I Have a Terrible Memory. Am I Better Off That Way?
June 19, 2024 2:12 PM   Subscribe

The existential divide between Rememberers and Forgetters. [The Cut / Archive]
posted by ellieBOA (45 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Ranganath cautions against Rememberer-Forgetter essentialism
i didn't remember the word "existential" was part of the title by the time i got to the end of the article. could i be thinking of phenomenology?

Plato returns to mind, the invocation of Thoth [the collector] in Phaedrus [University of Michigan]
posted by HearHere at 2:30 PM on June 19 [2 favorites]

I am a forgetter in a family of mostly rememberers, until the research into SDAM in 2015 I thought there was something wrong with me.
posted by ellieBOA at 2:40 PM on June 19 [3 favorites]

I learnt about Aphantasia around the same time and felt vindicated!
posted by ellieBOA at 2:45 PM on June 19 [3 favorites]

I see your Plato and raise you one Vergil and one Shakespeare.
posted by BWA at 2:54 PM on June 19

What a fun article! I am a Forgetter and my mom and sister are Rememberers, possibly HSAM. My mom (75 yo) can recall in detail events from her early childhood, such as all the names of the students in her kindergarten class. My sister once told me she remembers being in the womb. Whereas I have only a few snapshots of memory. I have known this about myself since I was a child (one of those snapshots is thinking I wanted to teach my new baby brother to cherish good memories to keep them, since I hadn't and my childhood was a blank already at 10years old).

In general I agree with the author of the OP; I find that I am perfectly happy not to carry around all the minutiae of daily life. I always thought of the autobiographical memory spectrum ranging from Exquisite Autobiographical Detail to Complete Generalization, and I cherish my ability to form associations and broad linkages that my generalization allows me.

The part about not being able to provide specific anecdotes really hit home. I have struggled in several job interviews with this exact thing. I have learned to make up (embellish?) stories about specific things I think they will ask about, and rehearse them before hand just like the task-specific questions.

Taking a cognitive science class with a unit on memory was a real boon. I learned about the different types of memory, and discovered that although I am an autobiographical (episodic memory) Forgetter, I have a remarkably strong semantic memory (facts and figures).

@ellieBOA my nephew has aphantasia, and it has been fascinating learning about his beautiful mind with him.

One of the things I always thought was possibly connected to my Forgetter nature is that I dont remember my dreams. It makes me wonder how dreams and autobiographical memory are linked ...
posted by Illusory contour at 2:55 PM on June 19 [11 favorites]

I'm a big Rememberer and it definitely is troublesome. On the one hand, I'm a memoirist and a darn good one. On the other hand, the desire sometimes to be able to let things go can be overwhelming. It can be very painful having certain memories trail you around all the time.

My queer platonic partner is a forgetter. He's led an amazing life: he was a New Orleans debutant, complete with the curtsy, as a teenager. He's been a live-in houseboy. He's just found himself in all these very interesting situations and he has absolutely no stories about them. I ask him, "how did you come to be a houseboy?" and he's like, "oh, it just kind of happened..." or "I don't really remember." And he doesn't have a consistent chronology. When exactly did he have cancer? Did he break up with his coparent and move in with his wife before or after he adopted his daughter? He can't put it together. When we were first getting involved with each other, it was very frustrating for me. I wanted to have the story of his life; I didn't want it to be slippery. I've worked on just accepting it, and now I accept that his past is not so much linear as impressionistic. He has many other wonderful qualities.
posted by Well I never at 2:58 PM on June 19 [15 favorites]

raise you one Vergil and one Shakespeare
*doffs cap*
my sovereign lord
posted by HearHere at 2:58 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]

Accepting my QPP's forgetfulness is easier since I've become aware of the things I don't remember well. I'm terrible with facts and names. I'm a Walt Whitman scholar and it took me years to be able to consistently remember that the date of the first publication of Leaves of Grass was 1855.

I also have a terrible sense of time. Things that happened recently recede into the past very quickly, though i remember them vividly. A thing that happened a week ago, a month ago, two years ago can feel equally distant in time. This is hard when I want to keep feeling a good feeling for a long time. For instance, in May, I hosted an event that was an absolute triumph. I was proud, happy, elated. And that feeling was gone 36 hours later. I'd have liked to bask in that for much, much longer.
posted by Well I never at 3:01 PM on June 19 [3 favorites]

My sister once told me she remembers being in the womb.

Haha mine says she remembers being born and corrects me on my childhood memories despite being 18 months younger!
posted by ellieBOA at 3:09 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]

I used to be a rememberer and now I’m a forgetter.

