What are you good at remembering?


A software algorithm suggested that I write a post on this topic. Upon clicking “Publish” on my posting last week, WordPress.com ran some sort of automated semantic analysis of this blog and gave me the following helpful message:

Need an idea for your next post?

Choose a prompt to start a new post:

  • Is your personality more like your mother’s or your father’s?
  • What are you good at remembering?
  • What’s the best news that you could receive right now?

Okay, yes… I’ll play along… especially because you’ve been so good to me, WordPress.  Let’s see…  I’ll pass on the first question and don’t feel like speculating about the third, so yes, I’ve settled on addressing the second question, which the software thinks would be a good topic probably because of some higher-traffic past posts (e.g. “Learning the Forgetting Curve” and “Forget Me Nots“).

Also, realizing that my friends have a tendency to post their comments on my posts via Facebook where their responses don’t get recorded in the official Meme Menagerie Book of Memories,  I went ahead and posted the question within the more transient, semi-private confines of my Facebook connections. That’s right, I’m letting the social media software run things this week.

So with my heartfelt thanks and your implied consent (opt-out available), here is what you people had to say, on the question of what are you good at remembering:

VF: song lyrics

SI: Birthdays!

ME: names, faces, phone numbers, birth dates, every single person & event since the age of 3 1/2,music (not lyrics), ….I think it’s time to free some hard drive

NA: Woke up to the sound of pouring rain
The wind would whisper and I’d think of you
And all the tears you cried, that called my name
And when you needed me I came through

YF:  uh… umm… I am not sure… err… lemme get back to you?

AG: When you came to visit:)

LH: Maps and locations. Can remember the name and location of every village, city and town I have ever visited, but can’t remember anybody’s name.

DZ: Similar to L’s comment, all my memories are tagged with respect to the cardinal directions on a map.

DRS: Names and how to get somewhere I have already been

AS: not as much as I think I should

MFg(R): stories. people’s histories (family trees, wedding dates, names of great aunts). ideas, if not their origins. and song lyrics.

AAS: What is the question again?

Dan Spira:   interesting female/male ratio of responses/nonresponses so far… cf. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/0802201​04244.htm  cf. http://www.ehow.com/list_6​787714_male-female-memory-​differences.html … notwithstanding those differences, NA is reliving his prom night song (or so Wikipedia tells me)…

AS: maybe that’s it–I feel guilty when I don’t remember all the things I know/think I should, as opposed to someone else in my house who doesn’t feel guilty at all about it. Or doesn’t remember that he should feel guilty about forgetting…

NA: ‎..I remember you…

Dan Spira: ‎[guitar solo]

HN:  long strings of numbers

DH: Usually useless trivia …..

As I read through my friends’ reflections of what they think they’re good at remembering (and in some cases, what they think they’re not good at remembering) I wonder how much of this is actual skill and how much of it is simply self-fulfilling self-belief, aka, self-efficacy?  How much of it has to do with the different “intelligences”  (e.g. visual-spatial acumen vs. verbal acumen) and how much of it has to do with interests or priorities?  ..and is it even possible to separate these factors?

I used to believe that I wasn’t good at remembering people’s names, but very good at remembering stories, structures, the flow of a movie plot, the flows of a dialogue, etc.  However, a few things have changed in my life that have caused me to question this belief: My job now more than ever involves meeting lots of people and getting to know (and sometimes lost in) the vast universes inside their heads. So remembering a person’s name has become a higher priority for me and as a result I’ve made the effort to improve my name recall skills.

Yes, I do have to work very hard to remember all those names, whereas it feels effortless for me to remember the details of a story or plot. On the surface, you could argue that I still have a “strength” in terms of the types of information I’m good at remembering (stories), whereas overcoming the “weakness” (names) is something I have to work hard at.  However, I’ve also noticed that after reading a book, watching a movie, witnessing events, etc.  what I tend to do is replay those stories/events over and over in my head… in other words, it’s not so much a “natural strength” as much as it is lots of work that has become an ingrained habit or preference…  a habit where I put a big effort into coding and retrieving memories about stories and — until recently — not noticing that I was making that effort.

Once again, you could argue that these things are inseparable — what is a strength versus what is an interest — but I think it’s a very different statement to say, “I’m good at remembering people’s names”  versus, “It’s important to me to remember people’s names” or even simply, “I’ve made it a habit to remember people’s names.”

All of this reminds me of an intriguing story that 60 Minutes ran a little while back, about people who can remember every day of their lives.  What’s so interesting about this is how “normal” the ability is… the people with Superior Autobiographical Memory don’t remember every detail, just the details that matter to them. There’s no savantism or synesthesia.. it’s just as if they have really, really, really, really good memories for dates and events.

Preliminary MRIs reveal that certain structures in these folks brain are highly developed. The sample size is small, and it’s a bit of a chicken-egg problem as these people have developed a habit of exercising their memory and therefore reinforcing it. I like to think that what these people teach us is that anyone of us can do it… we just have to make every day of our lives remarkable and therefore memorable… but hey, this is science, we’re not supposed to get all mushy here.  Plus there are days where all I do is catch up on my paperwork and gardening. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The people in the 60 Minutes video represent the extreme end of the bell curve in terms of memory ability.  For those of us ordinary folks who like to think of ourselves being merely “Upper Middle Class” of memory ability (or at least somewhere around the third quartile of the bell curve… please?), we might wonder how much room we have to improve our memories.

So as I’m writing this, here’s a follow-up question:  Why do you think you’re good at remembering the things you’re good at remembering?

GY: It matters? (pun intended)

VF: B/c my husband regularly challenges me on song lyrics, and he never wins. A constant reminder of my awesomeness.

AG: Cuz we love Uncle Dan Dan:)

AAS: I totally forgot why…

Okay, so some people do it for fame, others do it for love, some people don’t know if or why they do it and some people (including myself) rely heavily on the technological tools at our disposal. Why bother remembering stuff when you’ve got an immeasurably large and ever-expanding extended nervous system?  Well, I guess even with the Interwebs at your fingertips, it’s still helpful to remember people’s names (unless of course you go hardcore cyborg and get one of those enhanced reality wearable computer contraptions… hmmm…..).

Finally, one more question (and I won’t ask it on Facebook b/c people will only play along so much), for those of you people who say you’re good at remembering people’s names: 

Do you use any of those well-known name memorization “tricks” that the rest of us mere mortals have to use?  I’m talking about those wacky multi-sensory visualization and anchoring techniques coupled with verbal repetition that some of us out there are using  (e.g. “Nice to me you Dan, rhymes with tan van, which I imagine printed on your forehead, Dan, as you drive around town in your tan van, Dan, juggling a sizzling hot frying pan, Dan”) ? I’m guessing not.  I’m guessing all names just stick for you… really truly, effortlessly… right?

Just wondering.

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on August 3, 2011, in Blogging, Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. ..and after posting this one, WordPress has declared:

    Need an idea for your next post?
    Choose a prompt to start a new post:

    •What do you worry about?
    •What are you good at remembering?
    •Can you get work done while music is playing?

    (GAH..! The Automated Taskmaster is never satisfied…)

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