Editor’s Note: Wow, Mahlon and I are kindred spirits when it comes to memory. Are you forgetful? I am. What is so odd is that I can remember vividly the most obscure memories from fifth and sixth grade but if you ask me what I ate for supper yesterday I have trouble recalling it sometimes? I’m only 40, so I hope it’s not some early dementia. Actually I felt better when Mahlon read me his column because he is only 31 and has the same problem I have. Mahlon says he tells his wife that forgetfulness is the sign of a “great, creative mind because it’s always coursing with creativity.” Ha! I told him I’d try that excuse with Rachel next time I forget something. Any good memory boost suggestions anyone out there has to share?
This column continues to run on a trial basis each Friday. I hope you like it. Four more weeks and then I’ll take a reader survey to see if you want me to try to keep it or not.
– Kevin Williams
PS – The advertisements that appear on this page are rather random, I’m looking at one now warning about the 5 signs of Alzheimer’s. Comforting. Sheesh.
I read somewhere that the human brain has enough memory to store word for word all the information of a 24 volume encyclopedia set. It doesn’t seem like that could be true though because I seem to forget some things almost every day. I forget where the produce meeting is going to be, when the harness shop is having their open house, which size bag of oatmeal Marietta wanted me to get, etc, etc. I also lose and mislay stuff which seems like it might be an indication of defective memory. I am always looking for my hat, my checkbook, my open end wrench, my Sunday shoes, or something.
This article was saying that the problem is not the lack of storage capacity but the lack of a good retrieval system. That is even more maddening than the forgetting or the mislaying. My brain knows everything I am trying to remember perfectly well. It is right there inside my head but I cannot get to it.The secret, according to this article, is understanding how your brain retrieves memories and storing them accordingly. The secret was explained in detail and I know I read the whole article so it has got to be in my memory somewhere. I just can’t seem to retrieve it.
There were three things recently that got me started thinking about brain, memories, and so forth.
The first was my grandmother. This past winter I did research on our family history and the history of our community. In the course of things I had a couple of chats with my grandmother. I found it interesting how her memory works. And sometimes how it doesn’t work. She was born in 1922 and remembers Model T fords, the Great Depression and muddy streets and boardwalks in Shipshewana as plainly as you please. But sometimes she can’t retrieve who her visitors were last Monday.
The second thing that made me marvel about brains and memories was our youngest daughter, age 1, starting to talk. First it was a few individual words and then phrases. Then she started to get some proper sentences sprinkled in and by now she has quite an extensive vocabulary. Her approach was repetition. She repeats everything she hears us or her sisters says. And I do mean everything. I think that must be the secret. Repetition.
When I was in the fifth grade we memorized a long poem called The Unbarred Door. My brothers and I thought it was pretty cool to be able to quote such a long piece from memory and we would recite it evening after evening while doing the milking. I must have said it a thousand times if not more. Life moved on and other things became “cooler.” Quite a few years went by in which I hardly ever thought of The Unbarred Door. One day in my second year of teaching I happened to think of it again. I was teaching fifth grade that year and decided I would get them to memorize it instead of Bible verses or their memory work. I sat at the typewriter that evening and typed from memory. The next day I checked it for mistakes from the copy in the seventh grade reading book and found only two words wrong. Repetition, I think, is what made it so easy to retrieve after so much time.
The third thing that made me marvel over memory occurred at our graduation. I gave all the seventh graders each a different long poem to recite. The longest was The Pied Piper of Hamelin. It has 303 lines to memorize and there was 5 weeks time to commit it to memory. I gave it to Amber, one of my students who’s memory retrieval system is the best in the whole school. By Tuesday of the fifth week she could say the whole thing without a mistake. I was so proud. Teaching does that to me. I have become a proud, proud person. I tell myself that it is OK because I am proud of other people and their accomplishments and not of me and mine. My pupils will soar to great heights while I will stand in the bulk food store trying to remember how much oatmeal Marietta told me to buy.