The best I can do is remember that I forgot something. What was it again
posted by St. Peepsburg at 3:20 PM on June 19 [5 favorites]

posted by novalis_dt at 3:24 PM on June 19 [2 favorites]

A not small part of my personal identity has, for as long as I can remember (heh), that I am a rememberer. Mrs. Ghidorah has, on several occasions, told me that my ability to remember, in very clear detail, parts of our early days together (it’s been nearly 19 years since we met) is disturbing to her, bordering on frightening. Remembering things is what I do.

Or, it was? Or maybe I just remembered it like that? When my mother passed away two years ago, I was home for a month, staying with my sister, who, as well as also being someone who remembers, is almost six years older than I am, and while our relationship is better than it used to be, she has always had a need to point out when my memory of events is wrong, and she spent a good part of that month poking holes in the map of memories, especially childhood memories that have formed a very large portion of the bedrock of who I believed myself to be.

Adding to that, one of the things that was unearthed from the storage unit my mother had kept was a shoebox full of the letters I had received as a teen. Growing up pre-Internet, when long distance charges were still a thing, I wrote absurd amounts of letters, carrying on correspondence with several friends across the Midwest. I felt, very strongly, the urge to throw the box away, and while that might have been the healthier thing to do, I’ve never been the healthy choice making kind of person.

It was odd, reading one side, not my own, of a conversation from thirty years earlier. Part of my memory, part of the things that I know to be true is how awful I was as a young person. Utterly selfish, utterly focused only on myself and how the world was failing to acknowledge how special and wonderful I was. My memory of myself is wall to wall things I’ve spent most of my life wishing I could find some way to forget it all. The thing is, these letters, they were filled with love and concern, and talking about a very different me than I remember. The person those letters were addressed to was someone that was very clearly loved, that was cherished. Until opening that shoebox, I had no memory of having been that person. Escaping the me that I remembered being, trying to be a better person than the monster I remembered myself being is as close to value system as I can ascribe to, but there I was, with a boxful of testimony that I wasn’t the person my supposedly infallible memory led me to believe I was.

All of this is set against the backdrop of middle age. I’ll be fifty sooner than I’d like, and I’ve been unable to ignore just how bad my memory has become. I forget things, important things, all the time. I’ve had to set up new routines so I’m not asking students what we did in last weeks class, which I never needed to do before. My memory was the thing I had, the thing that kept all of who I am together, and just when I’m learning I can no longer really rely on it, I’m being confronted with more and more evidence that in all likelihood, I never should have trusted it in the first place. Now I’m stuck, wondering, if I’m not the person I thought I was, then who the hell am I?
posted by Ghidorah at 3:31 PM on June 19 [34 favorites]

I forgot to remember to forget.
posted by Czjewel at 3:38 PM on June 19 [2 favorites]

I am a rememberer and I have been in therapy off and on since, well, almost as long as I can remember to keep myself from reliving every shame/embarrassment /failure since pre-school in graphic detail over and over ( a terrible side effect of my remembering).

On the other hand, if I knew you, I can tell you what your wore to my 11th birthday party and the posters on your Freshman dorm room wall and whether or not you had a second shot in Brooklyn that night in 2010. Friends call me to confirm their medical/employment/dating histories.

I like that I can remember all the stories (there are so many good stories and people tell them to me all the time). I wish I could forget even one bad date.
posted by thivaia at 3:46 PM on June 19 [6 favorites]

It was odd, reading one side, not my own, of a conversation from thirty years earlier. Part of my memory, part of the things that I know to be true is how awful I was as a young person.

On preview: I have all my middle school/high school/college journals. This 1000%.
posted by thivaia at 3:47 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]

I have the worst episodic memory ever. Do I remember when we did the thing? No, I'm sorry I don't. I'm guessing we had a good time because I am happy to see you again. Why are you handing me this object? Oh, I loaned it to you? Okay!
posted by a faded photo of their beloved at 3:53 PM on June 19 [11 favorites]

Do I remember when we did the thing?
where? The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci is how i improve my memory
*places this thought in alcove*
posted by HearHere at 3:56 PM on June 19 [2 favorites]

Oh, I need to do more research on this. I have a very weak autobiographical memory, close to the “forgetter” mentioned here, but I have a good memory otherwise for facts, figures, and methods. I had just concluded that I was particularly weird, but maybe it’s more of a thing than I thought…
posted by learning from frequent failure at 4:06 PM on June 19 [3 favorites]

I forgot to remember to forget.

I forgot what your point was.
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:08 PM on June 19

I have a very weak autobiographical memory, close to the “forgetter” mentioned here, but I have a good memory otherwise for facts, figures, and methods.

