To be human is to forget things. But you’ve probably wondered: “When is forgetting normal, and when is it not?”
Here are four examples.
1. Forgetting where you parked Not remembering where you parked because you didn’t pay attention is normal and different than what happens with Alzheimer’s. If you have Alzheimer’s, let’s say you park in a mall garage and shop for an hour. When you return to the parking garage, you’re not wondering if you parked on level three or level four, you’re thinking, “I don’t remember how I got here.” Or you’re standing in front of your car, but you don’t recognize it as yours.
When you forget things, you fall short: What time was that meeting tomorrow? Was it April who said she might want to become a customer in August, or was it August who said to call him next April?
Wait, what was the third thing?
I joke of course, but if there’s one thing many business leaders worry about — especially as they grow a bit older — it’s whether their memories have suffered. So, let’s go to the neuroscience: five specific tricks to improve memory and recall things better.
1. Walk backward. Let’s start with my favorite on the list, because the neuroscientists who came up with it can’t even explain why it works. Researchers from the University of Roehampton in London divided their subjects into three groups. In Group 1, participants were asked to watch a short movie, or memorize words, or study a set of pictures while walking forward. In Group 2, participants completed the same tasks while walking backward. In Group 3, participants acted as a control group, doing the same tasks but standing still.
Writers are preoccupied with memory. They have to be: a story is, at its most fundamental level, a sequence of memories. You can’t have a plot without memory. Endings need a middle. A middle has to have a beginning. Effect follows cause. Consequences follow actions.
Even if a story has a disordered timeline, the fun is in how our brains put it right. We read on, waiting patiently to find out the explanation, what the nasty thing was that was seen in the woodshed, and how that led to what came after.
We humans also tend to see ourselves in terms of story. We look back through our memories to make sense of our personalities. For example, we might tell ourselves, “I’m hard working because my mother abandoned me.” Or maybe, “I steal things because my mother abandoned me.”
But what happens if there’s a gap in the story? Say you pick up a book and it turns out that an error at the printers has erased a paragraph. Or a whole chapter.
You’d worry—correctly—that the whole thing may no longer make sense. And when it comes to us humans—well, we don’t actually know if the self is really built on memory and story. But we like to believe it. So what happens to that belief—to us?—when there’s a part of the story missing?