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May 3, 2006 10:20 AM   Subscribe

What's wrong with my temporary memory? How can I fix it?

My longterm memory is fine. I'm 40, and I have complex memories from when I was three. And I can also tell you stories about what happened to me last week, last month and last year.

But if you tell me your phone number -- lets say it's 778-3914 -- and I'm writing it down, I'll write 778... and then I'll ask you to repeat it, because I will have forgotten the rest. You say, 778-3914. I add 39 and then say, "Sorry, how does it end?" You get exasperated and say, "Jesus! 3914!"

As-far-as I can tell, this isn't a new thing with me. I don't think I had a mini-stroke or anything. I'm pretty sure I've always been like this. I know temporary memory is small, but for me it seems to be REALLY small. It can hold about two items at a time.

When I've worked as an actor, I've had no trouble moving lines from temporary to permanent memory, but it takes me for ever, because I have to read the script in two-word chunks. I can't look at it and take in "Now is the winter of our discontent..." and then say it over and over without looking back at the script. If I do that, I'll start paraphrasing: "Now is the winter of MY discontent..." So I have to just bite off "Now is", say it over and over, then "is the winter" and so on.

This impacts my life in hundreds of irritating (but not mission-critical) ways. Somebody gives me directions -- make a right and then a left and then another right -- and I've already forgotten the beginning of it.

My wife asks me to buy her three things at the grocery store: I HAVE to write them down, or I'll forget one of them. (I'll remember that I've forgotten one of them and wrack my brain trying to remember what it was.)

I don't know if this is connected, but I have a very un-still mind. There's constant chatter. I'm always thinking. I lay awake at night with racing thoughts. So I sometimes wonder if all these random (sometimes really interesting) thoughts are crowding out the items I'm trying to store in my temporary memory.

Does this happen to anyone else (who isn't senile)? Is there a name for it? Is there literature on it? Is there a way to make it better? With the advent of PDAs and various task-list tools, my life has improved. But I wonder if my reliance on such tools is making things worse. Should I somehow be exercising my temporary memory?
posted by grumblebee to Health & Fitness (47 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This is one of the cognitive symptoms of ADD. Combined with the "un-still mind" thing, it's a pretty convincing description.
posted by unknowncommand at 10:28 AM on May 3, 2006

I was reading an article in the economist (i think) a while ago about this subject, actually it was about people who could memorize the order of a shuffled deck of cards. The people who were really good at it, supriise surprise, weren't any different than you or me, they just practiced remembering things.

I notice the more time I spend doing memory games or mind challenging tasks the better my memory is.

So yes, you should practice more. It will probably help. You may also want to try ginko biloba (sp?). Available at any drug store. Has a reputation of being good for short term memory.
posted by milarepa at 10:32 AM on May 3, 2006

First off, there's nothing wrong with writing things down to remember them. It's simple, effective, and absolutely normal.

Secondly, and I ask this simply to clarify things, are you an alcoholic? Long-term alcohol use can wipe out a person's short-term memory permanently.

You may want to look into setting up a 'trusted system' for your life - something that you can place information outside of yourself and be assured that it will not be lost. This allows your mind to consciously release the issue and stop trying to concentrate on so many things at once.

This is the idea behind systems such as 43 Folders. Put it in the system and you can forget about it, until the point comes where you need to act upon it.

I've found it to be wonderful.
posted by unixrat at 10:39 AM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: I'm going to second ADD. Some even posit (with no concrete proof) that ADD is a working memory problem.

If you are curious about ADD, Driven to Distraction by Hallowell is a great place to start (recommended by professionals, written by an MD with ADD).
posted by teece at 10:49 AM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: Does this happen to anyone else?


Is there a name for it?


Is there literature on it?


No, I'm not diagnosing you. It could be a lot of things, ADD being one of them. It might be worth looking into though. I'm sure glad I looked into it.

There's nothing wrong with writing things down. People with ADD need to structure there lives so that they write everything down. Even if it's not ADD (or you'd prefer to not go down that route at all) there are systems one can adopt to help with this sort of stuff.

43folders, as Unixrat linked to, is a great site for this sort of thing. Flylady.net has a lot of practical tips for busy, stressed out people trying to maintain a home. There are tons of others out there.
posted by bondcliff at 11:01 AM on May 3, 2006

Response by poster: are you an alcoholic?

