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Monday, November 5, 2012

Some thoughts about memory

“A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory.” ("Quotes by Mark Twain", 2010)

As I was looking for a better reference for this Mark Twain quote, I encountered a number of cinical views about memory. Some were obviously false, but they caused me to ask myself what I believe is true regarding memory.

("Wikipedia: Memory," 2012)

I believe all memory boils down to a collection of sensory "tags" of sights, sounds, smells, and textures along with the ideas we associate with them. I believe what we call "event" memory is very short-term: fogotten forever within minutes of the experience. What we call long-term memory is actually a confabulation built from the tags we created for that event.

Memory therefore depends on our ability to be fully aware of each moment; consequently, distractions are the enemy. Remembering is literally "re" + "membering," or reconstructing the body of a memory from its tags. It requires having lots of available tags or points of reference, and preferably lots of different kinds of tags. If you are experiencing a moment you never want to forget, take a moment to notice your surroundings. What sounds to do you hear? What colors do you see? What fragrances do you detect? Take a picture. Make a recording. Write a note. What you write is not nearly as important as THAT you wrote. Enagage yourself fully in each moment, and you will never have a lack of associations with which to reconstruct that moment.

When you sit down to read, take the effort to notice your surroundings. If your surroundings don't provide tags for all of your senses, have a cup of coffee (or your favorite equivalent) to add aroma and flavor to the associations you will create as you read.

Read as quickly as you are able with comprehension, so that your mind focuses on ideas rather than words, and take frequent breaks to ruminate on what you have read. When you recognise you are forming an association, respect the process and let your mind wander a little (but not too much).

Don't neglect social connections (synapses) as tags for your memories. Even when brain damage destroys some of the tags we have associated to reconstruct events (and everyone is at least a little damaged), our shared tags are remembered by others, and by spending time with friends, over time we can replace some of those lost connections. Never neglect involving others as you form your memories. Talk about your day with someone every day.
Since every memory is a confabulation, make sure your important memories can be documented. Every person should keep some sort of journal. A journal does not have to be a reflection on the day. It can be as simple as keeping your old appointment books, or a dated scrapbook of old bits of paper you create and toss. Don't keep everything, but don't discard everything, but DO avoid clutter. What you keep must be organized, or it will distract you, and rob you your memories rather than supporting them. Whatever your process may be, the process of organizing your thoughts is more important than what you actually record.


"Quotes by Mark Twain." (2010). Quote factory. Retrieved from

(2012). Wikipedia: Memory. (2012). [Web Graphic]. Retrieved from

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