How Does Your Memory Work?
Have you ever wondered why you remember certain things and forget others? Like for instance, why can you remember the face of your sixth grade teacher but not, sometimes, a single thing you learned that year? Also, how does it relate to intelligence? Why don’t some people with seemingly great memories perform better in school, or test better? How about the opposite? It’s always seemed like a strange process to me with a bunch of unanswered questions.
I wonder because I recently had an interesting conversation that dealt with a lot of this. A friend was telling me about his reading habits; he’s into philosophy stuff right now. And as we talked, I realized that, even though I’d read some of it before, I couldn’t remember any specific ideas. And then I realized that, as a general rule, I don’t remember any specific ideas very well. Not to attribute them to someone anyway. I just assimilate them into my storehouse of knowledge and, sooner or later, they come out in my writing.
There are, actually, lots of pretty gaping holes in the types of things I remember. Still, I managed to succeed in school and I test well. So, I thought it might be interesting to try to answer some of those questions by laying down a simple list. What kinds of things do each of us remember, and what kinds of things do we forget? Here’s my list:
Things I Remember
1. Plot and Narrative- I don’t have a great head for specific events in novels and history, but broad themes stay with me for awhile. As long, anyway, as what I’ve read is presented in narrative form. I can’t even remember broad themes for very long if I’m reading textbook style history.
2. Non-mundane conversations/interactions- What do I mean by mundane? Like, conversations about the weather. Anything more interesting than that I remember. If you tell me you like a specific movie, if that movie comes up 5 years later, I’ll probably remember that you liked it. I might even remember the verbatim discussion. And it’s not simply an auditory thing. I remember, if anything, online conversations with greater vividness.
3. Modestly important current events- I don’t know why exactly, but I can tell you every position Mitt Romney has ever taken on an issue, when he’s taken it, when he’s changed it or altered it, etc. If I’ve become aware of it, that is. I can do the same thing for basically every 2008 Presidential candidate. If I was ever aware of their position on a given issue, I remember it.
4. Measuring numbers- I don’t mean dates. I’m not especially good at remembering dates. I can, however, remember 80% of my grades from high school, marking period by marking period. Not just A, B, or C- like, 83, 94, 95, etc. Ditto big test scores. Same thing for all my friends. If I ever heard the number, I’m likely to retain it far longer than I should. And this isn’t just some kind of obsessive competitiveness. I can also remember prices, heights, weights, etc. Basically, any measuring number.
5. Words, definitions- If I read a word I can usually define it, in context, and then quickly put it in my memory. And it’ll stay there, even if I don’t see the word again for weeks or months.
Things I Don’t Remember
1. Specific ideas- Either I assimilate them or they’re lost astonishingly quickly.
2. Events I’m not personally connected to- Events from books, from history, etc. It decays quicker than it should, I think.
3. Maps, directions- I am incapable of remembering how to get from one place to another.
4. Sequential events- As a corollary, I have an astonishingly hard time remembering other kinds of directions. I played a little basketball as a kid but flamed out when we started learning plays. Plays just wouldn’t stick. I play chess and in chess you’re supposed to remember mating patterns so that you’re not just starting from scratch each time. But I am. Starting from scratch that is. Or nearabouts. I can’t or don’t relate past sequences to future sequences. Oddly enough, I’m good at numbers sequences and recognize them fairly easy, but they must have different properties.
Any thoughts on why I’m such a freak? Anyone able to draw the connections I can’t and put this together? Where do your own memory strengths/weaknesses lie? Oh, and this turned out to be way more boring than I thought it’d be so…yeah, sorry. Long Saturday at work.