Shut up, memory.

Reflections on having too good a memory.

Kevin Drum writes that his long-term memory is very bad:

I barely even remember going to kindergarten. Actually, that’s too charitable: I don’t remember going to kindergarten. Or first grade. Or fifth grade. Or high school. Or college. Or, for that matter, stuff I did two years ago.

Is this an exaggeration? Only barely. I remember occasional shreds from years past, but that’s about it. On the bright side, this means that if I had a nasty fight with you a few years ago, there’s a good chance I have no memory of it. On the not-so-bright side, it means that if we were close friends in high school, I might or might not even remember knowing you, let alone remember anything substantive about what we did together.

After reading this I’m beginning to think that whether a person is fundamentally forgetful or the contrary (rememberful?) may be a huge difference among people, maybe as big as the more famous—though still not famous enough, and not sufficiently understood—gap between introverts and extroverts. I realized only a few years ago that I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum from Kevin. I remember huge amounts of things from a long time ago, in particular things I’ve heard.  (I don’t remember visual things because I don’t notice them in the first place: another thing that makes me odd in a world where sight is king.) And ever since I realized that most people aren’t like me, I’ve also realized how different life seems for someone like me from how it must seem to someone like Kevin.

On the plus side, I almost certainly know more things than lots of other people. What others, I’m told, forget from high school and college—the names of Japan’s unifiers and how they were different, ways of criticizing Marx’s labor theory of value, the drawn-out nomination fight at the 1924 Democratic Convention—I often remember. I can quote, with substantial though not perfect accuracy, pieces of political talk shows from twenty years ago and movie lines from Ghostbusters II (which I saw once, when it came out, and it wasn’t even a very good movie). Nor is it just a matter of facts. It’s nice to remember a lot of detail about my first date with my wife, and the second and the third, and the Tony Bennett concert I went to when I was 22, and funny things my son said when he was three. And though I’m no extrovert and don’t make new “friends” easily, I seem to form deeper-than-average connections with old friends by remembering things about their parents that they told me about in college, or the name of the boyfriend or girlfriend who broke their heart when they were 24. I once wanted to be a novelist. I didn’t have the writing skills to pull it off but I did have the memory, and I don’t think everyone does.

On the minus side, I remember things that others gladly forget: lots of bad dates as well as the good ones, the words someone used to convey a professional disappointment, things I said that offended other people, things other people said that offended me. This creates obvious psychic burdens. (I recently asked an old friend who knew me in college whether a couple of very liberal people we both knew when I was a freshman disliked me because they mistakenly thought I was pro-life. She gave me the only sensible answer but one unfortunately unavailable to me: she had no recollection of the dislike and barely remembered the people.) But it also has instrumental costs. I recently realized that I was misreading a situation in my academic department due to remembering very vividly some disputes that occurred about eight years ago. Most of the people involved in those disputes don’t even teach in the department anymore, and those who do have long moved on—except me. Moreover, as you might imagine from the mention of Ghostbusters II, I’ve had to work very, very hard in social contexts to remind myself not to make references that seem obvious to me but no one else. There’s a fine line between knowing lots of a propos anecdotes and merely boring people, or baffling them, or both. Rememberfulness isn’t the same thing as Asperger’s, but it can seem the same unless one corrects for it. There’s probably a reason most of us evolved to forget most things. It ensures that what people remember will be what people around them keep reminding them of—that is, what people around them actually find interesting.

Nietzsche writes somewhere about a “will to forgetting” as the only method of being able to move on, to act. He has a point. On the other hand, people like Locke and Hume who defined personal identity in terms of continued memory also had a point; forget too much, and you’re no longer able to make sense of your life or take responsibility for it. An old college friend once told me that academics are strange because we “keep trying to make sense of why things happen. It doesn’t matter! Things happen, you deal with the consequences, you move on. It’s all a big game.” She works for Goldman Sachs, and has done extremely well by considering it all a big game. I don’t think Kevin is like that (though perhaps being a little bit like that made him a much better and more decisive businessperson than I could ever be). But much of what makes him an admirable person is that he quite obviously tries to compensate for forgetfulness, through blogging and other things that put him constantly in mind of both history and others’ knowledge, rather than embracing it. Both forgetfulness and rememberfulness run the risk of placing the beneficiaries-cum-sufferers in an odd relationship to the rest of the human community.

