Tuesday, February 28, 2012
A Memory Like All Others
What do you think these three people have in common?
1. A man tees up a golf ball and hits it straight down the fairway. After waiting a few moments for his partner to hit, the man tees up his ball again, forgetting that he hit the first drive.
2. A man puts his glasses down on the edge of a couch. Several minutes later he realizes that he can’t find the glasses, and spends half an hour searching his home before locating them.
3. A man temporarily places a violin on the top of his car. Forgetting that he has done so, he drives off with the violin still perched on the top of the roof.
If you guessed that they are all men you have guessed correctly, but that is not my point. What else do they all have in common?
None of these people have a brain injury.
I have recently completed reading a book, by Daniel L. Schacter who is the chair of Harvard University’s Department of Psychology, titled “The Seven Sins of Memory – how the mind forgets and remembers.” In this book he outlines seven different ways the mind manages to forget. Seven different ways!
Of course, he makes many valid points and observations, but I was looking at more than just his observations and conclusions. I was trying to determine if there would be anything valuable for a brain injured person to learn from such a book.
After reading the dozens of accounts of people’s mnemonic shortcomings in the book, I was able to make one salient observation. Everyone has an imperfect memory; our memory may be more imperfect than most, but ordinary people are constantly hampered by memory failure.
I’m not going to say that we have nothing to complain about, because if it’s bad for other people, it is that much worse for us. What I am going to suggest is that there are definite ways we can work to improve our memories. If other people can do it, so can we. Our hurdles may be higher, and the road fraught with increased perils…So what else is new?
As always, the first step is attitude. In Illusions Richard Bach says, “if you argue your limitations, then sure enough they’re yours.” The mind is surprisingly obedient, if we tell ourselves we can’t do something then we can’t. If you first say that you can’t, you’re almost never wrong.
Unfortunately, the corollary is not true. If you believe you can do something, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can. I’m just saying, as a first step, you must believe you can succeed.
Tatiana Cooley, the 1999 national memory champion can remember thousands of numbers in a series as well as other memory feats. What she can not due is get through a day without post-it notes and a day planner. She is terribly absent-minded. The reasons for this are explained in Dr. Schacter’s book, but basically, there are two different kinds of memory at work here and one she is able to improve on and the other she sacrifices.
Imagine an ordinary person forgetting something, they probably will quickly dismiss it as just another memory failure in a long list of mnemonic shortcomings. If you or I forget something we say, “it’s my brain injury.”
The only people I have ever heard of who have had excellent memories are people who subsequently sustained a brain injury. Apparently, the best way to guard against a TBI is to have a bad memory to start with. I’m being facetious here, but I am making a point. We often remember our memory as being much better than it was. The logic of the last sentence is clear. Dr. Schacter calls this the sin of bias. This is what is normally called seeing the past through rose colored glasses. It is a natural condition of memory. Not surprisingly, it is that much more pronounced in a TBI survivor. We need to be easier on ourselves.
In summary let me say this. Our memories are worse than most people’s memories. Everyone has to use various compensatory strategies to make it through a day and it is more so for us. There are strategies to improve memory, though we have to realize that it is going to be harder for us, and we will accomplish less. Maybe this all seems dark and foreboding, the light to draw from what I am saying is that there is hope. Set realistic goals and expect to work hard, when you succeed you will be that much more rewarded. As Thomas Paine said, “That which we obtain too easily, we esteem to lightly.”