Sunday, April 13, 2014

It's OK to Forget

Do you ever chastise yourself for forgetting where you put your keys or if you're missing something on your grocery list? Most people believe that being forgetful is more of a curse and that as time wears on, the curse deteriorates us further. What if you could remember everything, all the way back to when you were a baby? Every little, tiny, insignificant event, feeling, sensory response would be lodged in your brain. You'd certainly never misplace your keys or forget the milk again.

After reading an article by Alexis Spiegel titled When Memories Never Fade, The Past Can Poison the Present, I have realized that maybe it's ok to sometimes forget things. Most of the article focuses on a woman named Alexandra Wolff who has what's medically known as a highly superior autobiographical memory. Apparently only about 55 people in the US have it and, to be honest, it sounds like one hell of a pain in the ass. People with HSAM remember every single detail about what's happened in their life. For some people, like Bill Brown, they can try to work with their memories: "'Just because I remember something that you did wrong doesn't mean that I still hold it against you,' he says. 'But it's taken me a long while to realize that folks without my ability probably don't understand that distinction. Because after all, if you're bringing it up, the logic from the other side would be: You must still hold it against me'" (Speigel). Brown has learned to try to be more honest and explain his feelings so that his memories of specific details from the past don't cause as many conflicts with the people in his life. To the general public, this kind of memory is seen as a sort of entertaining party favor or trick:

However, Wolff is not as lucky as Brown. She finds that she can often lose herself in her memories: "'I could, if I didn't have stuff to do all day, I could probably live in the past 24/7'" (Speigel). This is a problem because people with HSAM are more apt to mentally relive bad experiences, unable to let them go. In fact, most people with HSAM suffer from depression because of this. Wolff is no exception to this either, as she told Spiegel during the interview that the day of the interview was the anniversary of a day when she was bullied and she has spent roughly 2,000 hours reliving it since.

It seems like Wolff and other people with HSAM live in a reality that loops back on itself all the time, struggling to move forward in the present when they keep finding themselves back in the past. Their reality has become a narrative of their past experiences. Jerome Bruner writes about narrative reality in his essay The Narrative Construction of Reality: "we organize our experiences and our memory of human happenings mainly in the form of narrative - stories, excuses, myths, reasons for doing and not doing, and so on" (Bruner 4). People with HSAM, like those with Alzheimer's, live in their past memories of what has already happened in their life. Wolff, it seems, would rather live in her past than in her present, therefore constructing her present reality from the past by reliving it every day.

So, the next time you get pissed off that you can't remember when you put the casserole in the oven and you didn't set a timer, just remember that your ability to forget details is a blessing and to calm down.


  1. Wow. I wonder in what way memory might work like the editor of a reality TV program. We lament that reality TV isn't real because of how selective the scenes are: much more is left out than is included. But at the same time, that is what most of us do when we recall our own narratives through memory. People with HSAM must struggle to identify what matters, since without the editor, it must sometimes just feel like none of it makes sense...

  2. I really like the idea of changing my attitude when it comes to being forgetful. For me I do always beat myself up about it, but I have never thought of the reverse. I think that is even more awful, never being able to forget everything. Every clumsy, or embarrassing detail of life there forever. I also like what you have said Robin. It made me think of the Truman Show and how they broadcast every minute of his life on TV. What if that was done for every reality show. That way if you were a dedicated enough fan you could watch their entire lives. I think what we as watchers of TV shows is the ability to fill in the gaps left by editing. It gives our brains something to do, when we are watching things they do not stimulate the brain too much :)

  3. Oh God, if that's how a reality TV show was aired I would immediately stop watching! The point of watching those shows is to see the meat of it - the contest or the drama. Who would really want to sit down and watch hours upon hours of real life footage? The interesting/entertaining parts of reality shows is few and far between. Without all the editing it would just be wicked boring. Reality TV cuts out all the boring bits and shows us what's juicy. Although, that risks the ability to see the humanity within the constants or residents. They all just end up looking like power hungry, over dramatic lunatics in reality TV shows rather than real human beings because that's what ends up being edited out.


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