During pregnancy, they say that the brain shrinks a little and they attribute that as the reason why pregnant women are so forgetful. Supposedly, this is all meant to return to normal after the pregnancy (give or take a little bit of recovery time) – “should” and “normal” being the operative words. Except that it’s now seven years on and I’m still battling the Mom Brain. I don’t seem to have made much recovery at all. If anything, the Mom Brain feels worse than ever.
Being Absentminded Versus Having a Bad Memory
I used to think it was because I had a bad memory. I would train my memory on Lumosity hoping to fix the problem only to realise that my problem isn’t my memory. In fact, by Lumosity’s standard, my memory isn’t bad at all. So why don’t I remember what I need to remember when I need to remember it?
The Absentminded Professor
The absentminded professor is a common stereotype describing a talented academic who is usually so engrossed in her ‘own world’ that she fails to keep track of her surroundings. Now that sounds like me! Except that my mind is usually not preoccupied with fantastical theorems or something significant such as the cure for cancer – it just has a propensity to wander off with the fairies and forget to come home.
For example, I might be brushing my teeth and I’ll remember that I need to take my phone off the charger and put it into my handbag. Since I’m in the process of brushing my teeth, I don’t do it immediately, but after I’m done brushing, I get distracted by other things, like making sure my sons have packed their bags for school and getting out of the house and into the car. We’ll be in the car halfway to school when I’ll remember that I forgot to take my phone.
Here’s another example that commonly happens to me: I’ll be in the process of replying an email (or SMS) when my boys will interrupt me with a request for assistance or something. I’ll stop to help them and then I never end up replying that email or sending off that SMS, except that in my mind, I remember writing a reply and it gets checked off the “to do” list even though it hasn’t been completed.
What’s happening in the brain?
I was reading an article about parents who forget their children in the backseat when I stumbled on the explanation of why the brain temporarily forgets the things it needs to remember. According to memory expert, David Diamond:
The human brain is a magnificent but jury-rigged device in which newer and more sophisticated structures sit atop a junk heap of prototype brains still used by lower species. At the top of the device are the smartest and most nimble parts: the prefrontal cortex, which thinks and analyzes, and the hippocampus, which makes and holds on to our immediate memories. At the bottom is the basal ganglia, nearly identical to the brains of lizards, controlling voluntary but barely conscious actions.
In situations involving familiar, routine motor skills, the human animal presses the basal ganglia into service as a sort of auxiliary autopilot. When our prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are planning our day on the way to work, the ignorant but efficient basal ganglia is operating the car; that’s why you’ll sometimes find yourself having driven from point A to point B without a clear recollection of the route you took, the turns you made or the scenery you saw.
Ordinarily, this delegation of duty “works beautifully, like a symphony. But sometimes, it turns into the ‘1812 Overture.’ The cannons take over and overwhelm.”
By experimentally exposing rats to the presence of cats, and then recording electrochemical changes in the rodents’ brains, Diamond has found that stress — either sudden or chronic — can weaken the brain’s higher-functioning centers, making them more susceptible to bullying from the basal ganglia.
How do we fix the Problem?
In all honesty, I don’t have any answers, but I suspect that these will be good places to begin:
- physical activity and exercise – improves circulation to the brain and overall brain health
- practice mindfulness – focussing on the now and being fully present
- stop multi-tasking – especially with that smart phone we carry around with us everywhere that has half our attention at any one time
If you have any other ideas, feel free to suggest them in the comments.