Do you have a sense of structure to your memories?
May 9, 2011 12:55 PM   Subscribe

I seem to be losing the time structure of my memories. Is this a thing?

I seem to be losing the ability to remember when things happened, and in which order, or what was happening at the same time. For example, if I'm asked what I was doing last June, or when was it that I moved from one country to another, I don't know unless I count back through experiences in my head, or try to remember the scene for clues to the year. I remember once having a really strong feeling for the "structure" of the years, but now everything from the past decade seems to be falling into a mush. Major life events - deaths, significant relationships, family marriages, moving countries, new jobs, books I've published, and so on - are all starting to lose their dates, their place in the past decade, in my head.

I couldn't tell you, for example, what I did for my past three birthdays - and definitely not in order. Nor can I remember what I've been doing over past weekends without really thinking hard. And I can't, without looking at my resumé, give you start or finish dates of the jobs I've done, even to the year. The more I think about it, the more I can't nail down to a time.

I'm starting to find this very unnerving, but it might just be normal, I suppose. Is this something to be worried about? Do most people have a strong narrative sense of their memories? Is it just a thing that you get in your thirties? (I'm 35) Or if you're insanely busy? Or should I be, you know, seeing a doctor?
posted by DangerIsMyMiddleName to Health & Fitness (31 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Totally normal. Happens to me all the time.
posted by me3dia at 12:56 PM on May 9, 2011

As you get older, you just have a whole lot more to remember. Totally normal!
posted by hermitosis at 1:00 PM on May 9, 2011

This is totally a thing. Happens regularly. I recently had to use business trips as a framework to remember when I went through a really significant relationship. And I"m younger than you.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:01 PM on May 9, 2011

Normal. I think I've heard that getting more sleep can help, but I can't remember where.
posted by contraption at 1:01 PM on May 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

I also think the shiftiness and impermanence of memory becomes more and more apparent as we interact more with things that keep precise records of what happened when: email and discussion board threads, mobile phone call logs and SMS conversations, etc. I often find myself relying on these tools to piece together what happened just a week ago.
posted by contraption at 1:05 PM on May 9, 2011

Sounds normal to me too. However, if this was a very sudden change from your normal memory performance, I'd get it checked out. Apart from insufficient sleep, memory difficulties can also be caused by stress. If you are feeling very stressed, and this memory thing has developed over a longer period of time, potential depression is the only other reason I could think of to warrant a visit to the doctor about this.
posted by monkeys with typewriters at 1:06 PM on May 9, 2011

It's normal for me. Once I go back more than a year or so, I have to cross-reference different events to figure out what happened when. (I know event A happened before event B, which was when I was living at the old apartment, but after my old roomate broke up with the his girlfriend before last, so it must have been 5 or 6 years ago.)
posted by tdismukes at 1:07 PM on May 9, 2011

At 43, I am only sure of my high school graduation date. No clue about any other graduations, years I had certain jobs, when a good friend died.... Several years ago at a doctor's office, I was asked how old I was, and after I replied, the nurse looked at my birthdate and said, "Honey, you are not 38. You are 37." Hey, if you already knew, why did you ask?

I have never been good with dates or the order of events, but it has seemed to get worse and worse with age and increasing numbers of experiences.
posted by thebrokedown at 1:10 PM on May 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

It does sound a little early to me. I don't think this sort of thing started happening to me until my 40s. Maybe, you just have a lot more memories to keep track of.
posted by hworth at 1:15 PM on May 9, 2011

Another vote for totally normal. When I have to do up a new resume with accurate employment history dates, I have to sit down and think about where I was living, which boyfriend I was seeing and even if I had my tattoo yet or not.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 1:17 PM on May 9, 2011

If this is not normal, I should have hit up the neurologist in my early 20s.
posted by willpie at 1:17 PM on May 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have an excellent memory overall, but have never really had a direct apprehension of the time structure of particular recollections.
posted by grobstein at 1:19 PM on May 9, 2011

I'm 36. Normal.
posted by desjardins at 1:31 PM on May 9, 2011

Best answer: I'm an attorney. And dealing with this sort of thing makes my job a lot more difficult than it would otherwise be.

Litigation can take years to resolve. A motor vehicle accident suit that goes to trial--and most don't--will take a minimum of two or three years. And MVAs are one of the simplest things out there except possibly for slip-and-falls. Products liability? Medical malpractice? Anti-trust litigation? You're lucky to make it out in seven to ten.

