No need to sweat when you forget Memory: Much of what you forget probably isn't worth remembering, according to a Johns Hopkins expert.

January 03, 1996|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

You're frantically searching for those pesky car keys, hoping you're not late for an appointment at that other place with what's-her-name, when it hits you: Your memory isn't what it used to be.

Maybe it never was, says Dr. Barry Gordon of the Johns Hopkins University. And most likely there's nothing wrong with that.

"If you don't have to remember it, don't," shrugs Dr. Gordon, a behavioral neurologist and director of Hopkins' Memory Disorders Clinic. The 44-year-old scientist, who has helped treat about 3,000 people with memory problems over the past 13 years, has written a book on the topic: "Memory: Remembering and Forgetting in Everyday Life."

So you always forget your car keys? "Why are you always putting your car keys in a different place each time?" he asks. Hang the key chain on the same hook every day, and bingo, your overworked brain has a little less work to do. Have trouble remembering appointments? Jot them down on a piece of paper.

One thing most people shouldn't do is worry. Many people lose some memory skills in their 20s and 30s. (This may be due to the fact that you're so busy and learning so much, it's hard to keep it all straight.) Another decline begins at age 60 or so.

Many people see an appreciable drop in their ability to remember things when they're in their 70s or 80s. In some, this is due to Alzheimer's disease, a deadly, incurable illness that rapidly erodes mental function. While rare before age 65, it strikes between 30 percent and 40 percent of people ages 80 to 85.

But recent research, Dr. Gordon says, helped firmly establish that most memory loss in the elderly is not Alzheimer's. "If you are really convinced you have a memory problem," he adds, "you probably don't." That's because people who suffer a severe loss typically don't notice it.

"Forgetting where your car keys are is one thing," Dr. Gordon says. "Forgetting you have a car is a whole other order of problems."

For healthy people, forgetting things is not just OK. It's important. Some things should be forgotten; otherwise they'd clutter up your brain. Remember precisely what pieces of junk mail you received on your last birthday? If you do, you may have trouble distinguishing important from unimportant stuff.

To some degree, he adds, creativity relies on misremembering. The way we unconsciously alter the details of an oft-told story can reveal a lot about our feelings, Dr. Gordon says. If we decide someone is generous, for example, we might exaggerate memories of his or her generosity.

Our minds also create a dense web of unconscious connections with every memory. A picture of a sheep, for example, might evoke unconscious thoughts of lambs, the movie "Silence of the Lambs" and Jodie Foster.

"Think of all the inventive leaps people make because of these connections that they wouldn't make if we had memories that were frozen and rigid the way computer memories are frozen and rigid," he says. "It's how our minds work."

Memory and intelligence

People with phenomenal memories aren't necessarily phenomenally smart.

Often, they spend a lot of time working at memory feats, such as remembering long lists of names or numbers. Sometimes, having total recall means having trouble sifting the significant from the trivial.

Still, in general, people who score well on intelligence tests have better memories.

"Intelligence is a large part of what we call memory," Dr. Gordon says. It is not memory at all, he says, "but your ability to take in the right information, find it again in your head and put it together in ways that you need."

Even the most absent-minded of us possesses prodigious mnemonic powers. Most people have excellent long-term visual memory, especially for faces. We can look at 10,000 pictures in a row, and, if tested right away, recognize a large proportion of them. On average, each of us can connect 1,000 faces to names.

But most people still occasionally stumble, and struggle to come up with the name of a movie star, co-worker or even a relative. This familiar tip-of-the-tongue problem may result from the dense network of connections we make between familiar faces, names, words, ideas and emotions. Sometimes, too many competing associations can cause memory gridlock.

Forget most of the myths about memory, Dr. Gordon says:

* Amnesia caused by brain injury or illness typically leaves victims with an inability to learn and remember new things. A bump on the head never wipes out a person's identity, as so often happens to characters in soap operas and

movies.

* Your whole life isn't recorded like a videotape and then shelved in some dusty corner of the brain, just waiting for you to find and replay it. Much of what we experience we instantly forget, completely and forever.

* Even those memories that stick with us are highly susceptible to corruption. And the more often we recall them, the more likely we are to embellish or alter them. "People can have memories that they're completely convinced of that are totally false," says Dr. Gordon.

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