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"If These Walls Could Talk ..."

Too often we ignore or devalue the knowledge and memories passed down to us from older, more experienced people.


Have you ever been inside a very old residence, perhaps one of historic value, and thought, “If these walls could talk, imagine what they’d say about the people who lived here and what they knew”?

I’ve had that reaction while visiting such places as the Bronze Age Minoan palace of Knossos in Crete, the house of William Shakespeare, and most strongly, when I traveled more than 30 years ago to the 10th-century town of Abbateggio, Italy, to see the childhood homes of my ancestors. No doubt, the intensity I experienced within those Italian interiors was due to the connection I felt between those spaces and my own past –– cultural information now lost to me and which I would have treasured.

Fortunately, my father and my maternal grandmother, both of whom are now deceased, shared with me some touching stories about their lives in that rugged town, tales of endurance, proactivity, and creativity that have helped me throughout my life to make decisions and choose new ways to grow.

That’s the value of what is known as “institutional knowledge/memory” –– having access to information passed down from an older or more experienced person to someone who can benefit from that wisdom.

All too often, we incorrectly believe that achieving old age inevitably results in the loss of long-term, or crystallized, memory (actually, healthy brains retain and get better at that ability), and because of this, we rarely seek out elders’ ideas and opinions when wrestling with challenges in our own lives.

In Western history, it wasn’t always this way. More than five millennia ago, before the creation of written language, a society’s elders were the repositories of information vital to the survival of their clan or tribe, sharing that wisdom orally. They knew the most effective ways to hunt and gather food, which foods were safe to eat and preserve, the right times to plant crops, how to make tools and use them to build their shelters out of natural materials they found in their environment. Once such knowledge could be recorded (especially with the invention of the printing press in the 15th century) and later widely disseminated, elders’ importance began to diminish.

The value of institutional knowledge also took a great hit in the mid–19th century, during the Industrial Revolution, when younger people migrated from farms and into cities to do factory work, and thus relied less on their older family members for support. Today we live in a hyper-digital world of instantaneous access to huge amounts of information. Does this devalue the content and capacity of older adults’ brains? It depends on what kind of wisdom someone seeks.

Of course, we can turn to books, websites, apps, and search engines, but we also have access to personal recollections, passions, judgments, and experiences, all of which still have a value of their own. It’s up to each of us to determine that worth for ourselves. In doing so, it helps to know that the brains of healthy, long-lived people contain all kinds of information, filed away in different areas of the brain according to the types of memories they contain.

Yes, there’s more than one kind of memory residing in human brains, which retain two basic forms of information. Declarative memory is the ability to recall “things,” such as names, dates, facts, and what objects look like or are used for. Procedural memory is the ability to recall “how to do things,” such as get dressed, travel from one place to another, and perform a particular job –– all of which require actions done in a sequence of steps.

As if this wasn’t impressive enough, there are different subtypes of both declarative memory and procedural memory.

Declarative memory includes:

Semantic memories, which are objective facts and events (what happened in 1492, the name of the current President, which foods contain vitamin C, what a hammer does, etc.).

Episodic memories, which are subjective, usually emotion-laden facts and events (your children’s names, trips you went on, how you sprained your ankle, your high school graduation day, etc.).

Associative memories, which form the relationship between two things or ideas (being able to put a face together with a name, knowing that a lemon is sour, classifying a collie as a species of dog, etc.).

Conceptual memories, which consist of abstract ideas (democracy, humidity, compassion, etc.) and their meanings.

Attentive memories, which are judgments (your likes and dislikes, what makes you comfortable or uncomfortable, how you feel about a certain person, etc.).

Prospective memories, which contain information that you want to remember in the future (tasks to do tomorrow, appointments to keep, etc.)

Procedural memory includes:

Unconscious motor skills (waking up, breathing, balancing, etc.).

Conscious learned tasks (driving a car, writing, speaking a language, gardening, tying your shoes, using a TV remote, etc.).

Pretty impressive, right? Now consider once again the issue of institutional memory. Can you see how older and/or experienced persons are keepers of all kinds of information that can benefit us?

A grandparent who teaches you how to cook or fish or speak another language; a 30-year employee who knows the ins and outs of project management; a government diplomat with years of experience negotiating trade agreements and treaties –– gleaning knowledge from such people is like accessing resources from a storehouse or treasure from a vault.

As we age, all of us increase our own reserve of knowledge, which means that our individual brains, if we keep them healthy, contain a cache of institutional memory, always at our disposal to share, should we opt to do so. Unfortunately, an ageist culture can limit such opportunities when others assume that what older adults know is outdated at best, or trivial and wrong, at worst. Those assumptions can be counterproductive and even devastating when people lack the imagination to see how longstanding declarative and procedural memories can often be of value in the midst of analyzing current situations and seeking solutions to the problems that arise from them.

The most common examples of such disregard occur in the workplace, when the knowledge of employees who have been at the same company for many years is overlooked or undervalued. Those workers are often laid off or pressured to retire, not consulted for their input when updating old procedures or establishing new ones, or denied opportunities to be trained on newer equipment or software. Their sense of frustration –– as well as loss of autonomy and dignity –– can push them out the door, to the detriment of an entire business.

For what is affected when experts leave a company that doesn’t find a way to retain their knowledge? An intriguing 2014 Harvard Business Review article cited four domains that are negatively impacted when “deep smarts” are lost. First, any long-term relationships those people have built with customers or clients will have to be reestablished with other employees, which could take a great deal of time. Second, if the people replacing those experts aren’t as capable, the company’s reputation can suffer. Third, incoming replacements for those experts will be challenged to acquire that same knowledge, to start from scratch, repeat those efforts, and in effect, re-work those jobs, which cost not just lots of time but lots of money. And finally, the company’s regeneration –– the ability to create new products based on past experience and expertise –– will be hugely diminished.

And such losses don’t occur only when valued, long-term employees leave. Current workers can encounter the same difficulties. When businesses lack protocols that allow employees of all ages and levels of experience to share their knowledge either in person or by accessing a record of it, workers can waste time (one study estimates an average of 5.3 hours a week per employee) searching for the information they need to do their jobs. And such struggles can lead to frustration, decreased job performance and satisfaction, and possibly employee turnover, which would then require hiring and training of new employees –– and more time and money, often millions of dollars annually, depending on the size of the company.

What a waste.

Whether we’re talking about a workplace or a social space, whenever we disregard the institutional memory of older employees or of older relatives and friends, we do so to our own detriment, for we may regret the loss of their knowledge, the loss of their voices to guide us.

We may come to a point when we metaphorically think, “If these walls could talk….” and realize that the silence we encounter is because of the partitions we built between us.


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