Most people have a pretty hard time remembering what they were generally doing in a given month more than a year or two back. Now try to imagine getting sworn testimony about the exact series of events for a particular fifteen seconds four years ago or, even worse, a reconstructing the content and order of a series of conversations that happened over a period of eighteen months but ended five years ago. Even with supporting documentation, that's just really tough.

So yes, this is definitely a thing, and yes, it's depressingly common.
posted by valkyryn at 1:46 PM on May 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

I've always been particularly bad at this kind of memory. Totally normal. That's why, in my line of work, we have to document EVERYTHING.
posted by arcticwoman at 1:52 PM on May 9, 2011

Same here. My memory timeline gets tangled if I don't have something specific to anchor it to - like, I only remember the year I had a certain job because I remember hearing that awful "sorry for 2004" song on my breaks. I'm out of school, I stay in jobs for a while, and I don't move every year, so there aren't as many reference points for me anymore. If your life doesn't change regularly, or if it changes a whole lot, you might not have a convenient timeline on which to place everything.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:10 PM on May 9, 2011

I have terrible time sense, at every scale. My wife and I joke that I only really know about three different times: now; not-now past; not-now future. Without some powerful reason for me to have known the exact date of something, I can't reliably tell the difference between something that happened two weeks ago and two months ago, or between 3 years ago and 9 years ago.

In ways, it's worse in recent years, because my life is more stable, and I don't have different jobs or residences to associate memories with -- those used to help me narrow things down to within a year or two.

Of course, I'm an ADD boy, and bad time sense is typical for ADD-ers. (I say this without suggesting that you have ADD, just as a point of potential interest.)
posted by Zed at 2:11 PM on May 9, 2011

Best answer: One of my friends has trouble remembering in what years things happened, but me, not so much and we're both 32. We went to the same university and I "slotted" in my mind when things happened according to semester, which summer, and which year I was in. It's easy to remember things better when there's that structure for you. After that, things get a little bit fuzzier for me because there isn't that nice four-year blocked off structure for me to slot certain events into. A few years ago I actually created a chart to note significant events (where I lived, what jobs I had, etc.) so I could compare what I was doing in the same months of different years! :D I should have a look at that again...

It sounds like you've done a lot so there is more to remember. I think it matters less when something happened, but that it happened or you accomplished it, etc. And hey - better to forget when it happened than to forget that it happened at all! You say you used to have a sense of the "structure" of the years - I think this is just a skill that you've neglected? Maybe do what I did and make a chart of the years (months on the left, years at the top) so that you then have a visual that you can put in your mind. In other words, you have to develop a system of remembering instead of just thinking that you can remember off the top of your head, finding that you can't, and being worried that something's wrong.

And what Metroid Baby said about having a timeline and placing things on it.
posted by foxjacket at 2:13 PM on May 9, 2011

Normal, I'm younger but I have to tie my important events with world events to keep things straight. I'm sure as I grow older this will become harde and harder. 20 years from now I will be asking "I know I graduated during an important election but which election was it and was it undergrad or grad school?"
posted by boobjob at 2:27 PM on May 9, 2011

I'm 35. This had better be normal because my memory has been the way you describe for the past 10 years. At least I think it's been 10 years.
posted by ellenaim at 2:56 PM on May 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I can't speak to the deterioration, but I definitely believe the ability to track personal timelines is separate and apart from other types of memory. My husband was 21 when I met him, and he has a great memory for facts - Jeopardy level, actually. But he couldn't tell you the name of any of his teachers besides a few from high school, or more than one costume he wore as a kid for Halloween. (Me, I could recite every teacher I'd ever had through college, though I'm probably closer to ~70% recall at 28.) He regularly forgets whether he did things with me or his other long-term college girlfriend between the years 2000 and 2004, and I have to keep track of the length/duration/frequency of minor health complaints for him. (I actually just reminded him what month he had a CAT scan in 2004 - he was guessing it was in 2007.) Despite this failing (or perhaps because of it?), he's still MVP on our pub trivia team.
posted by deludingmyself at 3:39 PM on May 9, 2011

I think it also happens when something changes in your life that affects the way you store and retrieve memories. For me, for example, I always moved house a lot - as a kid I lived in seven different houses in my first eight years; by the time I was 20 it had been 12. All my childhood memories are closely linked to whatever house I lived in when they occurred, so it has always been easy for me to figure out when something happened.

