Monday, 21 September 2015


As you get older your memory seems to worsen but it’s more complicated than the just the onset of senior moments. Quite simply you have much more to remember than someone younger who’s been to fewer places, met fewer people and done less. The attic of your mind or, if you prefer, your “Mind Palace” is crammed to the rafters and finding that name or that reference is hard as it’s lying behind all those memories, thoughts and experiences.

The mind is also good at being a therapist. Forgetting things can often be very helpful. If we could vividly recall as though it were yesterday each  root canal procedure we’d had, every embarrassing faux pas and every crisis and tragedy we’d soon become a gibbering wreck. Our mind filters this stuff and sometimes deletes the names of people we actually didn’t like but had felt we ought to have because they were important. Our mental search engine is on our side and it even rewrites history casting us in a better light than we deserved.

Remember that horrible confrontation with a mugger who was about to hit you when you cried:  “don’t - please don’t”, and at that moment a passer-by intervened and drove him off.  In the recut version of the play you smite the beastly ruffian with one blow of your fist and it is he who cries in a quavering voice “don’t please don’t, please don’t hit me again” and you laugh and send him on his way. Yes!

Daniel Kahneman in his epic “Thinking fast and slow” describes the distorting power of memory and how we can decide, if we choose, that a favourable reconstruction of history makes us happier people. If we can only remember things as they were as vividly as if they’d happened today we should never forgive. The Irish Peace Agreement, the cordial relationships we have with Germany and Japan and so on would be impossible. Forgetfulness and shading of memory enables forgiveness.

It’s in a court of law where two people of good character, with no incentive to tell anything other than the truth, very often claim honestly to see things from a completely contrary point of view. It’s why our legal system is so robust and effective. It understands that people unblinkingly and unwittingly lie and it seeks to unravel this.

Less importance is attached to memory than ever…why try to remember when Google can do it for you? But memory matters. Nearly all speakers at conferences feel they speak without notes (that’s memory); making creative connections is done by … memory; avoiding plagiarism is done by good memory (plagiarism is done by simple memory);  good human relationships depend on memory (remembering birthdays and anniversaries).

The mind is kind. It responds to our needs and our desires. You can train your memory, you can focus on what you need to remember but you can also filter out bad stuff. Remember, your mind is on your side.

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