Home > Uncategorized > How Does Your Memory Work?

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.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Doug
    October 3, 2009 at 10:48 pm

    Things I remember:

    Whether it’s an image I’ve seen or one I read about. I can vividly remember the stunning sunset at Saffron Park but I have to open ‘The Man Who Was Thursday’ to remember the name ‘Saffron Park’.


    I can’t remember conversations but the ideas that occur within them stay with me.

    I think that memory has a kaleidoscopic quality we have to give up some aspects of memory to gather other kinds.

  2. Bob Hovic
    October 4, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    I remember things I can put in context with other things I know. Example: I know a lot about Philippine history/politics/society, so if I heard/read something new, it would probably stick because I’d connect it to other things I know. If I heard/read something about Peru, I’d probably forget it pretty quickly, because I know nothing about Peru.

    Regarding numbers, I find that I remember the first and last of a type. Examples: I know the address of the house I lived in as a kid and (obviously) my current address, but I don’t remember any other addresses. I remember the phone number at that old house, but no other phone number except my current one. I remember (and this I think is strange), the 14-digit number of my first credit card.

  3. October 4, 2009 at 7:16 pm


    The first and last thing is actually a documented psychological phenomenon that pretty much everyone experiences. It’s interesting. You’re probably right about the importance of context. I remember a lot of campaign history, probably, because I already know a lot of campaign history. I remember plot and narrative because I’ve encountered TONS of plot and narrative. In contrast, even though I like Math general audience books, I don’t retain the knowledge for very long, because I read two a year or something.


    I LOVE The Man Who Was Thursday. Chesterton’s an uneven fiction writer because all his characters are ideas in people garb, but within his limits, he’s spectacular. I’ve never been to Saffron Park but, when you mentioned it, I immediately placed it in the context of the book. Maybe because I read listened to it before I read it, and Saffron Park is an arresting auditory phrase.

    • Doug
      October 4, 2009 at 10:28 pm

      I could see why you’d love TMWWT. I’ve read it adozen times and noticed something new each time. Notice may be an understatement. It’s as if I ‘get’ another layer of the story each time I read it.

      I spend a lot time on planes and I’ve always got a new book, a Lutheran Study Bible and The Man Who Was Thursday in my carry-on.

  4. October 5, 2009 at 12:01 am

    I’m with you about the layers. Generally, I don’t find Chesterton especially opaque- brilliant and interesting, but pretty straightforward. But, big chunks of The Man Who Was Thursday are opaque enough to yield new fruits on further reading. I’ve only read it straight through twice (once using an audiobook) but I’ve re-read the beginning and ending a dozen times each. The ending in particular is just arresting (I found I understood parts of it better after reading Heretics, which gave me a better sense of the personalities of the Days).

    “I see everything,” he cried, “everything that there is. Why does each
    thing on the earth war against each other thing? Why does each small
    thing in the world have to fight against the world itself? Why does a
    fly have to fight the whole universe? Why does a dandelion have to fight
    the whole universe? For the same reason that I had to be alone in the
    dreadful Council of the Days. So that each thing that obeys law may have
    the glory and isolation of the anarchist. So that each man fighting for
    order may be as brave and good a man as the dynamiter. So that the real
    lie of Satan may be flung back in the face of this blasphemer, so that
    by tears and torture we may earn the right to say to this man, ‘You
    lie!’ No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this
    accuser, ‘We also have suffered.’

    “It is not true that we have never been broken. We have been broken
    upon the wheel. It is not true that we have never descended from
    these thrones. We have descended into hell. We were complaining of
    unforgettable miseries even at the very moment when this man entered
    insolently to accuse us of happiness. I repel the slander; we have not
    been happy. I can answer for every one of the great guards of Law whom
    he has accused. At least–”

    That bit has been enormously, stupendously influential in shaping my thoughts on things; I feel like the secret to the whole shebang (and I don’t just mean the book) is wrapped up in there.

  5. MWS
    October 5, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    My freakish memory (and lackthereof) drives my wife insane.

    Things I remember:
    1. At least several events from every year of my life since I was about 3 or 4. (I’m 33).
    2. The name of every grade school teacher I had, as well as the ones I didn’t (for the ‘normal’ kid classrooms) and at least 5-15 kids in my class in any given year.
    3. Maps. I always loved maps as a kid, and in some weird way, if I can “map” concepts (even if they aren’t spatial) I can remember them better.
    4. Historic themes and concepts. This served me well since I was a history major.
    5. All kinds of useless trivia, relating to anything from who won Missouri in 1956 (it was Stevenson) to the mating habits of barn swallows (socially monogamous, sexully polygamous), to the type of offense the Houston Cougers ran in the early 90s (run and shoot), to all manner of bizarre crap.
    6. Part numbers. I have hundreds in my head because of business, but at some point, I started having trouble picking new ones up, almost as if my “memory” was full.
    7. Theological and ideological concepts.

    Things I can’t remember:
    1. Pick up milk on the way home from work.
    2. Names of people I met during and after college.
    3. What is on the family calender of events (even when my wife has told me we have thus and such 3000 times in a two week period). This drive my wife absolutely nuts.

  6. MWS
    October 5, 2009 at 5:48 pm


    As a kid, I could give you a detailed synopsis of every movie I’d seen, no matter how long ago. As an adult, unless a movie was particularly compelling, I can only vaguely recollect that I’ve seen Movie X,Y, or Z, but couldn’t tell you a thing about it, even if it was only a few years ago.

  7. mac
    October 8, 2009 at 1:13 am

    mws 6 is hilarious. I can remember 40 times for 4th round picks from UTEP but forget other MUCH more important, often wife related, detail/things to do.

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