Books : reviews

Douwe Draaisma.
The Nostalgia Factory: memory, time and ageing.
Yale University Press. 2013

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 9 February 2018

With a storyteller’s gift and a scientist’s insights, Draaisma explores the terrain of memory, demolishes myths about forgetfulness as we grow older, and celebrates the unique qualities of the ageing mind.

This is a fascinating account of several different effects of ageing on memory. It shows that this is not a simple deterioration of recall with age; there are multiple facets and effects. Each chapter looks at a facet in some detail.

Some of the problems with memory are nothing to do with age, it’s just that age exacerbates them. Take remembering names, something I’ve never been good at:

[p19] The problem with names is that they have no inherent meaning. Someone who introduces himself as a baker immediately prompts all kinds of associations with the baker’s trade: getting up early, kneading dough, clouds of flour. Someone whose name is Baker evokes no image at all. Learning names, experiments show, is just as difficult as learning completely random pairs of words such as ‘bicycle-flower’. It is this randomness – someone called Baker might equally well be called Butler – that causes so much trouble for an ageing brain. The absence of associations means there are no other routes that lead to the name, so we remember the baker and forget Mr Baker. There is another problem here too. Being unable to think of a person’s name has a greater subjective visibility than being unable to think of a word, since in the latter case you can generally substitute a description or synonym without delay … Not so with names.

Playing up this worry of becoming forgetful, a whole ‘brain training’ industry has developed, selling us products to keep our brain fitter. There is little evidence that improving at the exercises has any impact on memory improvement, however. They may be exercising a different aspect of brain function, a different ‘mental muscle’. However, this is not a problem. Although memory does decline with age, this decline is not particularly severe, unless there is actual dementia involved.

One feature of ageing that some people experience is reminiscence, of old memories bubbling to the surface. This can be a joy, provided those memories are pleasant ones. What is surprising is not that the memories are old, but rather that they have returned after having being seemingly forgotten. Most memories are of earlier events, and later life seems to pass much more quickly, as fewer memories are formed. This may be due to a memory bias: it is easier to lay down memories of novel events, and later in life there are fewer first times or surprising experiences. This may also partly explain later memory decline: there is simply nothing new to remember!

Such reminiscing may lead to a form of homesickness. Some people suffer such severe homesickness when they move away from home that the only cure is to return; they may simply fade away and die of sadness if they don’t. Reminiscing can lead to nostalgia, a wistful desire to return to that fondly remembered past; such nostalgia may turn into severe homesickness, for the remembered past. And this homesickness cannot be cured, as return is not possible. I have fortunately never suffered from homesickness; we moved around a lot when I was young, and so I never gained a strong attachment to any one place. Hopefully I will also not suffer from past-sickness when I start to reminisce.

Overall I found this book very informative, reassuring, and enjoyable to read. Although I’m not sure how much of it I will remember…