My Short-Term Amnesia, My Excellent Long-Term Memory

The way my memory works is very odd.

I have a terrible short-term memory. I cannot remember what someone just told me — whether in person or on the phone. Especially on the phone. Anna is always asking me what I talked about when I talked with my brother or father on the phone, but I can honestly rarely remember. At least, so long as I’m being asked what we talked about. If I am given some time, I can slowly recall everything we discussed, usually remembering things in an associative way. Immediate recall of new information is just not going to happen. But I may remember it at some random time a few days later.

I have an extremely hard time remembering names. Of course, that may have something to do with the fact that I have a hard time paying close attention to people, including new people. It takes most of the semester to learn my students’ names.

Yet, I have excellent long-term memory. I can remember almost everything I have ever learned. Most of the time, though, it has to be recalled in the moment. I am full of trivial knowledge that I will recall immediately on a trigger — some information about some band when I hear the band on the radio. for example. If I am allowed to then engage in associative recall, I can really impress you with what I know. But if I am asked to recall certain things, it can sometimes be a real effort. Of course, it can also sometimes be very easy, depending on how recently I may have thought about that issue or topic.

I am also much better at remembering things about objects and ideas than I am at remembering things about people, including my own autobiography. But I remember much I studied when I was obsessed with dinosaurs (when I was 5-8), sharks (8-11), or orchids (12-16).

I remember pretty much anything I found immediately interesting, no matter how trivial, no matter if I was obsessed with that topic at that time.

More, when I learn a topic, I also learn how to think about that topic. When I became interested in molecular biology, I thought like a molecular biologist. When I became interested in economics, I learned to think like an economist (and I have had plenty of professional economists tell me I think like one). I also think like a poet, a storyteller, a playwright, a philosopher, an organic chemist, and a complexity scientist. I have little doubt that it is because of my prodigious long-term memory that I can see the patterns amongst a great many things. My mind is always comparing and associating. It is always thinking, and it has a great many things about which to think, thanks to that memory.

I also have a very good working memory — I can hold a great many things in my mind and manipulate them and compare them. I once had an engineer who was shocked at the number of variables I could work with at one time — after which, he started to show a little more respect for humanities scholarship. No doubt this good working memory also helps me to see patterns.

So I have a terrible short-term memory. I can memorize things if I want, so my short-term memory seems fine. But remembering things for a short period of time — even over the medium term — is extremely difficult for me. This created a great deal of frustration for my wife, who could not understand how I could remember so many things, and couldn’t remember what she just told me. Of course, many people take that as “you’re just not listening to me.” No, I was listening. It just didn’t hold over the medium term. But it’s not impossible that I’ll remember it in a few days. Of course, if you needed me to remember it today or tomorrow, that doesn’t really help anyone.

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