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Am I right when people keep telling me I’m wrong?

Oliver Fortune on fading memories and other people's perceptions

As a senior citizen – that is, someone beyond the age of sixty, shall we say – for me the issue of memory loss, alleged or proved, is a near-constant companion.

To an extent it is all about different people’s perceptions. I have had a fair number of instances in the past where I know exactly what I’ve said or done – let’s call that ‘X’ – and yet others have maintained that I’ve said or done the complete opposite, e.g. ‘Y’ or ‘Z’ (when, as sure as eggs are eggs, I did neither). When, in response, I’ve said “You’re wrong …”, I’ve then accused of deliberately lying and/or been told “Your memory’s going, you keep acknowledging as much, I know you said or did (‘Y’ or ‘Z’) – I can promise you that you did!”

There are only two explanations for that situation, of course. The first is that I am right, i.e. that I did say ‘X’. In other words, the person contradicting me is themselves either lying and/or making it up.

Alternatively, the recollection of said person just happens to be wrong but, exploiting my age and occasional admitted forgetfulness in earnestly (and honestly?) proclaiming their different version of the facts, they are trying to get me to back down and accept defeat in some sort of “You said” … “She said” game.

And you know what the tyranny is?

After ten minutes or so of being told assertively that I’ve said something that I know I didn’t, there are times when I do back down and/or accept that maybe the other person is right … and that maybe my recollection is imperfect.

I begin to doubt myself. Surely this person – whom ordinarily I trust and respect – would not be claiming, in effect, that ‘black is white’ without good reason?

Maybe I am going ga-ga.

Maybe, even though I don’t remember it – or worse, remember quite the opposite – in truth, maybe I did say or do what they say I did!

You can see, I hope, dear reader, how – in old age – this can potentially become a slippery slope.

Once you’ve begun accepting, on someone else’s say-so, that your memory is so bad that you don’t remember (for example) saying something that they claim to remember you saying … it might not be long before you start believing anything that any Tom, Dick or Harry might say or suggest to you, whether their motives be pure or Machiavellian.

I’m sure this is how how little old ladies end up giving away their life savings to plausible salesmen who turn up at their front door.

And how lonely old rich men, being cared for by attractive ladies twenty or thirty years younger, suddenly marry them and disappear to live in South Africa, having changed their wills to exclude their children in favour of their new bride.

I met up recently with someone from my past, an ex-wife as it happens, with whom I still get on well, despite the fact we meet only once a year, if that.

As we chatted, she told of how – a month or so before – she had met with a group of people we had both known twenty years ago. Together they had enjoyed a hoot of a time reminiscing about ‘the old days’ and, as examples, she then listed three different episodes in which I personally had played a significant, or indeed a key, part.

I couldn’t remember any of them.

I’m not talking about just some of the finer details involved – I’m referring to the entire incidents. Not one of them!

babyEarlier this week, there were media reports upon a study undertaken by scientists at Tubingen University in Germany into the way in which cognitive powers alter as we get older, published in the journal Topics In Cognitive Science.

The conclusion reached by the researchers was that, contrary to some theories, the human brain does not lose cognitive power with age. Instead, it gradually begins to recall information more slowly than previously – the analogy used was that of a computer filled to bursting with data.

Dr Michael Ramscar, lead author of the report, denied that the brains of older people get weaker: “On the contrary, they simply know more”.

The Tubingen University study used computers to simulate human brains. They found that when a computer’s memory bank was smaller, its performance in recalling data was like that of the brain of a young adult. However, when the same computer was asked to recall data from a much larger database, its performance was slower, simply because it had more information to process in order to reach the answer.

I think I can understand the logic in these Tubingen University findings.

If your brain’s memory is almost full, it’s almost as though you need to delete some of it in order to create the necessary space to take the incoming data and new memories that are being created every day.

Between 1974 and 1992, I kept a daily diary. Partly, this was because I developed a compulsion to record what I did; and partly, it was because I had a vague notion that, if I recorded what I did, I could happily ‘forget’ it. This, of course, on the basis that – if I should ever need to know what I had done on a particular day in the past – I only had to go back to the relevant diary volume and look it up.

In the event, I have never once looked back in my diary. You could say this was a deliberate ploy designed to keep my focus upon the present and the future, rather than harping back to the past. I figured that, when I got old, there’d be plenty of time to look back and remember all the things I did in my life. Far better, surely, to keep looking forward. I felt a sense in which, the moment I paused in order to look back, my life would stop going forward and I’d begin to lose any ambition and goals I’d set myself – which is, of course, is the point at which an individual begins to fade away.

Samuel Johnson put it slightly differently (“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”) but the sentiment remains the same. If you stop going forwards, you begin going backwards.

Now I’m over sixty, I can recall little of anything before the year 2000. My brain’s memory box hasn’t just got plenty of empty space for new data, it’s practically empty. That’s what people keep telling me, anyway – so it must be true.

Perhaps it’s time to send for the men in white coats!






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About Oliver Fortune

A doctor formerly specialising in sexual health, Oliver has written widely on matters relating to sex, relationships and counselling. He is divorced and has one daughter. He is a keen skier and mountain biker. More Posts