Reminiscence Makes Sense

Written by Active Minds on Thursday the 5th of September 2013.

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Although we probably don’t analyse this outcome too often (or ever), to reminisce about a time passed with colleagues, friends or relatives, even the odd stranger, can lift our mood and secure our sense of self-worth and identity. Something odd happens when we effortlessly reminisce –  we might feel the warm wash of nostalgia or the fizz of a firework going off in one of the dusty filing cabinets in the far-corner of our brains – that unmistakable feeling of ‘Wow, there’s a memory I didn’t know still existed’ – which makes our eyes light up.

And as we are sharing and swapping our own stories and experiences with others, we find our place as human beings and we develop stronger bonds with those around us. Even if we’ve shared a memory with the person sat next to us on a bus as a result of an incident in the present that’s encouraged engagement with a complete stranger, that connection, even when the person has got off at their stop, never to be seen again, continues to sooth our souls a little.

Of course, if we are lucky enough to remember what we did 5 minutes ago and reminisce about times past, we don’t have to rely on those moments of memory recall to make us feel happy and whole.

For those with dementia however, reminiscing about a time past, possibly the only times they remember (their only reality of the present is being in a period of time in their heads which actually existed many many years ago) may be the only open door to feeling that sense of identity and belonging.

The activity of reminiscencing can therefore be extremely rewarding and therapeutic for those with dementia .

Most studies on the use of reminiscence as a therapy argue that a person experiencing meaningful bonds with their family and carers through the act of reminiscing will be less depressed, show an increase in their engagement with those around them, feel a higher sense of purpose, meaning, and identity, feel less frustrated, less bored and will age more healthily.

In a publication dated 2003, Dr. Eleanor Maguire and Dr. Christopher Frith of the Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience at the Institute of Neurology at UCL, conducted an experiment on a group of adults, some in their 30s and some in their 70s (with a 50/50 gender split) to try to understand how ageing affects the engagement of the hippocampus (the area of the brain where most human memories are stored) during autobiographical memory retrieval.

In simple summary (you can read more here) the groups were put through different tests including control tasks, answering general knowledge questions and recalling public events, autobiographical facts and autobiographical events. MRI scans were taken to monitor brain activity in each session for contrast and comparison. What the findings show is that both left and right hippocampal regions “lit-up” for those in their 70s during autobiographical recall, while those in their 30s only seemed to use the left side of their hippocampal region during the same recall. The MRI scans show that compared with the recall of public events, general knowledge, or control tasks, autobiographical events stimulated by far the biggest reaction in the hippocampus.

The key to reminiscence therapy (discussion of past activities, events and experiences with the aid of tangible prompts) seems to be similar to that of the therapeutic dementia activities born out of the Montessori method (see previous blog post) and that is the fact that every person is unique and the individuality of a person should be understood and nourished.

When a person’s individuality is accounted for, therapies of any kind become far more meaningful and far more effective. For those described as “living in the past”, a clear sense of personal identity can be difficult to achieve – the whole picture of who they were, and therefore who they are, is no longer visible. They are now after possibly 70, 80 or 90 years of life, defined by only one very finite period of time.

When a person with dementia is allowed and encouraged to reminisce about a time passed that they remember, they are able to take advantage of their very personal/ individual cognitive strengths. And when therapies play to these strengths, a person’s sense of self is supported or restored.

Two brand new picture books to help aid reminiscence are now on sale – Proverbs & Sayings and The Countryside

Also see our Reminiscence Cards for the 1940s and 1950s.