in that idea. Researchers view such memory loss as normal, and reassure us that as such it isn’t necessarily a sign of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Indeed, age-related memory loss can often be reversed, even through such simple practices as drinking less alcohol, getting more sleep, or taking vitamin B12. 

But no matter whether we are 20 or 80, most of us at times have trouble recollecting names, forgetting where we put the car keys (and sometimes where we put the car), or walking into the kitchen and then wondering what we intended to get there. (Don’t feel too bad: Twice in my life I have looked for my cellphone while talking into it.) When I was 40, and beset by tremendous financial strain, I found myself forgetting so many things that my condition frightened me into seeing a doctor. He recommended ginkgo biloba, which to this day, I pronounce balboa and which increases blood flow to the brain, boosting memory and cognitive function. That very afternoon, I zipped off to a pharmacy and purchased a bottle of those magic pills the doctor had so highly touted.

Only one problem: I could never remember to take them. I’d take one, feeling proud of myself, and then forget about them for another three or four days. Eventually, the pills hit the trash can, and I later found stress and lack of sleep were responsible for my harried mind.

A Surfeit of Sensations

I believe another reason other than aging exists for our forgetfulness: brain overload. Here’s an example: As I write these words, I am sitting in the Happy Creek Coffee Shop in Front Royal, Virginia. Seated around me are 11 strangers, four of whom are engaged in conversation, the others tapping away, like me, on various electronic devices. Music drifts through the room, piped in from some outside source.

Every once in a while, I break from this writing to look at online sites I enjoy or to research memory loss.

It’s a peaceful place, to be sure, but let’s compare the coffee shop of our digital age to the 19th century. Some of my ancestors living at that time were farmers in Western Pennsylvania. Most likely, few in that Minick clan saw 11 strangers in a week, much less in a two-hour stint in the coffee shop. They lived on farms, traveled by foot or by horseback, and spent most of their days working to grow food. They lacked our distractions. No billboards, no radios or television, no computers—their minds were free of the constant barrage of information to which we moderns are subjected.

Evidence suggests our IQs may be superior to theirs, but I wonder if they were as plagued as we are by loss of memory. Did they call their grandson by his father’s name? Did they forget they’d left the old gray mare at the general store’s hitching post instead of in the barn? 

The Value of Memorization

Perhaps so. Unlike us, however, these folks prized memorization.

In “A Literate South: Reading Before Emancipation,” Beth Barton Schweiger examines the reading and writing habits of four young women, Amanda and Betsy Cooley and Jennie and Ann Speer, and some of their contemporaries. Schweiger’s investigation reveals the enormous amount of print resources available to people of that time: hymnals, Bibles, books of poetry, novels and histories, broadsides, newspapers and magazines, and almanacs. 

Throughout her book, Schweiger also demonstrates how keenly that society appreciated memorization. Spelling bees, recitation of poetry and prose both in the home and in public contests, and learning by heart everything from the Bible to blue-backed spellers were all applauded and a part of that culture. 

Born in 1874 and so a product of this same century, Winston Churchill memorized reams of poetry—Macaulay’s “Horatius,” Whittier’s “Ballad of Barbara Frietchie,” and much more—and could quote those lines verbatim until his dotage. I love my computer and the internet, and the information at my fingertips, but sometimes wish I carried a bagful of poems in my brain like Churchill.

No doubt we moderns maintain those powers of memorization; we just neglect their practice. Most students memorize facts at some level—multiplication tables, French vocabulary, basic facts from history—but in general, our educators frown on what they term learning by rote and what our ancestors called learning by heart. 

Sometimes, we have a chance, even today, to witness some phenomenal display of memory. We sit in a theater in awe of the number of lines some of the actors know by heart. In Asheville, North Carolina, the homeschool group used to sponsor an annual Poetry Night, during which tots to teens recited poetry onstage. One performance I will always remember was that of the high school junior who memorized T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and recited it in its entirety without missing a word. Hers was a phenomenal performance.

Keep Calm and I Forget What Else I Wanted to Say

At any rate, take heart, those of you who are looking for your glasses while wearing them atop your head, or who tell a joke and then forget the punch line. Given the flood of information bombarding us every day, we’re fortunate we remember to put on our pants before leaving the house.

And now I’m back home and am off to retrieve the mail from its box.

As soon as I can figure out where I put the key. 

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See to follow his blog.