Originally this blog post was supposed to be something quite different but then a close friend of mine, who will remain nameless, got in touch to say they’ll be visiting soon. It’s been quite some time since I saw this person, and instantly my mind was flooded with all the times we’d spent together.
I’m able to recall moments instantly as if there’s a giant cinema in my brain and the staff know exactly what film I’d like to watch. I don’t have to think about it, instead thousands of synapses fire and all of a sudden it’s a warm summer night in 2014. We’re doing nothing special – just walking home after a night out, the way we did hundreds of times, but I remember it because the air was lighter, warmer than usual.
Memories are complex creatures and, depending on the information, are filed away into long, and short-term mental databases. For instance, when I tried crisps for the first time as a child my brain registered how much I enjoyed the crunchy, salty texture and filed that information away long-term (LTM). Whereas the numerous case laws I needed to remember for an exam were quickly forgotten after I passed the module, hence they all ended up in short-term memory. (STM)
The strongest type of memory is that of ‘Flashbulb’ and in 1977 Brown and Kulik invented the theory, explaining why we react to one particular memory so vividly and not others. The theory was named after a common photography technique at the time. The photographer would press the button on the camera shutter and the flash device would capture everything it illuminated. From a psychological standpoint, ‘flashbulb memories’ exist because the information within them has shocked, surprised, traumatised or evoked some other powerful emotion in the recipient.
Memories are very useful as they not only tell us what we like, and dislike but they also stop us doing things that are highly dangerous like stepping in front of a car. Of course, we have no idea just how much mental processing truly goes into human memory storage and 99% of the time it won’t occur to you as you go about your daily life. Most of our experiences are either filed into long, and short-term memory depending on what happened and when. The big stuff: Graduating, your first job, getting married, having children etc. is firmly implanted in LTM while smaller things, like your reaction to the finale of this season’s Game Of Thrones, is probably going to end up in STM.
Another theory is that of Endel Tulving’s ‘Episodic Memory’ concerning how our brains chronologically process millions of pieces of data. For instance, a classic example uses Disneyworld as a vector. There’s a huge difference between remembering your holiday in Disneyworld as a teenager and knowing that Disneyworld is in Florida.
In short, episodic memory acts as an internal calendar keeping track of events, the who, what, when, where and why. It keeps track of times, places and important dates such as the year you left uni or the year you went abroad for the first time. It acts as an anchor, giving contextual detail to the many images and provides a narration of sorts to your life.
Now imagine that slowly, but surely, you become a bit forgetful. At first, it’s just little things, like not being able to remember if you went grocery shopping or not, forgetting the word for reading classes and then becoming confused over what day it is. Gradually, the bigger stuff starts to fade; people, places, your favourite food, the name of your first pet and what it is you’ve done as a job all these years.
Then, finally, it’s whether you ate that day, not remembering if you went to the toilet and who your children are. That’s what dementia does to a person it steals, without any remorse, all of the memories of your life. The big ones, the little ones, the sad, happy and quite inconsequential ones. It robs you of having any understanding of the world and your place in it and it causes your friends, family and loved ones unbearable pain too.
Dementia isn’t a joke; it’s a serious cognitive disease that essentially eats away your brain cells until you forget who you are. It can strike at any time and treatment is limited depending on which form you have. Currently, 850,000 people have been diagnosed with dementia in the UK and over the next decade, that number will double.
It isn’t just the UK either as in Japan one in five elderly people are suffering. To the point where entire communities are making permanent changes to benefit those living with dementia. We cannot afford to ignore the issue and hope it goes away, but we can do something about it by creating spaces, like the Dementia Cafe, where those with the disease can get the support they desperately need.