December 13, 2013

Is there a bright side to aging, besides the fact that you’re still alive to do it? According to Douwe Draaisma, a professor of the history and theory of psychology in the Netherlands, reminiscence, which ironically increases just as our faculty of memory begins to decline, is a largely unsung pleasure of advancing age. There’s other good news in “The Nostalgia Factory,” including reassurance that an inability to remember names, find the right word and even recall what you were intending to do is part of the normal aging process and is rarely an early harbinger of dementia.

“After the age of fifty we fight a dogged battle with forgetting — not for the first time, since this is something we do all our lives, but we tend to be defeated more often,” Draaisma writes in this engaging though hardly cutting-edge overview of some of the issues of memory and aging. (If you’re interested in cognitive neuroscience, Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter’s “The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers” is a better choice.)

Draaisma, whose other books include the intriguingly titled “Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older,” debunks what he calls the forgetfulness market — the astonishing array of drills and supplements that promise to build memory. “Ask psychologists whether it is possible to train the memory and their first reaction will be to repress a sigh,” he writes. Why? Because while the mantra “use it or lose it” has validity, memory is not a muscle that can be built up through mental gymnastics. “An impressive memory is a product not of training but of sustained and dedicated use.”

Although you cannot develop larger memory capacity, you can stave off decline and even use strategies, such as networks of associations, to improve memory performance — to a point. Draaisma cites a charming quote from Confucius on the benefits of writing down reminders — assuming you can remember to check them: “The palest ink is more reliable than the most powerful memory.”

As for so-called memory-enhancing herbs and supplements, if they work it means they’re making up for a shortfall in these necessary minerals. Building a surplus, however, is useless. Similarly, Draaisma dismisses the myth that we use only 10 percent of our brains and can therefore develop unused neuronal real estate. He explains that brain space is exceedingly tight, so the idea of a “neuronal spare tyre is biologically preposterous.” He also discusses how our brain’s plasticity and “neuronal improvisation” can help make up for loss caused by injuries — though this ability, too, declines with age.


‘The Nostalgia Factory: Memory, Time and Ageing’ by Douwe Draaisma (Yale Univ.)

So how can we fight against memory attrition? Although “The Nostalgia Factory” is not a self-help book, Draaisma offers this well-worn advice: Remain socially engaged, which has been documented to keep our minds stimulated. “Rather than working on memory skills as such, people who sign up for memory training ought to be helped to work on their faith in their memories,” he argues.

Perhaps as important as staying active is to stop worrying. “Increased awareness of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia has created a growing community of people referred to in the literature as the worried well,” Draaisma writes. This group is rife with people (like me) who have a parent with Alzheimer’s. Draaisma means to reassure us by pointing out that the chance that you will suffer from dementia is “not hugely increased” if one of your parents is afflicted. Yet the jump he acknowledges — from 5 percent to not quite 10 percent (nearly double) — sure sounds significant.

One way to stop worrying is to focus on more positive aspects of aging, including the “reminiscence effect” — the thawing of old memories long frozen in a sort of permastore. This surfacing of our oldest memories is not to be confused with nostalgia, a painful longing for a past (or home) that no longer exists.

A curious aspect of the reminiscence effect is that it “seems to contradict what might be called the First Law of Forgetting: the longer ago something happened, the less chance we have of remembering it.” In fact, Draaisma explains, studies show a “reminiscence bump” centering on memories from one’s early adult years, peaking at around age 20 — perhaps in part because those formative years include more inherently important “firsts.” With longer lifespans leading to more three- and even four-generation families than ever, evolutionary psychologists suggest that the reminiscence effect represents “a transition to a more narrative way of passing on information” and should “invite us to see aging not as deterioration or decline but as a separate phase of development with characteristics of its own.”

This increased access to dormant memories, often with new understanding of long-embargoed events, has been a catalyst to many an autobiography, including Gunter Grass’s “Peeling the Onion” and Oliver Sacks’s “Uncle Tungsten,” which Draaisma considers in depth. Each memoir focuses disproportionately on the writer’s early years, with Grass famously revisiting his service in the Waffen SS, and Sacks recalling the London Blitz and the comfort he found in the periodic table, “an icon of order and predictability.”

“The Nostalgia Factory” starts strong but suffers from repetition, which is a curious shortcoming in a relatively slim book about memory. Even so, Draaisma’s exploration of how memories — inherently “selective, incomplete, and colored” — are formed and accessed remains intriguing. But for readers, the most welcome aspect of this book may be his heartening examples of the wisdom that comes with old age, including “far more experience of the fact that, as we age, the past turns out to be just as unsettled as the future.”

Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR.org, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and other publications.

THE NOSTALGIA FACTORY

Memory, Time and Ageing

By Douwe Draaisma

Translated from the Dutch by Liz Waters

Yale Univ. 158 pp. $25