but not gone
Why do some important memories
stay with us and others simply
slip our minds?
by Janet Hawkins
Dale knows that sinking, pit-of-the-stomach feeling that comes when
an important meeting is forgotten. “You can cover the internal ones ok
by calling someone right afterward, but missing a meeting with a
customer is inexcusable,” he says.
As an engineer at a major automotive parts supplier, Dale has missed his
share of meetings. And it’s no wonder. Dale is like the rest of us – his
brain is bombarded.
During the average 16-hour day, the brain is besieged with an almost
continuous array of detailed visual images, yet only a small portion of
that information is stored securely.
Consequently, when you search around for an important piece of
information, you can feel like you’re hacking your way through a jungle.
Sometimes there’s just too much stuff in the way.
Why do we forget?
The answers aren’t as complex as you might think. Sometimes a
simultaneous event or activity can prevent or interfere with the
processing of information into memory. For example, how many times have
you mentally run down the things that you have to do at work while
you’re walking out the door, only to stop half way to the office and
wonder if you’ve locked the front door?
Sometimes it’s just a retrieval problem. You know those
tip-of-the-tongue moments when you can’t quite recall the name of a
colleague or the hotel you stayed in last summer. You can remember words
that sound like it or are associated with it. Experts say to keep on
associating, eventually you’ll get it right.
We can’t recall what’s not there
Often the information we want to recall was never captured. Maybe we
didn’t clearly recognize it, or it wasn’t around long enough to absorb.
Or maybe we just didn’t pay enough attention to it. This is the
case when your boss asks you to sit in on a meeting the following day as
you’re leaving the office. You’re not thinking of work tomorrow, you’re
thinking about the drive home right now.
Some things we forget on purpose. We do this when we recall the happy
times of our past and forget the sad ones. Remember your high school
reunion? Lots of laughter about the good ol’ days, right? I’m sure
you’ve completely forgotten the biology mid-term you flunked and the
homework you suffered through. The good ol’ days may not have been so
Sights and sounds help the process
Memories are stored in an organized way so that information can be
located with retrieval cues. Some can be linked when they fit into
larger categories (great steak houses or cities visited) while others
linked by the sound they make.
A distinctive smell can evoke a memory with great clarity. Researchers
sometimes refer to this as Proustian memory, after the French novelist
Marcel Proust. His writings also suggest that the laws of
memory are subject to the more general laws of habit – we remember what
we’ve programmed ourselves to remember. Most of us take the same route
to and from work. What happens when we want to make a stop along the
way? Many of us forget to make the necessary turn because it’s not on
our usual route.
How short is short?
Some experts put the length of short term memory at about 30 seconds,
anything remembered longer than that is considered long-term memory.
Short-term memory makes sense of the input the brain receives from the
outside world. It acts like a sieve, sorting what will be preserved and
dropped. Repeating information helps extend short-term memory. The
number of digits you remember
reveals how many individual items you can hold in your short-term
Most people recall between five and seven digits. The brain stores names
and faces in separate places, which is why some people have difficulty
recalling the names of people they’ve met.
Memories are linked in a variety of ways; recalling one memory can
enable you to recall many more. Like a top-notch computer, long-term
memory is constantly storing new information. Memory stored in
long-term memory can be divided into three categories: personal
experiences, general knowledge, and how-to information.
Technology to the rescue
Dale has learned that he can’t always rely on his memory. And thanks
to today’s technology he doesn’t have to. Technology has become an
important tool for many of us. Palm calendars, electronic notebooks,
even the technology in our cars can help us find our way out of the
quagmire of a preoccupied mind. These devices can ring loudly when a
timely meeting approaches and even announce anniversaries year after
year. They’re often more portable than three-ringed notebooks and a bit
“We use the Groupwise calendar system at work,” says Dale, “which links
to my Palm Pilot. I can set the alarm and forget it.” But with all this
help, Dale and the rest of us could still miss an important
meeting. “The key is to remember to add what you need to remember to
“Mindpower: Expand Your Memory,” Time-Life Series. Dorling Kindersley,
Loftus, Elizabeth. “Memory,” Addison-Wesley Publications. Phillipines.
Schacter, Daniel. “Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the
Past,” BasicBooks. New York. 1996