Somehow I’m still good at pub quizzes.
posted by ellieBOA at 4:29 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]

RoboCop: Murphy had a wife and son. What happened to them?

Officer Lewis: Well, after the funeral... she moved away.

RoboCop: Where did they go?

Officer Lewis: She thought you were dead. She started over again.

RoboCop: I can feel them... but I can't remember them.
posted by AlSweigart at 5:59 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]

Hi. I've been lurking here for, well, I don't know exactly how long. I knew about this site back in the day and even had an account, but it seems to be long gone, if I can remember my user ID correctly. This post, and more to the point, all of the comments, prompted me to finally make an account again. You see, I am also a forgetter. And I always assumed it was just one more way that I was "weird." I just wanted to say how comforting it is to see so many other people have this... cognitive feature. And I'll tell you what, it certainly is double edged (hello job interview questions, as Illusory contour said), I also think it has in many ways helped me be a happier person and enabled personal growth. Hard to get stuck in a past I have only a few poorly detailed memories of, after all.

And it's like, I do remember some things. For example I remember how the Internet used to be and was thrilled to find this piece of it surviving. I just don't remember when I started coming back here. A year? 6 months? Two years? No clue. So it's odd. It's the specifics I don't remember, the generalities I recall quite well!
posted by Smedly, Butlerian jihadi at 6:10 PM on June 19 [16 favorites]

I think my memory is pretty average, I'll have some complete memories of events but the more common ones are vivid fragments. But one thing I've gotten good at over time is processing them so that they are more like the person with SDAM, they happened to another person, or really another me. If I'm with an old friend I can call up the memories and reminisce with them but otherwise I'm not really going to consciously think about the past when there's a whole present and near future to think about. I think I'm a happier person as a result but it does mean I'm pretty shit at telling personal stories.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 6:23 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]

I am a forgetter and my sister is a rememberer. If anyone ever comes to write our family history, she will be the main informant. I compensate these days by keeping a diary, which jogs my memory and reassures me that if I NEED to know what I was doing at this time two years ago, I can find out.

It was interesting to read the hypothesis that a Forgetter might be less prone to holding grudges. I certainly am a person who rarely if ever holds grudges. Though I have thought to myself this is less because I don't have strong memories of hurts and more because I don't generally analyse other people's actions as malicious.

My father in law is definitely an undiagnosed autistic person and has minute recall, often announcing things like "today is the 57th anniversary of my brother buying a lime green Humber car" or whatever. He's big on dates and times and appears to have some kind of annotated calendar/timeline in his head.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:25 PM on June 19 [2 favorites]

(I also wonder if my personality drifts more than a Rememberer's would. I am not bound by precedent or traumatised as much by past hurts, because I just can't fucking remember.)
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:27 PM on June 19 [2 favorites]

I forget a lot of my childhood (hello trauma!) but in general I've got a pretty good memory. I'll often creep people out by remembering random details of a conversation I had with someone months or years before that they don't remember having at all. I've learned to hold back on mentioning those sorts of things because people assume things about you. I'm not trying to be a weirdo! It's just how my brain works!
posted by downtohisturtles at 6:29 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]

I think I used to be a rememberer. I have plenty of memories from my younger days. As I am now 60+, I find a lot of things don't register. Unless they are like, high-drama moments. And that's a bit spooky, as I witnessed my mother losing her short-term memory when she got near 70. Conversations with her then involved lots of repetition. And all I can hope is that I'm not heading down the same path.

But I can certainly remember many things from my childhood, and such.
posted by Windopaene at 6:40 PM on June 19 [3 favorites]

Another thought: also very interesting to me is the contrast between "autobiographical" memory and other memory. Because I have a VERY good memory for all kinds of facts, as long as I'm at least somewhat interested. And I am very good at learning tunes by heart, memorising texts, etc. But not remembering my own life.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:41 PM on June 19 [5 favorites]

Montaigne says he has a poor memory, which is just as well, because if he remembered all his grievances he wouldn’t have any friends.
posted by Phanx at 1:48 AM on June 20 [2 favorites]

My memory is weirdly good for specific details and understandably terrible about autobiographical stuff that involves trauma. I've learned to play down my abilities at the former in the workplace because it weirds people out when I say things like "oh yeah, I remember the year I joined the team it was [coworker's now teenage daughter]'s first birthday party and you had those paper invites with the little duckies on them". The other person inevitably just looks freaked out by the sheer amount of detail I've retained, rather than cared-for, after I reel off all this random stuff that's for some reason still floating around in my brain, even though the remembering is a form of caring from my perspective.