In other words, there are lots of things I wish I could forget, and forgetting them would put me more easily in sync with other people. But I wouldn’t be the person I am, wishing that, if I didn’t remember.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

34 thoughts on “Shut up, memory.”

  1. If you aren’t familiar with the “superior autobiographical memory” savants described on 60 Minutes a while back, you ought to check it out. You may not be as far out on the spectrum as they are, but there is a similarity. I believe that memory is indeed identity to a much greater extent than is usually recognized, and differences in how our memories work go to the heart of who we are. If we exchanged our full package of memories, we would trade identities. I, by the way, am about half way between you and Kevin, along with much of the population.

    1. I, by the way, am about half way between you and Kevin, along with much of the population.

      Interesting comment, thanks. I have an excellent memory, but as I get older it is harder to retrieve files, as the accumulation of files makes the search function harder. It almost seems if I just have an ordinary memory these days.

      1. Ken D.: Thanks for the link. My college friend who didn’t remember the pro-life dispute actually cited the same program, but I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet. Dan: yes, I’ve discovered some dulling of the blade as I age as well. Most people’s memory gets worse as they get older, but the effect of this may be more jarring for us rememberful people than for others (or not: perhaps if one’s memory was always bad, having it get even worse would be truly disconcerting; I’m only regressing towards the mean).

        1. Professor Sabl,

          If you still have the slightest inclination to write a novel, I want to encourage you as strongly as possible to do it. Your blog posts are consistently excellent but this one is on another level–a pure joy to read.

          Nice Nabokov reference, btw.

  2. Boy, am I ever in your camp (although my visual memory is fairly good; not that I notice details especially, but I can often date a memory by a visual reference that I associate with it).

    – My pseudonym stems from a reunion with my 2 closest friends from jr. high/HS, when we were about 40. After every story that one of them told, I would add a few relevant* details of which they’d had no recollection, until one called me “Our Marcel Proust”.

    – One of the weird strains between my wife and me, early in our marriage, was that she would get upset about something and a fight would begin. My immediate response was to placate her, and only 2-3 days later would I begin to realize that I sore at her for something she had said or done during the fight. By then, she had moved on and could not remember any of the details that by now infuriated me. I still have difficulty understanding how she not only forgets so easily but how she cannot even remember. I would not be surprised if it is something genetic, since my immediate (childhood) family is all like this (though of course that could also point to environment)

    *At least, I thought so.

  3. My memory for the stuff I read and think about is quite good. However, my memory for my experienced life is about as bad as Kevin’s. We’re all wired differently, I suppose.

  4. Interesting, great post Andrew. I have a kind of subspecies memory of yours: I remember visual detail dating back to early childhood with extreme vividness, but I can’t always remember verbal things like you can.

    For instance, I can remember the colors and configuration of every house I lived in from the time I was born. I can remember the colors and patterns of the Merrimekko print my mother had on the wall in my adolescent bedroom. I can even remember configurations of objects on tables, furniture in rooms, the organization of trees along a childhood road, etc etc. I’ve had similar awkward social experiences where I’ll talk in depth about an object that I liked from childhood, only to have my mother or father not even remember owning it.

    Yet I really can’t remember verbal clues well. I forget conversations from a few years back. I don’t easily remember passages from books.

    I’m an architect, by the way, maybe not surprising given my strong color and object memory.

  5. I can recall events from 50 years ago with great clarity but have a hard time remembering what I did yesterday afternoon.

    An art director pointed out that illustrators (I am one) all have one thing in common, they all have instant recall of vast quantities of seemingly useless minutia. All that useless information is what informs their work. But the truth is all that stuff gives the art it’s authenticity because everybody recognizes it even though they don’t consciously remember the details.

    We all remember more than we think but have a hard time fitting it into our model of reality so the details get shuttled off to the junk file.

  6. I’ve always thought that pot only influenced short-term memory because when those things we may not remember happened, as we were high, we didn’t really care about them all that much. So much ‘living in the moment’ that we never put it all away in memory. If we wanted to, we could, and it would stay. Plenty of people study or do research while stoned with no problems. Each memory probably has an ‘import’ marker on it as we store it. Some we just toos in the experience bin and don’t store carefully. In other words, pot doesn’t hinder shoet-term memory; it just changes the usage manner of Life.

