By NICK CHILES
Is your kid the one who somehow comes home from school without his coat—when it’s 20 degrees outside?
Do you have to repeat yourself 10 times before your child remembers to clean her room every Saturday morning?
Does he forget his lunchbox seemingly EVERY morning in the rush to get out of the house on time?
If you are answering “Yes” to any of these, scientists may have some good news for you: The less stuff your child remembers now, the more room she’ll have to remember stuff when she gets older.
This certainly comes as welcome news in the Chiles household, where our 10-year-old is sometimes quite, uh, memory challenged.
Researchers have discovered that learning becomes more difficult as we get older not because we have trouble absorbing new information but because we fail to forget the old stuff. In other words, the hard drive is full and we have no way of expanding it.
So all those forgetful youngsters out there are acting with optimum efficiency—they are preserving space on the hard drive so that they can store more stuff when they get older. We hope.
Joe Z. Tsien, the lead author of the study, which appeared in the journal Scientific Reports, said it was like writing on a blank piece of white paper versus a newspaper page. “The difference is not how dark the pen is,” he said, “but that the newspaper already has writing on it.”
Before puberty, the human brain produces more of the NR2A protein than the NR2B protein. In adulthood, the reverse is true. The scientists engineered the mice to produce more of the adult protein, expecting they would have trouble forming strong connections. But the mice showed no trouble creating new short-term memories, while brain scans showed that they struggled to weaken the connections that had formed older long-term memories.
“What our study suggests,” Dr. Tsien said, “is that it’s not just the strengthening of connections, but the weakening of the other sets of connections that creates a holistic pattern of synaptic connectivity that is important for long-term memory formation.”
The results explain a lot about what happens to the aging brain, when we can remember events from our childhood as vividly as a video but can’t remember what we got for Christmas last month.
So we can only hope that our painfully forgetful children will have reams of megabytes just sitting there unused at the end of their childhoods. This will give them the space for all the new stuff they will need to remember as they discover the cure for cancer two decades hence.
That’s what you shall tell yourself the next time you’re driving back home AGAIN to retrieve the forgotten lunch box.