Protecting Your Memory: A Full-time job?

A review of Carved in Sand, by Cathryn Jakobson Ramin

I won't lie to you. The press release for Carved in Sand did not inspire confidence. "When journalist Cathryn Jakobson Ramin was in her early 40s, she began forgetting things and was having trouble concentrating," reads the description of the book:

Embarrassed, but also concerned, she decided to get to the heart of the question so many people in midlife ask: Is this normal--or am I slowly losing my mind? A veteran reporter with two decades of investigative work under her belt, she decided to become a guinea pig . . . [embarking] on a three-year quest . . . intended to restore - and perhaps enhance - her cognitive function.

This all sounds good until you stop to consider that the answer to her question "Am I slowly losing my mind?" might be 'yes.' Because who really wants to read research on the failures of memory written by a woman who is, in fact, losing her mind? She wouldn't exactly make for a reliable narrator. Thankfully, the answer is 'no.'

After missing a series of appointments and relying a little too heavily on her online thesaurus, Jakobson Ramin became convinced that she might be experiencing the first stages of Alzheimer's or something equally crippling. In fact, she seems to have been experiencing the first stages of middle age. The more well-adjusted among us might fault Jakobson Ramin for her hysteria over the prospect of slower recall, but in some ways it's a good thing. Trust me. If you want to know everything there is to know about memory, put a journalist convinced she's losing hers on the job. Nothing motivates a writer more than abject fear. In fact, the biggest failure of Carved in Sand isn't that the writer had trouble grabbing hold of the facts, but that she was too greedy for information.

Jakobson Ramin's search for answers was so exhaustive and so wide ranging that Carved in Sand includes a dizzying amount of information, but provides no clear answers. At the close of the book, after embarking on ten interventions, including neurofeedback training, sleep disorder therapy, prescription cognitive enhancement, meditation, and a nutritional regimen, Jakobson Ramin acknowledges that she got her "mojo back--ideas meshed, names made themselves readily available." And yet, she says "even if I had ten years--one for each intervention--I would not have been able to say, for sure, that my thyroid medication made a difference, and that the vitamins and supplements did nothing at all, because the most crucial variable--the physiology of the brain--endlessly rearranges itself in response to environmental and biochemical factors. Eat less trans fat? Different brain. Dance your ass off three nights a week? Different brain, yet again."

Here lies the rub. As much useful information as Jakobson Ramin's book provides--and it provides a lot--the reader will not come out the other end with a clear plan for restoring memory. Instead, they will have a wealth of data on current treatments, a long list of things to avoid eating and drinking, a deep fear of sleep deprivation and multi-tasking, and lingering bitterness over the surfeit of technology and information that overwhelms us. If you are a vigorous and self-disciplined person, you might have time to employ two or three of the interventions Jakobson Ramin describes and they might well work. Then again, they might not. But you can take comfort in the fact that few of them are likely to hurt. You stand to benefit from eating better and sleeping more regardless, and meditation and vitamins are harmless--albeit slightly annoying.

Despite my disappointment at not being provided with a "memory restoration road map," I found Carved in Sand enjoyable, and impressively well researched. Jakobson Ramin's writing is engaging and clear, and she has a talent for distilling complex topics to their essentials. Thanks to her I have a whole new set of nutritional restrictions, a healthy distrust of prescription remedies of all kinds, and newfound hope that, with proper care, my weary brain will remain in tact for at least a few more decades.

5 Things I Learned:

*We aren't the first generation to become mentally unhinged in the face of new technology. In the last decades of the 19th century, people began to fall ill with "neurasthenia," a syndrome characterized by "generalized anxiety [and] a sense of dread or worry" believed to be brought on by the advent of railroads, the telephone and other innovations.

*Midlife smokers are nearly a third more likely to develop Alzheimer's than those who have never smoked.

*The human brain doesn't requisition a lot of space for working memory. Even chimps have more. Why? According to Jakobson Ramin, scientists believe that part of the space once set aside for working memory was co-opted by the brain's language centers.

*After just two days of sleep deprivation, your brain goes into "emergency mode." This stress response causes the brain to stop producing BDNF, a protein in the central nervous system that encourages neurogenesis. Translation: Losing sleep causes a decline in the production of new neurons.

* If you think getting your Omega-3 fatty acids in the form of fish is a good thing, consider this: A Cornell biological statistician found that Chilean farmed salmon had such high levels of mercury, it's only safe to eat about six times a year. The stats aren't a whole lot better for fish like sea bass, halibut, and tuna. Meat may pack on the pounds, but all that mercury-laden fish you're eating could be robbing you of your memory, according to Jakobson Ramin.

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I laughed. I cried. I annoyed the living daylights out of my husband by reading nearly half the book aloud to him at all hours. I called friends and read sections to them. As did Nora Ephron in writing "I Feel Bad About My Neck" Ramin's book saved me the trouble of writing it myself. What worries me most is that none of plausible explanations for her observed difficulties apply to me (except maybe the thyroid function - going to have it tested) so maybe I *AM* losing my mind. But damn damn damn my mind has no trouble at all retaining and spitting out at constant intervals for no reason at all the negative and stressful things that are bothering me. If I have to lose my memory, can't I lose THIS stuff?