What, you lost your glasses — again? And you have no idea where you parked your car? And the name of your favorite sitcom — it’s on the tip of your tongue, but you just can’t quite remember it?
Fear not. Such minor forgetfulness is pretty normal, neuroscientist Lisa Genova told an audience of more than 750 people at a recent Zoom event, hosted by the Friends of the Hennepin (Minn.) County Library.
Genova, a Harvard-trained neuroscientist, is the author of five bestselling novels, all centering on people with brain maladies. “Still Alice,” her bestselling novel about a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, was made into an Academy Award-winning film.
Her new book, “Remember,” her first book of nonfiction, delves into why we remember, why we forget and how the brain works. Here are highlights from her recent talk.
On why she started writing
Becoming a novelist was really accidental. My interest in Alzheimer’s began in a very personal way: My grandmother had it. I was the neuroscientist in my big Italian family and I figured I would learn everything I could about Alzheimer’s. I read everything, the scientific research papers, and the clinical texts, and a lot of the caregiving manuals, and everything was helpful — to a point. What was missing for me was the perspective of the person who had it.
I thought, fiction is a place where you get to walk in someone else’s shoes. I wish there were a story written about someone with Alzheimer’s told from her perspective. And then I thought, well, someday I’ll write that book.
On ‘normal forgetting’
I have been talking about Alzheimer’s for over a decade, and I found that the conversation invariably drifts from Alzheimer’s to normal forgetting — but people don’t know what’s normal. We have this conception that memory is a perfect thing. It wasn’t even when we were 20, but I don’t think we even noticed or cared when we were 20. But when we’re 50, people start getting really scared and anxious.
So with this [nonfiction] book, I could reassure them and explain why they are really normal — how we remember and how we normally forget and what we can do to improve our memory.
On why we forget things
The No. 1 first ingredient for creating a memory that’s going to last beyond the moment is attention. You cannot remember something if you don’t pay attention. I think a lot of us think of memory as a video camera and it’s recording a constant stream and all you have to do to retrieve something is hit “play.” That is not memory.
You’re only going to keep what you pay attention to. So when your keys go missing or your phone or your glasses — and we do these things every day — this likely doesn’t involve your memory at all. This is a symptom of distraction — you did not pay attention to putting your glasses here. You’re texting, you’re thinking about the 12 things you need to do, and you’re not paying attention to what you’re doing. You can’t create a memory of what you don’t pay attention to.
On the different kinds of memory
There’s the memory for the stuff we know, the facts and information, like the stuff you learn in school. And there’s the memory for the stuff that happens, the episodic memory. This is the story of your life. There’s muscle memory, which doesn’t actually live in your muscles but lives in your brain. This is the stuff you can do — ride a bike, brush your teeth, drive the car. There’s also the memory for what you plan to do later.
For something that I remember that happened, that will change over time with every time I retell it. Every time I recall it, I have an opportunity to add something to it, subtract something. Maybe my mood is different now, maybe I can interpret it differently. Maybe I heard something on the news related to this thing that happened. I can slide that in, as well. This is not necessarily consciously done.
When I go to restore that memory, the new memory is what gets stored and it overwrites the old memory.
We think that those memories are accurate, but they’re probably not.
On memory games
The way to improve your memory is not through brain games and crosswords. You’ll get better at doing those brain games, and you’ll get good at crosswords, but it doesn’t translate. You don’t then get a better memory in your day-to-day life.
On the importance of sleep
Sleep is super important for your memory. Events are being consolidated into a lasting memory while you sleep. If you don’t get enough sleep, the hippocampus might not have enough time to do its job. You go and try to retrieve them [the memories] later and you’ll have a tough time and they won’t be fully retrievable.
If you have a horrible night’s sleep, do you have a hard time paying attention the next day? What do you need to form a new memory? Attention. So you won’t have formed the memories of the stuff you learned yesterday and you’re not going to be able to form the memories of the stuff you learned today because you won’t be able to pay attention.
While you sleep, the glial cells, the janitors of your brain, they do their job while you sleep. And they clear away the metabolic debris that accumulated during the business of being awake. And one of the things it clears away is amyloid beta. And if amyloid beta isn’t cleared away, it’ll stick to itself and form plaque. That is the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease.
So if you want to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, one thing you can do is get enough sleep.
On how to get a good night’s sleep
Our body temperature needs to go down by 2 degrees for us to fall asleep. Maybe your room is too warm. Are you worried through the night? Write down everything you need to do tomorrow before you go to bed.
Caffeine is a big deal. Caffeine is actually great for memory — it wakes your brain up. But you want to be careful about when you have this last latté of the day because the half-life of caffeine is five hours. That means that five hours later, half of the caffeine is still in your body.
On stress and memory
Stress will inhibit your memory to remember. Chronic stress is super bad for memory. Exercise, even a brisk walk every day, can save our hippocampus. Yoga, meditation, deep breathing.
If you close your eyes and breathe in to the count of four, through your nose, it calms everything down. You can do this several times throughout the day.
On giving in and using Google
If you can’t remember something, people think if they Google it, it’s cheating. It’s not. It does not make your memory stronger by forcing yourself to remember it, and you do not make your memory weaker by googling it.
A normal glitch in your memory doesn’t mean you’re getting Alzheimer’s.