How to Keep Stuff in Your Head and Why It’s So Hard to . . . What Was I Saying?

Oh yes, now I remember!

Did you ever watch a sunset to capture the exact moment the sun dips below the horizon?

I did that one evening on a beach in Clearwater, Florida. A friend told me that I might see a green flash if I gaze at the light where sky meets water at the precise moment the sun slips out of sight. We sat together on the sand watching the pink ball of sun kiss the water’s surface. A green flash shot across my vision, sharp and brief, but unmistakable. “I saw it!” I told my friend, “Did you see it?” She shook her head. The next night I stood again at the water’s edge, my gaze riveted once more on the foundering ice cream-colored sun. This time there was no flash of green when it disappeared below the horizon. No matter, I thought. I’ll retain the memory of that green flash and replay it whenever I want, as I did just now.

But wouldn’t it be sad if you couldn’t recall something that really means a lot to you? Or couldn’t access a fact that used to hover so close to the surface of your conscious mind that you could reach out and grab it as easily as you do that Krispy Kreme Bavarian at Speedway?

Maybe this problem with recall is already happening to you. It certainly is the case for me. Here’s something that should make you feel better and not be so hard on yourself:  In a 6/27/2013 article by Thorin Klosowski , the author claims that our memories are generally unreliable anyway. We’re more apt to remember something we see or hear if we have a great interest in it and give it our full attention. But then there’s this:

Even if the stimuli are of intense interest to us, we’ll still remember it wrong because memory is based on context and judgment.1

The human brain is not like a computer – or a video archive, for that matter. The frontal cortex makes very biased decisions about what is worthy of remembering. It might not surprise you to read that it is not the same part of the brain that comprehends mathematical theory. Consulting the frontal cortex for that kind of thing would be like picking up a copy of the National Enquirer for accurate, fact-checked information about foreign relations in the Middle East. Our feverish frontal cortices are why social media is awash in Kardashian selfies and why Donald Trump sound bites go viral. If this goes on much longer, ice-pick-through-the-eye-socket lobotomies might make a comeback, and I just might be the first in line to volunteer—to perform one, that is.

So how do we cut through the schlock and commit something valuable to memory? And how do we then retrieve the item we forgot to remember?

One good method is to connect stuff to other stuff. For example, an acronym can stir your memory faster. I live in Michigan and I’ve always struggled to remember the names of the five Great Lakes—until one day when I discovered that envisioning the word HOMES makes me rattle off all five lakes without having to think about it. HOMES stands for Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. Works every time–mostly because it’s important to me to be able to do that.

Another method is re-memorization and recitation. Again, the key to this is interest and passion. For example, I was a classically- and jazz-trained musician from an early age. An old pianist friend of mine once studied with Bartok’s mistress during his college years at the Cincinnati Conservatory. Together we constructed a music geneology, something very dear to us both. Bartok’s mistress had taken plenty of cues from Bartok himself, who had studied with Liszt, who had been a pupil of Czerny, and Czerny had studied with Beethoven, who, as a child, had once played for Mozart. I have impressed my niece with such litanies, reminding her that all these connections were made years before anyone had ever heard of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. I do forget the lineage from time to time, and when I do, I research it afresh and re-commit it to memory. It is an important part of my identity and therefore a labor of love. So too recalling the family and friends of author Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group; it is a deeply meaningful connection to my literary sensibility. Collections of such pedigrees feel familial. I have no desire to research my family geneology. The musical and literary lineages are far more significant to me than my own bloodline. I feel so much more defined by them than by a faded photo of a Sicilian peasant who chased goats out of a tomato patch near Palermo in 1901. I might physically resemble her, but she didn’t grow up listening to Miles Davis’ “Birth of the Cool” and I’ve never danced the Tarantella.

What we want to remember, what we do remember, and what we strive to re-remember could boil down to who we want to be and what we need to recall as a means of clinging to a human characteristic called identity.

There are few easy solutions to improving your memory; it takes vigilance and upkeep, research and inquiry, and an unwelcome expenditure of mental and physical energy. Your passions and interests will drive your methods of recall until the day your body wears out from the effort. Stay passionate and interested in whatever you find meaningful for as long as you can summon the strength to do it. It’s what will keep you–well, you!2

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