Emoblog/2015/03/05/memory issues

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Let's talk about memory.

I've pretty much always known I had problems with my working memory, but somehow this was always my fault – I'm not focusing, I'm letting myself get distracted, I'm daydreaming, I'm not trying hard enough.

I put the washed cans on the side of the sink while I'm doing the dishes, but forget to take them to the recycling bin when I'm done. I'm trying to repair something, but need a tool or supply and can't remember where it's kept (or where I left it the last time I used it). I have every intention of putting the tools and supplies away when I'm done using them, but I don't remember to do it. I have a stack of papers to file, but can't remember where half of them belong.

I mean, it's bad enough that I've had other people (including my parents) disbelieve that I could possibly have forgotten whatever it was that I forgot. The real explanations of how I failed to remember sound like feeble excuses: "Why didn't you do what you said you'd do?" Sorry, I forgot. "But it was right in front of you!" Well, I forgot to look at it. I was focused on the thing right next to it. "But you knew X, so why did you do Y?" I forgot about X. "But you remember it now, right? Why didn't you remember it then?" You're reminding me of it now. I didn't think of it then. "I'm sorry, I simply can't believe that someone as intelligent as you could possibly be so obtuse!"

Yet at the same time... I can think of a song I haven't heard in a decade, and it's like a tape recording[1] in my head. I can remember that I have two autographed books, which books they are, and how I got each one. I can remember that the IBM S/9000 I had in Providence had 1 megabyte of RAM, that I once had a collection of three A/C three-way splitters of a specific design of which two were created by cutting a Radio Shack six-way splitter in half. Certain facts seem to be as easy to recall as if I encountered them daily.

Sometime around 4th or 5th grade, I was looking through my folder in my mother's filing-cabinet for the results of some standardized test on which I had done well (I think I was showing it to a friend), when I came across an IQ test I had apparently been given a few years earlier but didn't remember taking. It was broken down by various areas of cognitive function – I'm apparently especially good at reasoning by analogy, if I remember (ha!) correctly – and (the report emphasized) my lowest scores were in the area of working memory[2], which was something like 25-50% below my other scores, i.e. a pretty severe relative deficit.

At the time, I think my main reaction was a sense of inadequacy – which isn't entirely unreasonable, in that context; an IQ test is, after all, another test... and when you don't do well on tests, it's usually because you didn't study hard enough.

I remember my father off-handedly dismissing the idea that human brains could be wired differently, and that correlations between levels of various cognitive skills might therefore be different for different people – being "smart" might not imply that one necessarily had a good memory. He had the counterexample of several of his smart friends who had extremely good memories to prove me wrong... with the implication, I think, that I needed to prove I was smart by fixing this memory-related character defect of mine through more diligent study and discipline.

Consequently, it didn't occur to me to bring up that test result whenever I was accused of neglect in forgetting something; I just accepted the fact that I needed to try harder to remember things.

The proper way to deal with failures of memory, then, was clearly to redouble one's efforts, and to fear social rejection when those efforts failed. If I dialed a wrong phone number because I forgot the correct sequence in between reading it and dialing it, that showed I was being sloppy. If I couldn't remember directions I had been told verbally, I must not have been paying attention. If I got confused while trying to sort out a set of complicated instructions, then I was probably unworthy of being wherever I was.

It wasn't until many, many years later – I'm not sure exactly when – that I consciously put it all together and realized "Wait... I have a bad memory. This is documented. It's not intentional, it's certainly not by choice, and I have every motivation there could possibly be to fix it if it was something that I could fix – so I can't see how it's in any way my fault." and started giving myself a pass for memory screwups, and decided it was okay to deliberately avoid situations where they might happen (which I had previously thought cowardly or irresponsible or otherwise Not Okay). Unfortunately, the old habits[3] were deeply ingrained by then, and will probably never be rubbed out. I remember them too well.[4]

It helps that Wikipedia[5] confirms the difficulty caused by this kind of problem. I don't know if what I have is synonymous with ADD or just happens to share a lot of the symptoms – I mean, maybe ADD is basically being so easily distracted that it's difficult to remember arbitrary things? – but much of what it says[4] could be about my life: "...makes careless mistakes..." "Often has trouble keeping attention on tasks..." "Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly." "Often does not follow instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace (not due to oppositional behavior or failure to understand instructions)." "Often has trouble organizing activities." "Often avoids, dislikes, or doesn't want to do things that take a lot of mental effort for a long period (such as schoolwork or homework)." "Often loses things needed for tasks and activities..." "Is often easily distracted." "Is often forgetful in daily activities."

I have this memory of being left alone to take myself to my piano lesson for the first time[6]. In my mind's eye, as Mom went out the door, I pictured myself promptly and responsibly finishing up what I was going about fifteen minutes before the lesson and then going over there. I remember feeling absolutely shocked when I just happened to look up at the clock, what seemed only a few minutes later, to discover that I was nearly late (or perhaps I was late; I can't remember that part). I had told myself to finish up by 4:15 and then go – why hadn't I done it?? It was a little like reaching out to shake someone's hand only to find oneself punching them in the nose instead.


  1. Does using this analogy date me? I considered saying "audio recording" or even just "recording", but somehow that didn't get the point across as clearly.
  2. I don't remember if "working memory" is what they called it on the report, but it was clearly talking about that kind of thing – remembering strings of numbers, for example.
  3. ...of thought and self-accusation, I mean; what Harena and I call "the negative voices" or "Negvox".
  4. Nearly all references to memory are going to end up being ironic in this context, so I won't bother pointing out the irony each time.
  5. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder predominantly inattentive
  6. That is, I had been taking the lessons for some time, but had always been ferried there by my mom.