  7. I agree with those suggesting that differences in memory may have a lot to do with our ability to retrieve. Probably everybody could cite examples, but here’s just one: revisiting a place in Georgia after nearly 20 years, I walked into a room where the light buzzed in a distinctive way, and thought “yes, just the way it always did.” But I would never have dredged up the memory without the specific cue of walking into the room.

  8. This is such a great topic. It describes me and my family perfectly. My father (a lawyer) was known in his professional circles as “The Oracle” because of his vast recall (this was pre-Lexis). 4 of us 8 children are similarly gifted/afflicted with recall of odd facts or events (baseball, movies, political events, amusement parks, personal events, books, it really goes on and on). For years I assumed that everyone had the same level of recall, and consequently assumed that when they did something contrary to what they had sworn not to do, that it was a conscious breaking of their previous commitment. It was only later that I realized that their previous viewpoint was in no way a commitment to anything, that their opinions were gossamer even though the proclaimed them as if they were the very foundations of their beings.

    Until I discovered this asymmetry it made for problems in relationships. I might do something, anything, and my spouse would wonder how I could do that without asking her first. I would remind her that 4 or 6 or 10 months previously we had a discussion about it and that she said she didn’t care. I could even describe what room we were in, the time of day, and the other events surrounding it. My assumption was that she COULD recall it, but she chose not to. It took a while to figure out this wasn’t so.

    1. Very true about relationships. You refer to permissions but it’s also true for other things: promises, deep conversations that resolve an issue (but only if remembered!), etc.

      One reason I get along so well with my wife is that she is, I suspect, almost as rememberful as I am. She sometimes forgets a conversation that I think was really important, but remarkably rarely for someone married to me.

  9. Put me in the camp of abundant memory, flooded with good, bad, and the stupid all day long, and when I try to go to sleep it’s like a Clockwork Orange forced This is Your Life of (typically) embarrassment. At one point in my early 20’s when I couldn’t sleep at night I’d be able to string together what happened every weekend night of my entire high school, and I still could probably get it over 50% correct. The ability disappeared around 30, have problems remembering what I ate for breakfast at lunch and if and when I met you. What it means for me success-wise? It’s good and bad, I guess, mostly good, but mostly a non-factor, who knows?

  10. Fascinating. I also wonder about the sort of formative memories we have made during years past that influence our thinking, yet we have nothing concrete to show for, in terms of specific facts. I know that much of my intuitions about life have changed over the years, certainly for the wiser – but what specifically do I know now that I didn’t know then? There are large categories of knowledge, such as concepts like “socialism” or “identity”, or “parenthood” that have become so much more rich and meaningful, in countless yet difficult to describe ways.

  11. From Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier:

    So when cold winter comes to our lives and the sun starts to go down in the west it would be well, as our pleasures fade, if we always lost memory of them, and discovered, as Temistocles said*, the secret of forgetfulness.

    *What Themistocles said is recorded in De Oratore lxxiv, II. A learned man came to him and offered to teach him the art of good memory; when Themistocles asked what use it was, he was told it would enable him to remember everything. Themistocles answered that it would be better if he were taught how to forget what he wanted to.

      1. Thanks Andrew, the entire passage is well worth the read; it’s about the error “committed by all the old without exception…that they nearly all praise the past and blame the present, revile our actions and behaviour and everything which they themselves did not do when they were young, and affirm, too, that every good custom and way of life, every virtue and, in short, all things imaginable are always going from bad to worse. And surely it seems against all reason and a cause for astonishemnt that maturity of age, which, with its long experience, in all other respects usually perfects a man’s judgement, in this matter corrupts it so much that he does not realize that, if the world were always growing worse and if fathers were generally better than their sons, we would long since have become so rotten that no further deterioration would be possible.”

        I love this sentence: “Thus in old age the gay flowers of contentment fall from our hearts, just as in autumn the leaves fall from the trees; and in place of bright and clear thoughts the sould is possessed by a dark and confused melancholy attended by endless distress.”

        The Book of the Courtier was written in 1528.

