There’s a reason why you can’t remember diddly-squat

George Brown
I’ve been taking some classes at UC Clermont this summer. I’ll save the story about my course of study for another time, but I do want to put in a plug for the University of Cincinnati’s Senior Audit Program. After you turn 60 you can audit classes tuition free.

The last time I sat in a college classroom was in graduate school at Miami University when I was 30 years old. My course of study was Gerontology – the study of old age. Now, 35 years later, I’ve become one of those older people I used to read about in Bob Atchley’s “Social Forces in Later Life” class. Back then it was all theory. Today, as they say, I could write the book.

I was feeling a little self-conscious about returning to college. I couldn’t help but wonder, and worry, about whether I would be the only old guy in a classroom full of students young enough to be my grandchildren. In hopes of fitting in, I showed up the first day of class sporting a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses, khaki shorts, sandals, a Bearcats T-shirt, and a ball cap that covered most of my gray hair. Of course, I also had my trusty backpack with me, which has come in handy in more than a few scary situations.

As it turned out, fitting in was the least of my worries. Most of the students at UC Clermont are young, but there are plenty of “older folks” on campus who, like me, understand the social forces of later life. By day two I realized the real problem I faced was remembering what I was learning.

In academic terms difficulty with remembering is explained through two theories: the Cue-Dependence Theory, and the Trace Decay Theory. I won’t take space to elaborate about these theories, but in lay terms they can be combined as the “I Can’t Remember a Dang Thing” Theory.

Some years ago Andy Rooney presented a well thought out commentary about why we become forgetful as we get older. Actually, I don’t know how well thought out it was but it makes sense to me.

Relying on observational research (his own experience and observing his older friends), Andy concluded that our brains have a finite capacity to take in information. From the moment we come out of the womb, if not before, our brains start taking in information. At some point in middle age (sooner for some than others) our brains fill up and the only way we can take more information in is for our brains to dump an equal amount of old information.

As you might have already guessed, all of those things you can’t remember are the stuff your brain had to dump to make room for new information. There’s no point in sitting around trying to remember any of it because it’s gone for good. For example, if you look long enough you may find your keys, but it won’t be because you suddenly remembered where you put them.

I know this is frustrating to hear, but it gets worse. While we have some control over what we put into our brains, we seem to have no control over what gets dumped to make room for new information. For example, you might want to think twice before trying to remember some interesting point of trivia that you hear on Jeopardy because doing so could be at the expense of your brain dumping the date of your wedding anniversary. Try explaining this to your wife. “Honey, I forgot our anniversary, but did you know a Spanish artist named Salvador Dali said he was going to eat his wife when she died?”

Unfortunately, Andy Rooney isn’t around to confer on an additional observation of mine, but I think he would agree. Sometimes when new information comes into my brain, say like college lecture material, instead of pushing some old information out to make room for the lecture material my brain just shoots the information straight through one ear and out the other. I call this the Diddly-Squat Theory because I can’t remember…well you get the idea.

I’m trying my best to think of a positive upbeat way to end this column. I know there’s a solution to this forgetfulness problem, but for the life of me I can’t remember what it is.

George Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Jackson Township.