A recent article in the Science section of the New York Times explains alot with the opening sentence. “Learning becomes more difficult as we age not because we have trouble absorbing new information, but because we fail to forget the old stuff.” It concludes with the finding that new mental connections become difficult as we struggle, often unsuccessfully, to weaken the other connections.
As I move through my sixties, I feel as if my brain is sodden with memories and connections, big and little, that I would definitely like to weaken. I don’t need to be carrying around the fiasco of the 8th grade dance, the breakup with my high school boyfriend, the failure to get into the college of my choice, the nightmare moves to Cincinnati, St. Louis, Billings, and Delaware, my divorce, the early years trying to blend families, my daughter’s breakups, my step-daughters’ breakups, my father’s death, my mother’s sinking into a confused and anxious old age. But these memories lurk in the shadows of my mind, threatening to jump out and swamp the budding new thoughts, knowledge, and memories struggling to emerge in the present.
What’s the answer? It always comes back to mindfulness. Paying attention to the present. Using the senses to engage the world. Letting go of instrusive thoughts and memories in a relaxed and non-judgmental way. Reflecting on each day. Writing down new, meaningful insights and new thoughts. Trying to “exercise” perspective: to see one walk, one poem, one song, one tree, one Oreo, one journey as if it were the whole world.
I certainly wouldn’t want to contract Altzeimers, but remembering everything that ever happened, both big and small, would be equally crushing.