Friday, March 02, 2007

Remember to Forget

Have you ever forgotten what you were going to do next? Or where you put your keys? Or the name of the person you've just been introduced to? Don't worry, you’re in good company. Everyone experiences memory lapses....

Now, where was I?.... Ah yes,...

...which is why we are impressed by people like World Memory champion Ben Pridmore who can perfectly memorize a randomly shuffled deck of 52 cards in 31.03 seconds. Or Akira Haraguchi, who on 4 October 2006 managed to recite the number pi from memory to 100,000 decimal places, it took him 16 hours. There are quite a few exam-stressed students who would give quite a lot to have an encyclopaedic memory like that.

But there‘s a downside to a perfect memory.

People with perfect recall are often dysfunctional, like the autistic Raymond Babbitt played by Dustin Hofman in the film "Rainman", or like the Russian mnemonist Solomon-Veniaminovich Shereshevsky who was once read the first four lines of Dante's "The Divine Comedy" in Italian, a language he did not understand. He was not only able to immediately recite the entire passage, but more impressively, he could still do so 15 years later. How did he do it? He associated each phonetic syllable with a mental image that made some sense in Russian. But Shereshevsky had no idea about the real meaning of Dante's lines.

I don't know about you, but I'm not so sure I'd like to fill my head with shuffled cards, long decimal numbers, or phonetically-coded images.

Actually most of us do have pretty good memories for things that are important to us. And some things are just branded into our memories.

During the 1970s one of our partners was working in a remote, region of North Vietnam on a Swedish government development project. Falling asleep with a can of open beer next to his bed he woke up in the night with a terrible thirst. The gulp of beer would normally have settled his thirst, but in this case a cockroach had crawled into the open can. Years later, our partner can still recall in vivid detail the sensation of scrabbling insect legs in his mouth and the sight of two antenna emerging from his mouth. That night our partner would have won the World Cherry-Spitting Championships hands down. Forgetting experiences like that are pretty impossible. We'd like to forget them, but we just can't.

Wouldn't it be great to just be able to press a "delete experience" button in our heads? Imagine being able to simply trash the memory of an irritating advertising jingle, or a wrongly remembered fact, or a very negative experience.

Although it's probably impossible to erase strong memories, people suffering from the shock of a traumatic experience (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) can often be helped by therapy which focusses on changing the memory to make it more positive, by overlaying it with new experience. Simply talking about a negative experience, and exploring one's feelings about it, can have the therapeutic effect of modifying the memory. For the pious, could this be the function of confession and absolution?

Before you go, consider techniques for remembering the good, and forgetting the bad. I sometimes use "sky writing" to remember, or to modify memories. Imagine a vast blue sky onto which you mentally project an image of what you want to remember. Like in a movie, animate your mental picture to remember it; or to edit it, transform it into another image. And may all your memories be nice ones.

Paul Smith

A version of this article first appeared in Spotlight Magazine (March 2007)

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