By Gillian •
Updated: 08 Jun 2023 • 10:40
As a teenager, I could remember the names of all the characters
in "Julius Caesar". Today I can´t remember which room I am in
Photo credits: Archaeological Museum, Turin
I remember, over seventy years ago, when I was at school and my young brain was able to learn, understand and retain information so much better than today. Not just knowledge, not just facts, but information. How interesting it was to get to know, at the age of 16, the significance of the year 1848 for European politics, the names of the African countries bordering the Gold Coast and the characters in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”.
With most of my life ahead of me, it was exciting to explore and understand the world as it was then in the fifties and had been in the past. But so much information absorbed during the last four years at school has never been used since. It’s still stored somewhere in the brain. This includes algebraic formulae and Latin verbs. Being inaccessible, this information is about as useful as a pair of sunglasses in Manchester.
Likewise, the name of my head teacher is stored somewhere in my brain. But I have forgotten it, meaning I can’t retrieve it, and may never be able to do so in the future. So, if somebody asks me a question, do I say “I can’t remember” (meaning “I used to know”) or “I don’t know” (meaning “I never did know”)? If I can’t answer, then people will assume the latter – that I’m a blockhead.
After leaving school, as I absorbed more and more information, I soon realised that many of us acquire knowledge in order to impress others by displaying it. A conversation can thus quickly turn into an ego-boosting points-scoring exercise, the purpose of which is to make the “loser” look ignorant. And it can be argued that, for this purpose, the inability to access the stored information leaves the “loser” in the same position as never having acquired it in the first place.
As we age, we slow down physically and mentally. We command less respect and attention from others, especially strangers. And so, unless we have an exceptional energy, charisma or sense of humour, we can become patronised or even ignored.
It is a fact that people tend to show more patience and tolerance towards physical decline rather than mental decline. This is probably because it is visible. If we have a coughing fit or start dribbling every five minutes, those in our presence patiently look the other way. If we keep falling over, they help us up or provide physical support. But if we go into the bathroom to look for a corkscrew they are neither amused nor sympathetic.
And, at the moment, I cannot recall where I had breakfast yesterday, although this will probably come back to me. But this is not terribly interesting or useful information. I just wish I could remember to whom I lent my stereo system. Ah, of course! I sold it eight years ago.
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