A Bad Memory is the Key to a Good Life

I don’t suffer from memory issues; I thoroughly enjoy them. If you want to know what it’s like to suffer from memory loss, you’ll have to read an essay written by anyone who has to spend time with me. They are the ones who suffer from it. They have to sit through the same story told multiple times and pretend to have the same reactions. They have to listen to the same jokes and force the same laughs and they are the ones who have to answer the same question “where are we?” multiple times a week. If you’d like to know what it is like to have a bad memory, I can paint for you a very vague picture of my experiences with it and just how wonderful it is.

But before I get into that, I’ll discuss the downside of having a perfect memory. I discussed in previous post about how memories are reconstructed, especially traumatic ones. This actually has two benefits for people with non-perfect memories that people who remember everything don’t get. One is that, if it is a nice memory that they are recalling, then they are not constantly tempted with the desire to constantly live in that memory rather than experience what’s in front of them. The second being that, if it is a painful memory, then they have hopefully recovered and forgotten enough of it so that the memory doesn’t continue hurting them for too long afterwards.

An example of someone who has a perfect memory, Alexandra Price, who is one of fifty-six known people in the world with HSAM, or Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, says she doesn’t enjoy any part of it and, if she does experience something she enjoys, she will think about that experience every day following. She has reported that she spends hours sitting alone in her room with her eyes closed thinking about the past.

One way a decrease in quality of memory leads to an increase in quality of life is because I never get bored, ever. I have explored Main Street hundreds of times since coming to Keene and not once have I walked down it and this is “This is getting old”. Movies are just as exciting on the third viewing as they are the first time. Many times, on Sunday long runs with my teammates, I have made comments such as “This place is awesome!” And my friends will normally respond with “Ben, we’ve been here a dozen times before”. Forgetting about the experience allows me to have it again with just as much excitement as the first time.

A great thing that I assume happens, but cannot confirm, is the forgetting of things I don’t wish to remember. I have probably said a few stupid things today that I would be embarrassed looking back on if I could recall what they were. Sometimes I’ll hear bad news that will make me sad but within a few minutes it is out of my head and I am able to focus on other things. This especially works when it comes to running races.

Racing is an especially painful activity if you are doing it right. Racing a 10k means that, of the twenty-five laps you’re running. You’re going to be in pain for at least twenty of them. Every time I finish a race I think “There is absolutely no way I am going to be able to do that again.” If I remembered this feeling while preparing for the next race, I would probably be too scared to get on the starting line because I would know exactly the kind of pain I am about to feel. Luckily, with a poor memory I am able to go into every race thinking “Maybe it won’t hurt as much this time” and even though I am always wrong, being able to approach every race with that mindset helps me to run my races more aggressively.

But aside from physically painful memory, emotionally painful memories are also things that can hinder one’s ability to feel happy if they do not fade over time. Joey DeGrandis, one of the sixty identified with HSAM, said in an interview with Time Magazine “I do tend to dwell on things longer than the average person. And when something painful does happen, like a break-up or the loss of a family member, I don’t forget those feelings” Every painful memory he has is just as painful to recall as it was to experience.

Having a bad memory I have also found to be very beneficial to relationships. As much as I wish I did not have to rely on people to remember things for me, having that sort of reliance has helped me to make friends with a lot of people. I think it shows people that I need them and don’t just want them around. Each semester starts with my friends memorizing my class schedule and taking turns walking with me to make sure I actually get to my destinations. Everyone who’s very close with me has had some experience, at one point or another, worrying about my disappearance because I have either gone somewhere and forgot to tell them or I told them I was going somewhere and forgot to go there. Regardless of how I get them to worry, they worry about me nonetheless.

I am told stories almost daily about what it has been like to be in a search party for me because people thought I was either frozen downtown (because I remembered to tell them I that I was locked out after forgetting my keys in my apartment but forgot to tell them that I found a warm place to stay that night and then went to sleep leaving them wondering) or worrying that I went missing somewhere in the mountains because I went home and forgot to tell them.

All these experiences bring many of my friends and I closer together, not only does it reinforce how much they care about me but it gives us something to laugh about later. They make fun of me (playfully) all the time and always tell me the embarrassing stories of the stuff that I’ve forgotten about. Most of them, at least the seniors on the team, share the same first memory of me showing up to preseason our freshmen year with no running stuff because I forgot to pack any of it. That whole situation is now a complete blur to me but it is still very fresh in their minds so I can always anticipate that they’ll bring it up at some point and I can laugh about how stupid I was to forget running stuff for a running camp.

Blake Richards, a scientist at the University of Toronto, says that constantly swapping old memories for new ones has evolutionary benefits, allowing people to adapt to new situations and to let go of old and possibly misleading information. He says that harboring the same details from a certain memory as that you had when you first experienced it will keep you from going about the same situation differently the next time you encounter it. It is all the small, unimportant details that most people forget that are the ones which would be damaging to our reassessment of things if we did not forget them. Basically, the small bits of information being forgotten over time are what would have prevented us from being able to grow as people and not fall into the same trap of seeing situations in the exact same way that we saw them many years ago.

There are some benefits to having a good memory. Important things are not forgotten, you never have to ask people “I’m sorry, what is your name again?” And have them feel insulted because they now think they weren’t important enough for you to remember rather than just understanding that you genuinely forget. Quizzes and tests are easy, I know this because that used to be the case for me, that much I do remember. And you can always look back on things that make you smile. But aside from that, all memory really does is prevent people from looking forward.

Good memories are nice because they are safe. We know the outcome is good when recalling a nice memory because we’ve experienced it before. That kind of promise doesn’t come when looking towards the future because there are no guarantees. But people forget, ironically, that their memories serve to help them improve their lives in the future, rather than to keep them living in the past. But living in the past is too easy of an opportunity for people to shy away from. The best part is, every time you look back on a situation you know that it is something you were able to find your way out of. My brain surgery, and all the hardships that came with it, I have no trouble looking back on because I know that I turned out okay in the end. I also don’t remember the hardships because of the more loss which prevents me from being able to look back. But it is that inability to spend all of my time looking back that helps me focus my energy on looking at what’s ahead.

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