Neal Milner: Old Brains Can Have New Memories. They Just Shouldn't Talk So Much - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Opinion article badgeWe elders can be just as boring and overbearing as you. Don’t give us a pass when we are.

Take memories, for instance. Old people have plenty but being old does not entitle us to go on and on and on about them.

It’s patronizing to think otherwise because that makes the old person into a cute puppy rather than a sentient human being.

In that light, I’m going to tell you three stories: “The Zippy’s Neurolab,” “Adventures of Teaching Old Folks How to Talk about Their Lives” and “What to Do When a Sweet Old Woman Says Something Scarily Wrong?”

Zippy’s Neurolab

A couple of weeks ago I was having lunch at Zippy’s with an old friend, Chuck Freedman.

He’s a highly respected and very smart political insider, so we talked a lot about politics. Also, because he and I had played a lot of basketball together, we got to talking about sports, which led to a conversation about Hawaii politicians who were good athletes.

“You know what’s one of my greatest memories,” Chuck said. “Making a game-saving circus catch in a softball game between the City and County and the State.”

He then described the arc of the ball as if it were yesterday.

I told him that after over 50 years of college teaching, one of my greatest memories was me as a young professor sinking a buzzer-beating jump shot in a Grinnell College Intramural League game 52 years ago.

Damn, I can still picture it — people still congratulating me the next day.

Which led us to the Big Question: How come we remember something that happened so long ago when we might not remember who had just ordered the burger and who had ordered the wonton min?

Zippy’s Restaurant located near Washington Middle School.
A recent lunch at Zippy’s turned into a trip down memory lane. But why can we remember something that happened long ago but not who had just ordered the burger and who ordered the wonton min? Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

In everyday conversation, that’s called the goofy and profoundly frightening mystery of getting old. Geezers talking sports. Oh Lord please, not another story about barefoot football.

In neuroscience conversation, that phenomenon has a name, Ribot’s Law, after a French psychologist who in the late 19th century showed that remembering an “ooh la la” you get from a stranger 50 Aprils ago in Paris but forgetting that you just left 150 old francs in the pocket of your pantaloons about to go into the wash was a real breakthrough.

What Ribot discovered is that Chuck and I can relive our personal ESPN highlights because old memories are more stable than new memories, not because our synapses are shutting down like the stop lights on Kalanianaole after a HECO outage.

As the neuroscientist David Eagleman points out in “Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain,” this was a profound step forward in understanding dementia, which is the tragic far side of this memory march.

There is also an upside. This brain process isn’t really a march. It’s more of a strategic meandering on the part of the brain because the brain has so much flexibility (plasticity) and has so many places that it stores and removes memories.

The brain changes as we change. The bad change is Alzheimer’s. But in an odd way, the old-new memory complexity is a very encouraging change. The brain is fighting hard for Chuck and me by opening new passages as others decline.

Eagleman reports on a large study of Catholic nuns who lived in convents. All of them agreed to regular tests of their cognitive functions, making their records available to the researchers and having their brains examined after they died.

(Note to those of you old-timer Catholic school grads who thought nuns never revealed anything about themselves: think again.)

One-third of these nuns fell into a profoundly interesting and encouraging group. After death, their brains showed deep signs of Alzheimer’s, but there had never been a sign of this in their behavior.

No, they didn’t do Sudoku each day after morning and evening prayers. They just continued, like their fellow sisters, to do what nuns did — the same job descriptions, the same social support, the same stimuli, essentially taking care of nun business every day.

This view by analogy makes Chuck and me more fully human, still multidimensional and not simply in decline. Ribots not robots.

However, Chuck and I, and those nuns can still be overbearing and boring, also part of our human potential.

Which leads to the next story.

Teaching Old Folks Not To Talk So Much

I attended a storytelling festival in an Illinois town where some of the old people living there told stories about their lives.

Vista workers had collected stories. Vista workers love this stuff. Living history directly from the mouth of kupuna to the mouth of babes. Giving voice.

Sometimes you get more than you wish for. Way too much.

One man told a story about bringing one of his family’s dairy cows to be a guest on the hugely popular “Bozo the Clown” kids show at WGN in Chicago. (Nowadays, calling a clown “Bozo” would be considered a microaggression.)

A great premise — country boy in a cattle truck bringing this animal 40 miles to the center of the Windy City.

Except the storyteller left nothing out. No detail was too small. There were no high points, no low points, just points after points after points. All of it became noise that quickly goes in one ear and out the other.

There was nothing wrong with the storyteller himself. He just needed someone else’s critical thinking to give him permission to talk as well as permission to be silent. Enough already, sir. They’re turning off their hearing aids.

Which is what I tried to do running a workshop.

Not Knowing What to Do When a Sweet Old Woman Believes Something That’s Scarily Wrong

Several years ago, my friend Nyla and I did a senior center workshop on how to “frame narratives,” which is a polite way of saying how to tell stories about your life without making the gruesome mistake the cow guy did.

She and I used our own stories as examples. Mine was about what it is like being a Jewish storyteller in Hawaii.

At the end of that workshop a very small woman came up to tell me how much she enjoyed my presentation. She asked if I would come to her church to talk about Judaism. I told her that I was no expert but that I would be happy to find someone who could do this.

She smiled, thanked me, then turned to her friend and said:

“There are two kinds of Jews. The good ones like Neal, and the rest of them, who killed Christ.”

The worst kind of antisemitic canard. It has led to thousands of Jewish deaths over hundreds of years and from the mouth of this sweet old lady. I was stunned, totally caught off guard.

That remark would have gotten someone a punch in the face when my dad was growing up. I let it slide.

I’ve thought a lot about this incident over the years. I should not have considered her a sweet old lady but rather a person who was wrong and deserved a response for both her sake and mine.

Letting it pass was patronizing. She and I both needed to be part of a serious talk.

Not a “cute auntie” conversation, not a “she’s probably just senile” wave of the hand dismissal.

Rather, a serious talk with a person who may be old, but not too old to learn — and be taught.


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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

P.S. Re: my earlier Comment, I misspelled ' mensch" , but I pretty much got the meaning right: " Someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character, "That would be you, Mr. Milner.

cavan8 · 4 months ago

Dear Neal,You and your amazing legacy will live forevah. You must have been the student who read and digested 'The Elements of Style'. As we literati like to proclaim, you're right on the kini po'o po'o! You're also a real 'mench'. ( not sure, but isn't that ' a nice guy' ?)

cavan8 · 4 months ago

Interesting thoughts presented here. Here's my 2 cents: Whatever is considered morally acceptable today, could be viewed by future generations as crude & repulsive. Maybe our great-grandchildren will find that eating meat or enjoying football is nothing short of barbaric. Lest we think so highly of ourselves as having fully evolved and achieving moral perfection. I happen to think we haven't reached that, & we are kidding ourselves to believe that our descendants will 100% approve of everything we are doing today. Litigating the past with a microscope & passing wholesale judgments on past generations for what we "believe" to be failings & inadequacies on their part....I'll let others have the honor of casting the first stone.

KalihiValleyHermit · 4 months ago

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