Ha! No, I'm a one-glass-of-wine, once-a-month sort of person. I hate feeling drugged in any way, so I avoid alcohol, pot, etc. And I didn't drink much even back in High School and college.


Interesting. I've always associated that with physical hyperactivity, which I don't have, so it didn't occur to me. But I'll look into it.

I DEFINITELY have mental hyperactivity. I'm usually two steps ahead of whoever I'm talking to (thinking "yeah, yeah, yeah... get to the point!") My wife says I'm the most un-zen person she's ever met. That I don't know how to just "be." Which is true. I'm always thinking, reading, writing, drawing, working.

Wow. I'm starting to talk myself into the ADD thing.

I don't know if this is related or just an added complication. I'm about 95% sure I have Aspergers (doesn't everyone around here?).
posted by grumblebee at 11:07 AM on May 3, 2006

Response by poster: There's nothing wrong with writing things down.

I agree. It's a great solution for someone like me. I just worry that if I rely on it too much, I might make things worse in terms of temporary memory. It REALLY gets irritating when I AM writing down something -- like a phone number left on my answering machine -- and I have to re-listen to the message five times so that I can write down the whole number.*

*If you know someone like me, leave your number at the BEGINNING of the message, not at the end. It sucks to have to listen five times to three minutes of message, just to re-hear the phone number at the end.

By the way, I keep trying and failing at meditation. I know that it's okay -- if your mind drifts -- to gently nudge it back to your breathing (or mantra or whatever), but two seconds after I nudge it back, it's drifting again. More evidence for ADD?

By the way, my "random" thoughts aren't all that random. They generally spring from some association with what I'm "supposed" to be thinking about, and they're usually tightly focussed. They follow a train, and I have a hard time getting OFF the train.

Example: I'm trying to memorize "To be or not to be," and I start thinking about who "to be" is an infinitive verb, and I wonder how often we use infinitive verbs in everyday speech, and I start thinking of examples... The web is really dangerous, because I can google "infinitive verbs" and spend two hours getting all wrapped up in an intellectual joyride. Oops. I was supposed to be memorizing!
posted by grumblebee at 11:16 AM on May 3, 2006

As I amost always do on AskMe, I'm gonna put in a plug for meditation -- if you can't sit still, then walking meditation or yoga. Quieting the mind chatter is a huge benefit from these practices.

And a simple way to trick your mind, which may help: Stop saying, even to yourself, "I'm bad at remembering things." Change it to, "I'm getting better at remembering things." It's presumably still a true statement -- if it's something you're working on, then you should be improving -- but it stops you from giving up on trying. (My "I'm really bad at dealing with change" or "I'm really inflexible" has become "I'm getting better at dealing with change; I'm getting more flexible" and it's kind of amazing how much of a difference it's made.)

I might also just try to focus on one aspect of the remembering that's bothering you. Take the grocery store, for example; just concentrate on remembering three things to buy. Don't worry that you can't also remember directions and also remember your lines and also remember names, because then you're setting yourself up for feeling overwhelmed and unsuccessful. Just work on the grocery lists for a while. If that gets better and you're feeling confident, expand to directions.

I also think part of it has to do with one's mind prioritizing and delegating things. I've worked at getting a pretty good memory for directions, for instance, but I think that's only because I pay attention only when I need to. If there's someone else with me who's driving, I tune out when the gas station attendant gives out directions. It's hard work to remember those, and I don't really want to make the effort unless I need to. I think if I was forcing myself to do so all the time, I'd get frustrated and stop paying attention at all.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying: Are you good at prioritizing the info that's coming at you? Can you ignore details that don't really concern you, and focus on the larger picture when necessary? Can you make a quick mental hierarchy of "this is important info, this is not important and can be discarded or stored until later?" From your posts here you seem extremely detail-oriented, which is not a bad thing, but I wonder if you're just focusing so much on *every* *single* *detail* that you're somehow overloading your memory, or at least not giving it enough of an outline-structure in which to place the details, so the details get all jumbled up and lost? Does that make any sense?

(For instance, I've actually read that paraphrasing is a great way to memorize lines. You get the "hang" of the speech first, find the emotional lines and general arc and structure, and *then* go back and memorize word for word, which should now be easier because you know the feeling of what's coming up next. It sounds like you're missing that "outline the important parts" bit.)
posted by occhiblu at 11:17 AM on May 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

On non-preview: The mind-on-a-train thing is interesting; I notice myself doing it when I meditate. I've kind of found that the underlying emotion there is "I *have* to think abou this NOW! This is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT because I am VERY SMART and MUST EXPLORE THIS NOW!"

