Lifting the Brain Fog: Memory, Part 1

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Foggy Dock
Photo by Tiiu Roiser / via

“How do we know that what we think we know is really so?”
— Deming System of Managing

Life on the Maine coast means many a foggy morning. An 11 p.m. forecast for a “mostly sunny” morning may hold true a mile inland while along the shoreline a bank of grey has a different idea.

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Foggy Dock
Photo by Tiiu Roiser / via

Fog’s impulsiveness is a given; it rolls in then away it goes. It comes on like a haze, limiting if not obscuring. Sometimes that’s it, we see but not clearly. The haze may lift or fill in like a bowl of pea soup. Then, unable to see beyond the front porch, a thick, heavy blanket wraps us, urging inward retreat. No sightline, no perspective, no choice but to go with it. In the fog, one can lose direction, forget their way. Then poof — it’s gone. A clear view stretches to the horizon and beyond the beyond. All the while, the mind’s eye sees what it wants to see.

So too goes the human mind. Brain fog works in a similar way: rolling in, obscuring, confusing, muddying. While age is one scapegoat, sleep, stress and distraction are common contributors. Brain fog doesn’t discriminate. Navigating through it takes focus, or we become forgetful, pulled off course.

Memory itself is an internal rumour; and when to this hearsay within the mind we add the falsified echoes that reach us from others, we have but a shifting and unseizable basis to build upon. The picture we frame of the past changes continually and grows every day less similar to the original experience which it purports to describe.
— George Santayana, “The Life of Reason”

An article by Toni Gerber Hope in Good Housekeeping stresses adequate sleep as a means of lifting the fog in one’s brain, stating “lack of sleep has such a profound effect on our brains, making us forgetful, unable to concentrate, grumpy, accident-prone or clumsy.” When the brain is deprived of sleep, the “areas where cells are lost are the ones that regulate decision-making, emotions, memory and learning.”

As basic as a good night’s sleep, there’s no arguing cause and effect of daily choice on how we think. Smart phones and “devices” suck us in, diet and exercise become guilt trips, over-scheduling frustrates, inflated expectation of self and others discourages and destructs.

It’s all connected: decisions, emotions, memory, learning. Memory is subjective and subject to distortion. Clearly it’s a muddle. We get mixed up.

If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.

Jane Austen, “Mansfield Park”

So what is real? What is true? If not our memory and that of others, what can we trust?

Coming round a bend in the road, the hill crests, overlooking valley and hills beyond. A wide-eyed child buckled into her car seat asks from behind, “Oh Mummy, is that the world?”

A child’s view. Not what’s behind or ahead or how it all works together. But right then, at that moment, it is the world to her. Her view will change with time. Perspective, like memory, is a curious thing.

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Grown now and an NSF Graduate Research Fellow in Child Clinical Psychology, she tells me:

Brain and body are one unified system. And behavior shapes the brain just as much as the brain dictates behavior. Even this bidirectional conception of the system is oversimplified: our lives, our thoughts, our actions, and our physiology (neurophysiology, musculature, organs) continuously inform one another through time; we are constantly in flux, constantly developing. We act on our worlds even as the world is acting on us.
Kelsey Quigley, M.S., Pennsylvania State University

Exactly. All the more reason to breath before we act.

Foggy Lake
Photo by Colin Seitz / via

I went so deep into my research on memory, I nearly forgot to finish this column. The glut of information on this thing we all possess has me thinking four-part documentary rather than monthly blog. How short-sighted of me to try to wrap it up in a neat package. Memory is a messy thing. I’m reminded to keep it simple stupid and that less is more, yet I find myself lost.

There’s simply more to memory than can fit in one place. But one thing is crystal clear: breathing room, i.e. time and space to think clearly, is key.

Step One: Awareness. This is important stuff. A moment of clarity is a weeks-worth of fog. Memory is malleable, and unlike the weather, in many ways we can control it. (Ah, control. Subject for another column!). Let’s just say, we can indeed manage our memory.

Studies show that a simple adjustment in the way we think can bring a mile-long list of returns: clarity, productivity, appreciation, joyfulness, stress relief, focus, achievement of goals, direction, perspective, sharpened memory.

Even more basic: making time and space in our days just to think can expose true memories and lend clarity.

In her Harvard Magazine article, “On the Psychology of Possibility,” Cara Feinberg talks with Harvard Professor Ellen Langer about her research on mindfulness:

The physiological results provided evidence for a simple but invaluable fact: the aging process is indeed less fixed than most people think. But the study also helped launch . . . a slew of seemingly simple concepts that have changed the field of social psychology and made their way into the realms of medicine, education, business, law and the arts. “Wherever you put the mind, the body will follow . . . .  It is not our physical state that limits us,”  [Langer] explains — it is our mindset about our own limits, our perceptions, that draws the lines in the sand.

A slew of seemingly simple concepts.

Wishful thinking? Mind over matter? A simple step, mindfulness is a misunderstood concept with far-reaching impact. A good first step in exploring memory — the human kind and the institutional kind.

With an eye on the way people think, perhaps the more accurate focus is whether, and in what circumstances, people think at all. Langer’s work has changed some perspectives. Yale President and Argyris Professor of Psychology, Peter Salovey, puts it this way: “Instead of cognition determining behavior, Langer showed that thinking — and sometimes the absence of it — often emerges from behavior.”

It’s hard to see where we’re going. Connecting the dots — especially between big subjects like memory and the day-to-day of business growth, personal growth or creative process — takes time. It’s best then to focus, one step at a time.

More on memory once the fog has lifted, in our minds and here on the coast of Maine.

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Leslie Cargill
Leslie Cargill is a “smarketer” and communicator, privileged to work with leading brands like Boston Ballet, United Way, the Museum of Science and the Boston Red Sox. From baseball to ballet, she advances experience-based programs in the arts, tourism, education, entertainment, healthcare, fitness and sports. While the goal is to retain and grow an existing base of business, the trick is in developing new or "non-traditional" audiences. She was Director of Marketing and Communications with Boston Ballet before returning to her consulting practice where she serves as advisor, project manager and interim CMO for her clients. She believes in a good mix of marketing basics, a campaign approach, and both program and institutional strategies in branding, positioning, messaging and communicating. A dyed-in-the wool New Englander, she splits her time between Boston and her family home on the coast of Maine. She can be reached at leslie@cargillboston.com. Or call Leslie at 617.913.9000.