My mother's memory is quite bad; although she and I are both autistic, I suspect I'm on the HSAM and she's on the SDAM end of this particular spectrum. At some point in the 90s my grandmother suggested she try some homeopathic memory pills; not that they'd have done shit, of course, but the fact that she consistently forgot to take the memory pills was a source of great amusement in our household at the time.
posted by terretu at 4:10 AM on June 20 [2 favorites]

I'm afraid. I'm afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I'm a... fraid.
posted by fairmettle at 4:25 AM on June 20

Re-member or to put back together. As we age I think that we remember, or try to remember, the important things in life.
posted by DJZouke at 5:08 AM on June 20

Memory is very interesting and more than a little weird. I have few memories of childhood that are anything more than narrative. I don't remember how my favorite meal made me feel, and it was only for the first time ever, at 36, that a song really bright me back to my adolescence. I right to myself, holy shit this is crazy, what l why don't more people tell about this effect, only to laugh when I realized they do, I've just never actually felt that emotionally.

Unfortunately for my partner, despite really trying, I can have the same conversation twice and not remember the action items. This leads to me wanting to do whatever RIGHT NOW, when asked to sweep the floor or organize a drawer. I know I have a hard time remembering these verbal conversations, so don't want to forget and disappoint. It's a running joke/minor annoyance to her that I'll try to spring into action immediately. I know she believed me when I tell her why, but I don't think understands it truly. But this is how I have to live my life. When I think of a chore or idea I really truly try and start it then so I don't forget either.

That said, I have been told I have amazing recall for things I've read. I will remember a lot of the books I read in high school, even as I forget anecdotes that are key to others and identity. I loved a Hero of Our Time, for instance, and can tell you parts of why I didn't like Middlemarch (apologies to George Eliot for catching a stray here). I certainly take for granted how central the written word is to my own sense of recollection, and am surprised that others forget what they've read or written down. I know the trope is that folks use writing to offload remembering to paper, bit for me reading or writing notes has always been the way for me to lock in knowledge.

This is a weird effect, because then people will say, oh you're very smart because you remembered this text about wasps, or can remember covalent bonds from high school. And it has served me well, I did will in high school and on the SATs etc. But I always try to engage with folks when that say the, like this is just a skill that has been rewarded by society. There isn't really an inherent value of one type memory over the other, and in a lot of ways because of the ease in which I can regurgitate facts, I never had to learn deeper skills they would truly lead to stronger analysis.

At the end here too, I'd trade a lot of my written recall for memories of my mother. She died just as I was on the cusp of adulthood, and I know these years I've been losing her. How she looked or what she sounded like. I have these lifeless photos I can look at, but I'm never going to have her alive in my mind again. My brain doesn't work like that and it can hurt. She meant a lot to me and rests so lightly in my head it can ache.
posted by Carillon at 5:31 AM on June 20 [5 favorites]

As a champion rememberer, I have long wondered if a traumatic childhood and/or ongoing life riding the struggle bus makes a person better at retaining information. You have to manage so many variables and if a ball drops, there can be really bad outcomes. My partner (forgetter extraordinaire), had a rock solid secure upbringing and overall life, and cannot grasp the degree to which knowing things, having receipts, etc. is a mandatory part of the very "marginal" life I came from. Their life experience simply did not require it, because there was always a cushion, always a solution to just about any problem. Now that things are vastly better, I sometimes wish I could let go of the anxiety and the need to remember. But it's there forever I think.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:21 AM on June 20 [7 favorites]

I remember lots, especially tactile things like the way the sidewalk felt so fresh and cool very early in the day in summer, when it would get hot later on. The scratchy feel of sports clothes when I was little, when the elastic started to go. The smell of the sleeping bags when they'd been stored for the winter.
I've always had this memory for conversations, situations, scenes and smells; I can remember the taste of the very dense black spicy gingerbread I had once forty years ago and have never seen since. Both of my major careers involved keeping track of lots of details, processes, and timed events; I got very good at making lists in advance and updating them, at making notes when on the phone (delivery was promised for today, Jane) and squirrelling away information.
In the last couple of years I find that my everyday memory for shopping lists and chores and things to do is being overwhelmed so I'm using a system of a weekly calendar, a note program on my phone, post-its to go between my upstairs office and the downstairs of the house where stuff really happens. Covid, isolation, and the bazillion details of buying a house just took away a lot of my "oh yeah we need paint rollers" recall abilities when out and about.
I_love_bananas, that's a good point--some of it is trauma, I think, and some of it is the lack of privilege-- when you're on your own, and every nickel counts, tracking finances, managing food, etc., is very important.
posted by winesong at 6:49 AM on June 20 [4 favorites]

That said, I have been told I have amazing recall for things I've read.

