I don’t know how I got myself lost. I’d driven there with no problems the week before. OK, I had a GPS telling me where to turn and admonishing me when I overshot an intersection. When my car battery died that morning, I had to borrow my neighbour’s fifteen-year-old Prius to get to my volunteer job at the school. “Don’t be late, Rhonda. You must show up.” The woman who organized the volunteers was a retired teacher. Retired or not, teachers can still make me fall in line in a hurry.
The car told me how much energy I was using, but it didn’t come with a GPS. I stopped at the side of a road I couldn’t recall, and I wondered how much energy had been saved by using GPS devices to lead us directly to our destinations. GPS was brain-saving too since we didn’t have to bother using our internal navigation systems and didn’t need to remember landmarks. The GPS did the remembering for us. That freed up our little gray cells, but for what? Apparently to ask for directions. I found the nearest driveway, pulled in, and knocked on the door of a lovely small house snuggled under an umbrella of orange-barked arbutus trees.
“Oh dear, should you be driving? With your memory problems and all?” a twenty-something said when I asked for directions. She was covered in paint, but it was dry. No, her outfit was tie-died, and that was the latest rage on our island. I’d been there, done that, fifty years earlier. It looked horrible then too.
“Memory problems?” I said.
“Yeah. You were here last week asking me the same thing.”
“Oh no. That couldn’t have been me. I had the GPS last week.”
“Yeah, you said it wasn’t working.”
I stared at her hard. Was she imagining things or was my memory fried? “Well, I’m sorry if that’s the case. I still need those directions.”
When I got to the school parking lot, I saw an old green Prius just like the one I was driving. A woman who looked a little like me was digging in the trunk, and I walked over.
“Hi, my name’s Rhonda, and I’m a volunteer here. By any chance, did you get lost coming to this school last week and stop to ask for directions?
“Yes, I did. My GPS wasn’t working. How did you know?”
“I’m driving a green Prius today, and I found a small house in the woods this morning to ask for directions to this school. The young woman who answered the door almost had me convinced I’d been there last week asking the same question. I can’t tell you how relieved I am to realize she was talking about you.”
“Well that would be scary. And we don’t look a bit alike, really, aside from the gray hair and the same car.” She looked put out, perhaps offended by being mistaken for an older, shorter and heavier woman. “That girl should have her memory checked.”
“I’m with you on that,” I replied.
I’m only telling you this story because that’s how it began for me. The girl giving me directions started me wondering about memory problems in young people. A few years later, everyone was talking about how difficult it was to deal with youth because they had such poor recall. At first, inattention to details was blamed on the devices they all carried that acted like portable storage units and reminded them where they were and what they were supposed to be doing. They didn’t have to remember things because it was all on some hard drive, or in cloud storage, whatever that is. Maybe young people were no longer aware of their surroundings so they failed to recall places or conversations. Tests were done that proved otherwise, and there were attempts at memory enhancement that met with limited success. Most people now believe that something had happened during brain development, like damage by a virus or chemical that wasn’t around when we were growing up.
What surprised most of the older generations was that youth weren’t particularly bothered by their lapses in memory. None of their friends seemed to mind if they had to repeat things, and besides, there was always Facebook or Twitter to keep up with what was happening. What interested me most was the widespread belief in living in the present moment. It was like a mantra for them, and I could see how it would reassure people with questionable recall. The past and the future are illusions. Only the present is real. I heard that over and over from my grandkids, often accompanied by a disparaging look during another pointless conversation with Grandma. The generation gap when I was a kid had nothing on this.
Some professions were devastated, particularly those working in the health sector. Fortunately computer programs had already taken over much of the diagnosis and record keeping, but nursing was a problem, and lots of mistakes were made and then covered up. People started demanding that only older nurses be hired, and older bus drivers and airplane pilots. Mandatory retirement disappeared without a fuss, especially when salaries were bumped up for elders. What a joke that was, and everyone could see it would be a recipe for disaster eventually. All the young people out of work and living with their parents or grandparents didn’t seem fussed by any of it. It was lucky that the era of constant economic growth had come to an end so that everyone was getting used to leading simpler lives, demanding less stuff, and now, capable of doing less. Young people spent their time tending chickens and rabbits in their parent’s backyards.
“It’s like they’re a new species,” my daughter Brenda said.
“Yes, and that reminds me of that cartoon with the apes shuffling along, evolving to man, and then devolving back again when technology comes along,” I said. “I remember, oh sorry, remember is a politically incorrect word these days isn’t it? I read that we’ve lost more than ten percent of our brain capacity since the Stone Age. One theory is that we’ve been domesticated, and like domestic versions of wild animals, our brains have shrunk.”
“Lovely thought,” Brenda replied. “I wonder if we’ve seen the end of major technical innovations. Some say it’s not necessarily a bad thing if we don’t move forward at break-neck speed.”
“Do you mean the Luddites among us who worry about technology outpacing our ability to apply it wisely? I suspect they’re right, although I’ve heard that not all young people have reduced recall.”
“It could be an immunity to the virus or chemical,” Brenda said, “although maybe it’s just luck that some infants avoided being exposed during a critical time in their development.”
“I guess we’ll know ahead of time who will be our next leaders. That’s a lot of pressure for a kid to deal with,” I said.
“Yes, and I’ve heard that some kids pretend to have poor memories. That wouldn’t surprise me. Adolescence is difficult enough without standing out as a “brain”. She looked so sad as she said this.
I should have told you about Brenda. My daughter was brilliant, no thanks to me, and she’d made some really important breakthroughs during her career. So when she’d said that we were the last of our species, I believed her. There was little chance of new discoveries because that required making connections, and you need a memory to make connections.
I wasn’t surprised when Brenda disappeared. Hundreds of people went missing that year, and they were all older and brilliant, like my Brenda. Everyone speculated on where they’d gone. Some were convinced there were government think tanks that were busy organizing everything for the planet, trying to keep it operating until the memory problem was solved. I liked to believe that was true. Others were sure that the missing geniuses had been put to work identifying the virus or chemical that caused the memory failures and working to reverse it. There were space ship theories, cloning theories, and some scary ideas that brain extracts were being prepared from the missing people that could cure all the memory problems. But no one was able to figure out where the geniuses had gone and no miracle cures appeared.
The grandkids forgot my birthday this year. Their electrical devices and the power that feeds them aren’t that reliable any more, and their alarms with reminders about birthdays and such don’t always work. At ninety-six, I still have better recall than those kids. But I feel the Grim Reaper approaching, and I’m ready: prêt à mourir, so to speak. The last few years, I gave up trying to help young people with their memory issues. It all seemed so pointless, especially when they’re happy enough the way they are. You want to know the big joke? There’s a lot to be said about living in the present moment, and it’s easy to slip into that mindset at my age. The best thing about it is my grandkids talk to me a lot more now.
Yes, human brains are apparently shrinking. Watching a PBS series on the brain, I learned that connections between are neurons are maximum at about two years of age and then decline as we learn to focus on some abilities and discard others we don’t use. Kids under two are now using iPads, and that made me wonder where our brains are headed. In the Age of Ignorance, the author of this essay argues that keeping the population ignorant solves a lot of problems.