How do you know 1 + 1 = 2? - (9/14/2021)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

Ms. Sheehan was fidgeting with her checkbook at the pharmacy counter. "How much for the prescriptions again?" she asked the pharmacist. "34.95," he said. "I just can't seem to subtract anymore," she exclaimed as she struggled with the math. "Soon, I will forget that 1 plus 1 equal 2!" "That's not going to happen any time soon," the pharmacist assured her. She said, "You know, I got all A's in high school French. Do you think I can speak more than 10 words of it today?"

"Use it or lose it" is an old chestnut that can be applied to memory. One is not likely to forget one's name or simple arithmetic. But being able to converse fluently in a foreign language briefly visited during high school usually goes the way of solving quadratic equations and naming all the US vice presidents. Humans – and possibly other animals – learn things in spurts, neurologists say. For example, the time for potty training is when the child realizes the bladder or rectum is ready to evacuate. Recognizing that it's a matter of either waiting for the mom to stop texting her neighbor and change the soiled diaper or to take things into one's own paws. The same goes for language. No one hands their one-year-old a list of verbs and how to conjugate them. Not even in France. They hear. They repeat. And then suddenly, they never shut up – except when they are in their teens and purposely ignore you. 

Once one gets the essentials down pat, the brain is ready for concentration, learning, and memory (AKA reading, writing, and arithmetic). But let's forgo the minutiae of neurotransmitters and the cerebral anatomy. Instead, picture each thing you learn as a sticky child's building block. For example, counting to 10, the alphabet, and Daddy's lighter. The first time the child picks up her dad's Zippo, she is met with a resounding NO!. Once the lighter, the first sticky block, connects to the other sticky block – the warning – the bond is (hopefully) set. The same with numbers. "One" may be the loneliest number that you'll ever do. Until you match it with another "One." Now you have two sticky blocks eternally linked: To wit, 1+ 1 = 2. And, they will build exponentially as one learns long division, square roots, and the dreaded algebra. Yet, the sticky blocks that house your algebra are not as tightly bound as simpler concepts. Left unused, they shrivel and blow away. 

This brings us to long-term memory versus short-term memory. In long-term memory, your route to school, tying your shoelaces, and your boyfriend's middle name (it’s Lance!) are tightly glued to the things most vital to your everyday life. Never to be forgotten. Short-term memory is for a matter that you only need for a second. Example: You are walking down the sidewalk. You spot a heap of dog poop on the walkway. Your brain says, "Don't step in it." You avert disaster and then move on. Or a dorky guy wants to date you. He says, "Call me. Let me know." You write his phone number in the air with your finger, avert disaster, and move on from that sticky block and that dorky guy. 

Routinely, the pharmacist gets asked why there is not a pill so that we can learn everything instantly. Thinking and memory are so complex that no drug could house all that energy. Yet, even the most innocent baby can master them. We may overthink things and make ourselves unhappy even though your BFF told you, “He's just not that into you.” Or we can block a memory because it is unpleasant to bring back to center stage. The events of 9/11 are like that. But what would life be without our ability to remember and to grow on our memories? Particularly as we age, and our brains become cloudy. Ms. Sheehan may not remember her French and may wrestle with her checkbook. But her brain gets her where she needs to go in life. And for that, she is grateful. C'est la vie!

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist and writer-in-residence at Rx-Press.


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