        Also, that’s Cicero’s De Oratore.

    1. At my wife’s funeral the undertaker gave me a “Guest Book” with the signatures and good wishes of the attendees. On the cover it says “God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.”

      I couldn’t possibly disagree with you any more strongly.

  12. I remember things that are either very interesting to me (tends to be historical facts) or embarrassing/traumatic (yay!). I forget a lot of stuff.

    I have basically no memory of anything before I was a teenager. Oh, bits and pieces of memory here or there, but really fragmented. It’s not until I get to my teen years that the memories feel… real, instead of a half-remembered dream. So I guess I’m like Kevin.

  13. Over to Sir Thomas Browne’s masterpiece of baroque literary melancholy, Urne Buriall:

    Darknesse and light divide the course of time, and oblivion shares with memory, a great part even of our living beings; we slightly remember our felicities, and the smartest stroaks of affliction leave but short smart upon us. Sense endureth no extremities, and sorrows destroy us or themselves. To weep into stones are fables. Afflictions induce callosities, miseries are slippery, or fall like snow upon us, which notwithstanding is no unhappy stupidity.

    Borges and Themistocles had it right. The forgetting of episodic memory is adaptive; the contrasting robust persistence of procedural memory, for instance language, strongly suggests that it’s a feature, not a bug. Selective forgetting allows us to reshape the past into a narrative of ourselves we can understand and live with. Truly traumatic memories like those of Holocaust survivors can’t be forgotten (pace the “repressed memory” charlatans), and become intolerable lifelong burdens. The other payoff is that because the strongest memory of the great sex or meal or other pleasure is a faded daguerreotype, we are impelled to seek them again, instead of solipsistically replaying the tape like the lotos-eaters.

  14. My team places almost every year at the annual Redwood City Trivia Bee. Most of the answers we knew when we were 15.

  15. A smart woman observed that the body has not much memory for pain – otherwise, she said, no one would ever run a second marathon or have a second baby.

  16. And, of course, Sherlock Holmes’s (Themistoclean) view from A Study in Scarlet: “You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

  17. Another relevant quote on memory by Browne occurs in the preface to Pseudodoxia Epidemica – WOULD Truth dispense, we could be content, with Plato, that knowledge were but remembrance; that intellectual acquisition were but reminiscential evocation, and new Impressions but the colouring of old stamps which stood pale in the soul before. For what is worse, knowledge is made by oblivion, and to purchase a clear and warrantable body of Truth, we must forget and part with much we know.

    In other words life is a constant process of forgetting to remember the new. We remember what we value, love and need to reinforce our identity.

  18. Amazing blog post, Andrew. I still find it hard to believe others don’t have memory, and it took me a long time to accept. But I have admired how most everyone has some mental capacity that is different and extraordinary — high EQ, rigorous logic, languages, whatever. Speaking multiple languages baffles me, for example. I wonder if strong memory develops out of habit as a child? Thanks.

  19. It is a well know phenomenon. the hedonistic character of reminiscents. Bad thing are forgetted or remenbered as good.
    That why a spanisn poet, Manrique said: every past time seems better.
    There was a russian who lacked this mechanism of defense of the mind and was all day long crying. He always remenbered his mother ´s death and every bad thing that happened to him. We were taught about that in phycology classes at high school. So there is nothing new

  20. Andrew, Amazing article. I have known that memory varies by person, like so much in peoples around the world, but your article gives me more information than I have considered before. I have been reading a lot about neurological memory, how the body functions controlled by the brain work, and don’t work, like the ability to recognize faces is gone but everything else is normal, reference to books by Oliver Saks. I have a sense of having almost total recall as a child since I was mostly blind but no one knew since I memorized everything. Then came math and I had to copy and I could not see the board. Why just a sense? Well in my late teens I was subjected to heavy electroshock treatments for several years, and I lost all my past memory before that time. All I know now is rebuilt from photos and stories I have been told. So today, I consider my memory sort of average, but others think I have a great memory. I also can bring up photo recall of things and then “read” the image in my minds eye.

    It would interesting to discover if my memory stills functions the original way, or when given a clean slate, did I learn a new way of storage and recall. I think I was a very annoying child since no one could tell an untruth or make a mistake around me, I just corrected the error.

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