Where Did I Put My Hippocampus?

Yesterday, she scolded me for not eating the soup she’d put in the fridge for my lunch. I ate a sandwich instead. Frankly, I know I heard her tell me about the soup, but by lunchtime, it might as well have never happened–a simple act of forgetting.

But as we age, such things seem to happen with increasing frequency. Some of that, I propose, is the fact that we don’t put enough attention-awareness into where we put the keys, the name of that new neighbor we just met or our instructions for honey-doing. We assign importance to things that then ranks them in our memory-register. At the time I heard about the soup, I had more prominent thoughts going on, so I didn’t reach out and anchor that fact she was telling me about because it rated low in the queue compared to the ruminations or plans that were occupying my admittedly-limited attention radar.

But there are physiological reasons we forget more often as we grow older. The pathways to one of the chief brain regions for processing memory–the hippocampus–increasingly fail to lay down permanent tracks of new memory as we age (while the old ones seem so very vivid, as I experienced recently at my 45th high school reunion.)

And so chronologically gifted individuals like me begin to rely on their computers, cell phones, jot sheets in a shirt pocket, and various memory tricks to hold onto mental items that warrant a firmer grasp–like where we parked the car in long-term parking at the Greensboro airport.

That parking facility covers many tens of acres, so when I had all my luggage ready for the quarter-mile hike to the terminal, I made a mental note: parked by the Area #6 covered shelter where you’d wait for the parking lot shuttle. I think I even wrote down #6 on my paper memo-pad.

A week later, I’d come back from the Olympic Peninsula trip with my daughter, and was exhausted and looking forward to having the two  hour drive home behind me. I didn’t wait for the parking shuttle. Closer and closer I came and finally to my great relief, I finally reached Area 6 and was almost at my car. But I couldn’t recall if I was north, south, east or west of the covered shelter.

It took me a somewhat panicked ten minutes of walking up and down every row near the shelter in the sweltering heat, clicking my key remote over and over, before I finally found the car.

And so next time, as soon as I get out of the car, I’ll use my phone to take a picture of some reference object seen clearly from where I stand—maybe two images in two different directions. Or upload a “find my car” app, since I’m not the only one to ever misplace their wheels.

I am a believer in the idea that we often forget because we never fully register stuff like “soup for lunch.” And so repeating important to-do’s multiple times, linking them to a numeric or place-based scheme, or other memory trick really works. The more outrageous the memory-hook, the more indelibly it will stick in your mind long enough to remember the milk.

I’m also convinced that using my brain daily for keeping multiple bits of research, reading, photo-processing, writing and such helps keep me stay, if not sharp, at least less dull than I’d be if all I did was watch television or some other passive activity all day long.

And the fall-back strategy is to take the time to jot items down. I sometimes have my phone with me. I always have my little jot book in a pocket, along with a fine-tipped Sharpie. If you make these on card stock, they’re pretty substantial, and filling up both sides of the page with jots can take at least weeks for me. I keep mine closed with a big paper clip: low tech!

But I’m holding out for high-tech: implanting new memory chips.


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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I totally agree with your hypothesis that us oldsters just don’t bother to file stuff away in memory, like we did when we were younger, and motiviated to keep abreast of all the details of life, so we could achieve, accomplish, etc.