The last eight years, I have lived in the same city (although a couple of different houses). This means the memory retrieval mechanisms I had developed no longer work for me. I can't think, well, if that's 1985 we were in that brick house in that rural town by the river, so what memories are linked to that. Instead it all blurs together.

I imagine similar things could happen if for example someone were used to linking memories to smells, and then lost their sense of smell. Or if someone were used to regularly revisiting memories by talking them over with a sibling, and that sibling died or moved away.

Could something like that have affected you too?
posted by lollusc at 4:09 PM on May 9, 2011

Normal, but...

I can remember what year things happened when I was living in places with seasons. Places without much for seasons (California coast) times get blurry and smudged together.
posted by Ookseer at 5:59 PM on May 9, 2011

Absolutely normal. Most people must have something to link a memory to in order to recall the year it happened. I was probably in my 30s when I wrote two little notes to have at hand; one listed my medical history by item and year and the other where I lived and worked what year. With those two lists, I can connect most any memory, but without them, fooey.

You're fine - don't fret.
posted by aryma at 6:33 PM on May 9, 2011

36, has been happening since early 30s (maybe - how can I be sure if I don't trust my memory?)

I regularly omit the 2000s from my memory - that is, 1998 was a few years ago. When I do remember the 2000s, everything is compressed around the beginning and the last year or so - the middle is a blur that shifts as the years progress.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 9:21 PM on May 9, 2011

Forgot to add that this happens to the 90s and 80s, too, so my memories go something like 79-86, 91-93, 99-2001, 2009-10. I sometimes wonder if this sort of thing affects DJs, because when I tune to a 'best of the 80s' or 'hits from the 90s' remix, the years missing from my memory are conspicuously absent from the playlist. (Probably confirmation bias, but just thought I'd mention it.)
posted by obiwanwasabi at 9:24 PM on May 9, 2011

I used to have excellent memory. In the early 2000s (2002? 20003? see?) I had a mini-breakdown and finally went on long needed antidepressants. My short term memory has been horrible since then. I still easily remember stuff before 2000. My husband has to keep track of doctor's appointments, etc. because I'd be lost. I'm 44.
posted by deborah at 9:58 PM on May 9, 2011

Lollusc - aha!

I've been wondering how people structure their memories, because it is more and more clear to me that I don't have something that other people do. I have trouble placing events before or after each other, even, I have to try and follow the memory through the day (if it's a recent one!) til I get a contextual clue.
I think the house thing might be part of it for longer term memories, since I was 16 before I lived in one house for even as long as 12 months.

Still, everyone is saying 'this happens', but like lollusc was suggesting, can anyone explain the way they mentally think of and link memories?
posted by Elysum at 11:13 PM on May 9, 2011

26 and I already have this problem. To the extent that I can remember anything, it's based on where I was living at the time (like lollusc and Elysum said above). I have never lived in the same place longer than 3 years in a row (and usually more like 1-2 years), so if I remember, for example, what city a birthday party of mine was in, I can nail down within a year or so what year it was and what number birthday. If it weren't for that, I'd be totally useless.
posted by naoko at 12:03 AM on May 10, 2011

Lollusc - aha!

I've been wondering how people structure their memories, because it is more and more clear to me that I don't have something that other people do. I have trouble placing events before or after each other, even, I have to try and follow the memory through the day (if it's a recent one!) til I get a contextual clue.
I think the house thing might be part of it for longer term memories, since I was 16 before I lived in one house for even as long as 12 months.

Still, everyone is saying 'this happens', but like lollusc was suggesting, can anyone explain the way they mentally think of and link memories?

Elysum, I too feel like I don't have an immediate and direct sense of how to place a given memory in time -- and I don't think I've ever had such a sense. Over the years, though, I've actually gotten better at the practical task of anchoring my memories in time, through practice. I am somewhat conscious of the way this seems to work: a memory of an event is attached to salient features, like a place or cast of characters; I know when those anchoring features belong in time; therefore I know about when the event occurred.

Because I have a good memory for salient details of events, I do a good job of placing them in time -- but I don't experience anything like an intrinsic sense of how they are situated in time.
posted by grobstein at 6:54 AM on May 10, 2011

I feel like the only thing I remember anymore is passwords.
posted by ao4047 at 10:36 AM on May 10, 2011

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