The mysteries of memory

‘It’s not that your computer doesn’t work, it’s that your hard-drive is full’

  • Mentally absorbing activities like knitting can help stave off memory loss. At the Northampton Senior Center, from left to right, Sue Davenport, 75, of Wilbraham, Jude Sidney, 72, of Northampton, and Kathie Nowill, 71, of Easthampton work on hats for cancer patients and babies staying at area hospitals. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Kathie Nowill, 71, of Easthampton, leads a knitting class at the Northampton Senior Center Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Kathie Nowill, 71, of Easthampton, leads the knitting class. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Jude Sidney, 72, of Northampton, knits at the Northampton Senior Center Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Jude Sidney, 72, of Northampton, knits at the Northampton Senior Center Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Diane Martin, 64, of Williamsburg, knits at the Northampton Senior Center. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Neuropsychologist Brad Crenshaw shared an anecdote about not remembering how he knew a woman he’d met the night before. Contributed photo

Published: 4/1/2019 3:50:50 PM

Retired neuropsychologist Brad Crenshaw was grocery shopping recently with his daughter, Alexandra Gorlin-Crenshaw, when they ran into a woman he knew he’d met before — but he couldn’t recall her name or where they’d met.

When his daughter told him he’d met the woman at a music recital the night before, his memory flooded back. He remembered.

Crenshaw, 69, experienced something that every person faces at one point or another — normal aging. And given the nature of his career — he’s learned the names of several thousands of patients — Crenshaw says he wasn’t that concerned, even though it was a little bit awkward.

“My capacity to remember names is reduced. It’s harder for me because I have this immense collection. It’s a fairly common thing not to be able to remember names,” he said. “Don’t go home and panic because you’re not (remembering) everything.”

Crenshaw, who splits his time between Amherst and California, has an MFA and Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Irvine, and a second doctorate in clinical psychology and neurosciences from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He worked as a neuropsychologist — someone who studies the structure of the brain in relation to behavior — for 15 years at Baystate Medical Center, and recently retired from 11 years of full-time work at the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services. These days, he still consults part-time for the state.

Over his decades-long career as a neuropsychologist, Crenshaw says he’s worked with many patients who were medically stable but suffered from some sort of memory impairment. He’s seen a wide gamut of problems. During a recent talk on memory and aging at the Northampton Senior Center, Crenshaw told a crowded room about one patient, a man in his 50s, who had taken a bad fall and hit his head. When Crenshaw visited him in a nursing home, the man was hiding beneath the bed and thought that he was in the middle of a battlefield in the wild west.

It turned out, the man had watched a western the night before his fall and couldn’t differentiate between memory and reality.

“The facts were in there. What he did not identify was the source of those facts. He could not make the distinction between details,” Crenshaw said. He explained the story to describe what normal aging is not.

To a certain extent, Crenshaw says a certain amount of memory loss should be expected in older age as brain functions become less efficient and because there’s so much more information to sift through.

“By the time we’ve reached this part of our lives, we have immensities of data we’ve correlated and stored,” he said. Because of that, it’s a lot harder to recall stored information, especially if it’s been recently stored. Forgetting names, he joked, is “just God messing with us. What can I say? There’s no specific mechanism that would explain that in detail.”

Forgetfulness can also be caused by distraction or medication, says Michelle Dihlmann, a social worker at the Northampton Senior Center on Conz Street.

“I’m in my 50s, and I can’t always think of the proper word because I’m thinking of five different things at the same time,” Dihlmann said. “People think ‘I’m getting older and I’m forgetting’ — that’s not necessarily it. There are a lot of other factors that play into it.”

For the average person in their 70s, Crenshaw says they might have hundreds of thousands of words stored in long-term memory. Finding one word to describe something, he continued, is like searching through a library of hundreds of books for one specific word on a certain page.

That being said, he stressed that more severe memory impairment is something to be aware of. For anyone who might be concerned about memory impairment beyond what’s normal, he said it’s a good idea to visit a primary care provider as a first step.

“It’s a thin line between not being overly anxious, but at the same time, not being unknowing or inattentive to problems,” he said, noting there are medications that can help slow down memory loss such as Aricept, Exelon, and Reminyl, to name a few. Vitamins including ginkgo biloba and vitamin B12 can also be helpful.

To actively preserve memory, Crenshaw said it’s important for people to seek out activities that are mentally challenging — something that Kathie Nowill, 71, of Easthampton, has taken to heart.

To keep her mind nimble, Nowill studies Gaelic and leads a weekly knitting class at the senior center in Northampton.

“It’s not that your computer doesn’t work, it’s that your hard-drive is full,” Nowill said. “You tend to remember the things that matter, and forget the rest.”

Crenshaw noted that knitting can be a good way to stave off memory loss because it requires a lot of engagement.

“(Knitting) has all the elements. You have to really concentrate because you don’t want to miss a stitch. Also the social aspect. Once you get good, and you’re starting to transfer the act of knitting into what I call procedural memory” — like riding a bike — it’s possible to hold a conversation at the same time, he said.

At Nowill’s class on Thursday, a half-dozen women sat around a table working on hats for patients in need at Cancer Connection and babies staying at area hospitals. They talked and laughed as they worked.

“Forgetting can be embarrassing,” said Jude Sidney, 72, of Northampton, who was knitting a yellow hat. “My memory is pretty good, but I’ve had some problems with remembering names.”

While it can be difficult to recollect details like names or something that happened last week, Crenshaw says long-term memory, like the name of a second-grade math teacher, is secure. Barring some sort of serious memory impairment like Alzheimer’s Disease or past trauma, short term recollection — such as repeating numbers back immediately after they’re said — is also secure.

“If we can pay attention to get the information, to begin with, then, immediately, we have it in our mind,” Crenshaw said. “The reason we’re here has to do with a specific kind of memory — the impairment of declarative memory — that is dealing with the delayed past.”

To make things more difficult, Crenshaw says the world is changing rapidly and becoming more and more complicated. For example, turning on a car’s headlights used to be as simple as pulling out a switch. Now, everything is computerized, and the driver has a range of lighting options like whether or not to turn on running or fog lights with the headlights.

For those who might be having trouble remembering things, Crenshaw says using cues or ‘landmarks’ to help retrieve information can be helpful. When determining whether or not someone is experiencing memory impairment beyond what’s normal is to determine “how well are these landmarks functioning.”

“Search for the context in which you know the person,” Crenshaw said.

Others at the knitting circle Thursday shared their own techniques for jump-starting memory.

“If I’m sitting here with two new people I’ll say their names to myself a few times while I look at their faces,” said Dianne Martin, 64, of Williamsburg. Martin, who is a retired kindergarten teacher, says she makes it a point to knit every day in order to keep herself mentally active. For the past year, Martin says she’s been working on a shawl — the most challenging project she’s ever tackled.

Andy Castillo can be reached at

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115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


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