Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Remembering to remember memories (or something like that)

My son sat down beside me on the family room couch last evening and told me a Calvin & Hobbes joke that had just popped into his mind. We're both big fans of Calvin, and wish that Bill Watterson would bring the comic strip back. One joke led to another and another, so I asked my son how long he could keep up a steady stream of Calvin and Hobbes jokes, each recited word for word from a Watterson comic strip. I didn't get an immediate answer from my son as he reflected on how he should answer, so I asked: "Fifteen minutes?"

"A lot longer," he replied.

I don't doubt it. He can recite, verbatim, pretty much entire movies or episodes of the TV show Smallville. If he is interested in something, he soaks it up. When he was younger, it was the entire Pokemon line-up of creatures, with all their attributes. Whatever caught his fancy was committed to memory.

This boggles my mind. I can't remember what happened yesterday. I can't remember what flavour of yoghurt I just ate for lunch, just seven minutes ago. I have never been able to remember things. I always dreaded memory assignments in school, when we were required to memorize poems or passages from Shakespeare. Or periodic tables in chemistry. Or the names of plant parts in biology.

Or, names of people I know or have met in the past. I'm a very visual guy, and remember faces instantly. But, without the context of their normal surroundings, I am often confused. If I run into my chiropractor's nurse in a shopping mall, I won't necessarily know who she is. All I will know for sure is that I know her from somewhere. As you might imagine, this can be very embarrassing. I remember only a handful of classmates, from grade one through my second year of university, when I dropped out.

My brother is much like this too. His memory is somewhat better than mine, but not by much. My parents both had excellent memories, so what happened?

I have always rationalized the situation by saying that since I am always forward-looking and have no further interest in anything that has already occurred, my mind just doesn't file information in whatever part of the brain it might use for more permanent storage. I'm sure that explanation wouldn't pass muster under proper psychological scrutiny (what do you think, Penny?) but it sounds good and seems plausible.

We are each very different from each other from the moment we are born on. Our genes represent our 'nature,' our appearance, our basic personality, and certainly any physical or mental constraints on our abilities. We can't change that. Our environment, our family, things that happen around us, and the people that influence us, represent the 'nurture' part of the equation. We learn from others and from experiences we have. Together nature and nurture influence us to be what we are when we grow up. Unless, of course, you are like me and never grow up. But that's another story.

The point is that I am finding my poor memory extremely frustrating these days, much more so than in times past. I will be typing away furiously at a blog post and suddenly realize that the perfect noun or adjective has simply disappeared into the ether, and I can't summon it back. I know that I know the correct word, but can't make it appear on the keyboard under my fingers. Sometimes, I will leave a blank and come back later when I have thought of the word. Sometimes, I will use a less perfect word. Sometimes I will ask someone around me to help me jog my memory.

I know that I have travelled extensively, but often can't remember when I was here and when I was there, or even what I did and when. If you told me that I was in Mexico in 1994 and it was actually in 1986, I wouldn't know the difference, unless I consulted something in my mind that provided context. You know, something like: "My son was born in 1992, and I know that I was in Mexico before he was born, so I must have been there in 1986." That sort of thing. I have been in Mexico on extended stays three times, and have not the slightest clue exactly when. I just know it was before 1992, because I know all trips took place before my son was born.

Is this normal? There doesn't appear to have been any deterioration in my memory, it has always been like this. I dread the idea of losing whatever memory I have left, though. Developing Alzheimer's must be about the worst thing imaginable. I certainly would never wish to be afflicted with that disease.

I am not one to agonize over things. I have lived with my poor memory all my life, and while it is occasionally inconvenient, I can't say that it has held me back in any significant way. Maybe I should just forget about it (with, apparently, almost everything else that has ever happened to me) and just carry on.

Now, if I can just remember the way home.


  1. You are not alone, I am in my thirties, and my father has the memory of an elephant, I can't remember how old I am. However I can play a game that my wife marvels. When a new show comes on TV I can tell you the actors last jobs or previous movies? Don't know their names, but I see their faces and know their context just fine... BTW I subscribe to your blog and enjoy it very much... never felt a connection strong enough to post, but I felt you were speaking about me with the memory thing - Fernando -E39

  2. Nice to hear from you, Fernando. We humans are strange creatures, aren't we, similar in some ways but so different in others. That is what makes life interesting, I suppose, otherwise it might get pretty boring if we were all the same.

  3. Take Dolomite. Improves Memory, vastly.

  4. I'll check that out, Penny. Thanks!

  5. Memory: Such a blessing, and such a curse.
    I used to have a memory like your son's back in my early days as a Believer. I could commit almost entire chapters or strings of Scripture to memory with little effort. After the first betrayal by leadership, it was the Hitchhiker Trilogy by Douglass Adams I grabbed onto and loved for its irreverent humor. During those days, Calvin & Hobbes was my favorite comic strip. Once I started working, it was Dilbert I cherished. After the second betrayal by religious leaders, I stopped memorizing much of anything, and started concentrating on forgetting, and distracting myself from memories that wouldn't go away. Success and striving to improve, with the help of authors like Ayn Rand and Victor Paul Wierwille helped emencely.

    I still would like to learn your knack at forgetfulness.

  6. Galt, you have alluded to your past religious experiences/disappointments here before and on your own blog as well. It sounds like good posting material and fodder for lively discussion, unless of course, it is all too painful to dredge up again.