Thursday, October 16, 2008

Menopause and working memory

The classic menopause moment, of course, is when you hurry with great purpose into another room only to find that you're clueless once there. If you're a mother, it's a mommy moment. Fair-haired? A blond moment. On beyond menopause? A senior moment. All these short-term lapses represent a sudden and unexpected blackout in working memory. Let me explain.

You needn't be a neuroscientist to recognize that there is a difference between working and long-term memory. Here's what Swedish researcher Dr. Torkel Klingberg has to say on the subject:

[Working memory] refers to our ability to remember information for a limited period of time, usually a matter of seconds...[I]t might seem a simple function, but it is fundamental and vital to numerous mental tasks, from attention control to solving logical problems...One of the defining characteristics of working memory is its capacity limitation.

In contrast, again per Dr. Klingberg:

The amount of information that can be stored in long-term memory is virtually boundless. Long-term memory means that we can memorize something, direct our attention at something else for a few minutes or years, and then retrieve the first item again at will. This is not how working memory operates, for when information is being stored here, it is under the constant glare of attention.

In Klingberg's book "The Overflowing Brain" due for release in 2009, he explores the good, the bad, and the exasperating of our brains on information overload. This book is well-written (or well-translated from Swedish) and not for the faint of brain. He offers both animal and human evidence as well as imaging evidence from functional MRIs and PET scans that explain why it is that the overwhelmed, the inattentive, and the aged have trouble doing two things at once much less multi-tasking.

In brief, whereas memories are encoded into long-term and permanent storage through biochemical and cellular changes, short-term memory is a work in progress that depends on the continual activation of neurons in the front and sides of our brain. Interrupt the current current in these cells and poof! there goes your thought. In other words, if an unexpected stimulus such as the ping of a text message or your teenager calling on the back office line turns your attentional spotlight off your search for a report, you will find yourself in front of an open file drawer with no notion why.

Is information overload a bad thing? Interestingly, Dr. Klingberg presents evidence that we can expand our working memory capacity through the daily exercise of focused multi-tasking. He does note, however, that working memory 'bandwidth' narrows with age, and the mismatch of lowered working memory capacity with higher information load results in stress.

Well yeah. And menopause moments.


Wendy said...

Was standing in front of the coffee maker.
My hands were busy separating one paper coffee filter from the rest.
My brain was focused on a converation with Hubby.
Consequently, I plopped the whole pile of paper filters into the filter basket, while placing the one, lonely, filter my hands had just separated from the pile, back into the cupboard.

Working memory? What was that again??

kenju said...

That explains a lot! LOL

femail doc said...

It's early morning somewhere in Canada. The sun is just hitting the golden leaves of a large tree visible from the kitchen window. The middle-aged lady making coffee inside, however, does not notice the glorious scene outside. Her brows are furrowed, her lips move silently and continually. "One in the basket, the rest in the cupboard, one in the basket, the rest in the cupboard..."

Anonymous said...

I will gladly place my menopausally impaired working memory against my husband's abject lack of ability to multitask any time of day or night, any day of the week. I believe I once read what sounded like a decent study "proving" that women can out-multitask men. This is a good thing since nothing would get done anywhere were it otherwise.

Reality Man said...

I wonder what "focused multi-tasking" means. Try this one for exercising short-term memory: Click "Start" and program counts down from 3 and presents groups of digits. You then click empty circles in order of lowest number to highest. It will go through ten iterations, with more numbers being presented when you get one right. It is actually a challenge to stay focused over ten iterations. At the end, it tells you the "age" of your brain. Could doing this and listening to NPR at the same time be "focused multi-tasking"?

30 years from Darling said...

your blog is going to be such a great resource for my psychology classes when we get to memory! well ..and aging as well! *grin*

I've got a paper due on keeping the brain sharp due sometime in November ..not sure when ... I've forgotten! (seriously)

Reality Man said...

See also which suggests that we are really unable to multi-task.