The memory myth perpetuates the belief that major transition events in life– like pregnancy and menopause– often include the symptom of brain fog or short-term memory loss. But is this phenomenon real, or is it all in our heads? Let’s take a look, as memory change is a frequently-reported issue by wellness-seeking women.
First off, let’s get one thing straight: there is no structural change to the brain while pregnant. That means, whatever forgetfulness you experience in pregnancy is not due to a shrinking brain capacity.
But that doesn’t mean you’re making it up!
There are two culprits for pregnancy brain: surging hormones and shifting priorities.
Hormones such as progesterone and estrogen, which are 15-40 times more prevalent in a pregnant woman’s body, affect how the brain’s circuitry works. Think of it like your brain is stewing in juices that are rendering it less efficient than usual. If you can’t find things, blame that on the way hormones affect your spatial memory.
Your shifting priorities are the most significant culprit of forgetfulness. Your attention has shifted to your growing baby—even when you may not be conscious of the shift—and that results in you missing events and objects that would ordinarily be top of mind. Very likely, this an evolutionary adaptation: your body wants to you prioritize your baby to help ensure its survival.
But I’m not pregnant anymore! And I still can’t I remember anything?
This one is straightforward: instead of keeping up with your life and responsibilities, the reality is that most partnered women are also responsible for much of their significant other’s calendar, too. Throw in children, and now you’re trying to remember things for 3, 4, or 5 people’s lives, not just your own.
Cut yourself some slack!
Just as your brain didn’t physically shrink in pregnancy, it didn’t get any bigger, either. Now you’re just trying to load more data into the same bandwidth.
When you think of it that way, it doesn’t solve the annoyance of being forgetful, but it should allow you to be more compassionate with yourself.
Memory & Menopause
Unlike the childbearing years, there are measurable cognitive changes that take place in a perimenopausal women’s brain. The cognitive challenges have been reported both as the difficulty to learn and retain new information as well as completing simple processes that were once done by rote with no challenge (think adding up numbers in your head or adjusting logistical plans without undue stress). Regardless of the type of cognitive challenge perimenopausal women experience, there is data to support that it is a real and meaningful shift from their prior abilities.
One of the most commonly reported symptoms of menopause is memory fog. Unfortunately for them, science supports that they are most likely the same women suffering from hot flashes. What’s the connection? It could be that the brain fuzziness reported by women is due to the marked shift in hormones from pre-menopausal years. Because these hormone levels may change significantly in a short period of time, a woman’s recognition of her brain fog seems sudden and distressing.
If we bust the memory myth, how can we make memory better?
The Three ESSES
Sleep is critical not only for how we feel physically, but also for how well our nervous system functions. If we don’t sleep enough, our neural pathways are covered in muck, and our brain doesn’t fire as fast as it should.
And, yes, it’s annoying that the one thing—SLEEP—that can really help us is most elusive at the times we need it most. Whether it’s a baby or young child waking you up regularly, a bed partner who has put on middle age weight and now snores, or the hormonal shift of menopause, these are stressful times.
But that doesn’t mean regular, quality, restorative sleep is not a worthy goal!
What can you let go of? How can you offload projects that no longer interest you, but you’re still doing them because you always have? Reducing the number of responsibilities you have is one of the quickest ways to improve your memory.
I know that seems like a simplistic, glossed over answer. But for most of us, there is at least one thing we do every week that if we were honest with ourselves we could release it and not miss it at all.
How can you create systems to streamline your life? From packing lunches to batching email to creating a schedule for housekeeping, investing the time to introduce systems into your life frees up brain space for remembering other things.
Creating predictable habits gives an order and logic to our brain so it can move through those tasks easily– and devote more attention to novel tasks.
What do you think? Does knowing more about the memory myth make you feel better or worse?