Monday, April 6, 2009

the things we remember

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about remembering. My own memory leaves much to be desired. Names come and go. Numbers are fleeting. Facebook has been my birthday date savior for the last few years. If I’m not logged on, your birthday may go unacknowledged for weeks. And if you’re not on facebook, your birthday may no longer exist in my memory.

As for everyday life, my short-term memory is a hell of a mess. My keys are constantly lost somewhere in the great abyss. My phone is uncharged and my I.D. is somewhere in some purse, always the purse that I never think to bring to the bar. Bouncers do not much like this. I exclaim “ I’m old, that’s why I forgot you see.” They are not amused.

It’s a problem that worsens with every year. I wasn’t always this way. If you’ve wronged me, boy do I retain it. If you’ve said something to inspire me, it sticks. To this day, I have entire passages of books memorized, movie quotes, and even sociological theory. I used to be able to do well on any test purely based on memorization. I would just listen, take illegible notes and just remember. I didn’t even read the notes. Well, truthfully, I couldn’t read the notes. I either scribbled off the page or doodled over everything. No one wanted to borrow my homework. But it worked for me.

These days those gifts have left. I can still remember facts ( I have a statistic for every argument, it really annoys people) but everyday stuff is lost on me. That’s why people who actually remember things amaze me. I used to believe that some people are just blessed with a photographic memory or an amazing capacity for remembering names and figures. 

A week ago Wired ran an interesting article by Gary Marcus regarding Jill Price, or the women who couldn’t forget. I had seen Jill on a talk show a few months back and I was pretty amazed. In fact,plenty of people were. She’s written books and become sort of a memory celebrity. And her memory is impressive, particularly her autobiographical memory. She remembers every day of her life. She can recall dates and even every feeling she had on any given day viscerally.

In the article, Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist, examined Price's ability to make new memories. He found that that in her abilities to recall a list of objects, a common memory test, she only performed slightly better then the average person. In fact, Marcus poses that Price's memory is trained by her own obsession with her memory. Price keeps journals of every event that has happened to her, she keeps mementos of things given to her, she finds an emotional link to every experience, and now she is making a career out of her capacity for these memories. Marcus argues that perhaps Price's memory is just a result of practice rather than an impressive natural ability.

It’s an interesting point. A point I pondered myself when I realized that much of Price's memory was based on events in her own life. Although, I can't claim such visceral memories of my childhood or even my teenage years, I know many who have much more emotional attachments to their past. If you tend to care that much about your experiences perhaps they stick with you. Memory may be more fluid then we think.

The article made me question my own claims about me memory. And how all our memories work. If I care more about remembering certain things, would I be able to? If I cared less, would I completely forget?

My memory does in fact show my bias. I remember stats because I hate losing a fight, so I have to keep track of my ammunition. I remember words and images that inspire me because my job calls upon me to draw upon these things everyday. I don’t remember names because I guess I’m not that much of a people As for my keys. I don’t remember my keys because I’m so wrapped in remembering everything else. Of perhaps, I just don’t think my keys are all that important.


  1. My memory is getting worse...but in a weird way as well...I can remember all sorts of random facts and dates and social events. But remember my coffee or to pay a bill...nope

  2. Sadly paying the bill and remembering keys seem to be necessary for everyday life unctions. Random facts, not so much.

  3. lol, my memory is about that good. I compensate by writing EVERYTHING down in a notebook, unfortunately I sometimes forget to go back and look at those notebooks when it comes time for me to do my assigned task. Le Sigh.