Haha I am the exact opposite to this. I read a ton of books and remember absolutely nothing from them. It leads to a lot of conversations where I get the feeling people think I'm an idiot. 'oh, you just finished Chasm City? What did you think of it?' 'I liked it.' 'oh what part?' 'I liked it.' hahahahahahaha
posted by Literaryhero at 7:05 AM on June 20 [7 favorites]

The pigeons that nested on an adjacent balcony had their 2 fledglings taken by a hawk. They sat around dumbfounded for that afternoon and the next day but were right back to courting the following morning. I felt a little envious.
posted by brachiopod at 7:31 AM on June 20 [3 favorites]

As a champion rememberer, I have long wondered if a traumatic childhood and/or ongoing life riding the struggle bus makes a person better at retaining information.

I don't think that's true on average. On average, PTSD impairs episodic memory. However, this effect might not have manifested for your individual case, or the specific coping strategies you chose for dealing with your traumatic circumstances may have improved your episodic memory more than the PTSD impaired it.

Unfortunately for my partner, despite really trying, I can have the same conversation twice and not remember the action items. This leads to me wanting to do whatever RIGHT NOW, when asked to sweep the floor or organize a drawer.

I'm not saying you have ADHD, but a lot of ADHDers (myself included) have the same difficulty with conversation *and* the same coping strategy.
posted by a faded photo of their beloved at 8:29 AM on June 20 [7 favorites]

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling by Ted Chiang is a good short story around this topic, if you want some feels.

I'm close to SDAM, but with a decent working memory for impersonal stuff. I'll joke that the likelihood of remembering something is inversely proportional to how useful it is. To-dos? Bulk of my life events? What happened yesterday? Nah, but here's a dozen facts about possums, some perfectly remembered poems and a collection of terrible jokes.
posted by Anonymous Function at 9:29 AM on June 20 [4 favorites]

Part of my memory, part of the things that I know to be true is how awful I was as a young person.

I really like this observation. I’ve had this kind of experience a few times, looking back at some record of my younger self expecting to be embarrassed and instead coming away with the impression that I was… fine, basically, and certainly recognizably me. Which is itself a little embarrassing to say because it makes it sound like I think really highly of myself but that’s not what I mean.
posted by atoxyl at 9:33 AM on June 20

I leaned into becoming a Forgetter after too many sleepless nights when I'd randomly remember something embarrassing that happened when I was a child and still have feelings about it. Speaking of which. Mostly being a Forgetter is good, but when I was in high school I met (er, reunited with) someone who I had apparently sat next to for a year on the bus to middle school. Even though it had only been a few years, I just...forgot all my time on the bus. It was an excruciating interaction because a) I believe her! I'm sure we were bus friends! b) I just couldn't remember at all and c) I'm such a shitty liar that by the time I started insisting that I definitely remembered our time together, it was clear she did not believe me. I have forgotten a lot of stuff in life, but those terrible 5 minutes are stuck in my mind forever!

For my part, I've just been assuming I'm going to get dementia at some terrifyingly young age or something. The SDAM news is kind of reassuring. I don't know if I have severely deficient autobiographical memory, but it's definitely worse than the average person's.
posted by grandiloquiet at 4:26 PM on June 20 [1 favorite]

Since answers are still being accepted there I just added a link of this FPP to A Terrible Llama's February Ask about the two kinds of people.
posted by Rash at 8:00 AM on June 21 [1 favorite]

Ooh thanks Rash!
posted by ellieBOA at 8:12 AM on June 21 [1 favorite]

When I think about the most fun things I've ever done, I have great sense memories. The other, banal, and also awful stuff seems further out of reach. I'm going to say I'm ok with that!
posted by tiny frying pan at 7:50 AM on June 23

The biggest rememberers I know tend to share a lot of stories among friends and family. Unless that's just confirmation bias, of course. I haven't exactly made a scientific study of it. But my suspicion is that a lot of those "remember [20 years ago] when [so-and-so did something]" stories are retellings of retellings of retellings among friends and family, and that this latest instance I'm hearing is a communal memory that has been retold over and over. You don't have to have a spectacular memory for events when someone is always telling stories about what happened yesterday or last week or last year or thirty years ago. You just have to remember the latest retelling. She remembers the day you met so clearly because she has told dozens of people about it over the years, starting with telling her sister about it the day after you met.
posted by pracowity at 7:54 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]

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