The thing is, if it's that important? It'll keep. I love the idea in meditation that your mind is basically a three-year-old hyperactive attention-seeking child, and that the "LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!" antics it does are not really *you* or even all that important, they're just the mind keeping itself amused.

You don't really have to stop them; meditation is a way, ideally, just to step back and recognize them without getting caught up in them.

So rather than, "IMPERATIVE VERBS! MUST RESEACH NOW! They are FASCINATING and VITAL and ENGAGING!", you think, "Imperative verbs. I wonder why my mind is getting caught up in them?"

Another tactic may just be to write down those thoughts in a list you can come back to later. If you're in the middle of To be or not to be, just jot down "imperatives" and tell your mind that yes, it's a vital fascinating topic, but you'll get to it LATER. It's like assuring a three-year-old that you've logged his concern and you certainly will address it, but you can't do it right now.
posted by occhiblu at 11:23 AM on May 3, 2006

Response by poster: Are you good at prioritizing the info that's coming at you?

No, and this thread has made me realize that I may have to decide what sort of trade-off I'm willing to live with.

Truthfully, I LIKE most of the mental chatter. I've managed to find careers and friends who mesh well with it. I LIKE the fact that I'm interested in everything. If I took a drug that stopped my mental journeys, I would be unhappy.

There are really just two things I dislike: my trouble getting to sleep (I would like a night-time off switch) and the thoughts that invade my mind when I'm trying to memorize something. If there's a way I could deal with these issues without disturbing my general way-of-thinking, I'd do it. But I'd RATHER suffer through the memory and sleep issues than give up a mental life that excited me.

Though I'm disorganized by nature, I have learned enough discipline to get done what I need to get done. I'm VERY good at multi-tasking. I think it really only causes a problem when I MUST focus on just one thing. And the only time that really happens is during memorization.

(It's also a problem when I'm driving. I'm a TERRIBLE driver. An accident looking to happen. I can't keep my mind on the road. I "solved" that problem years ago by selling my car and moving to NYC. The idea of moving anywhere where I have to drive is totally unappealing to me.)
posted by grumblebee at 11:29 AM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: That's the thing, though -- it doesn't have to be a trade-off. I bet if you start trying to consciously log all the chatter, you'll find it's very repetitive. My mind is very often "on," and I'm running through ideas and appointments and random thoughts, but when I actually either write down what's up there or at least consciously listen to it? It's the same thing over and over.

I'd like to think I was smart enough to remember that I need to buy milk and coffee without having to think about it every five minutes for two days straight, but apparently my mind thinks otherwise :-) And I consider myself someone who thinks about "big things" a lot, so it's not like there's not other stuff going on up there, too; and yet... milk and coffee, milk and coffee, milk and coffee, ad nauseum.

Think of it not as "giving up your mental life" but as clearing out the clutter so that your actual ideas have room. To continue the analogy: Organizing papers in drawers and folders doesn't make them go *away*, it just gets miscellaneous stuff that you don't immediately need out of the way so that you can focus on what you're actually doing. And when you need the papers, you know where to find them.
posted by occhiblu at 11:35 AM on May 3, 2006

Grumblebee, I've got similar issues, I'm of your approximate vintage (a bit younger), and I'm pretty darn sure that I do not have actual ADD.

I do feel that I let myself get wrapped up in some anxiety though from the mental chatter. I've combatted the related insomnia by concentrating on deep breathing, which was effective despite my skepticism.

Occhiblu's got great advice here. (Occhiblu -- got any recommendations for books on meditation for those of us usually too mentally overstimulated to think about meditation?)
posted by desuetude at 11:37 AM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn is the best intro, I think. especially for Westerners.

He's great at explaining what you're doing in easy, straightforward, non-spiritual language, and he's got tons of suggestions for types of meditation. Sitting not working for you? Try lying down. Falling asleep? Try this walking meditation.

(Can't sit still long enough to read? Try the CD of guided meditations!)
posted by occhiblu at 11:41 AM on May 3, 2006

You can read Mindfulness in Plain English here. I liked it okay re:meditation, at least as something to start thinking about.
posted by unknowncommand at 11:42 AM on May 3, 2006

Interesting. I've always associated that with physical hyperactivity, which I don't have, so it didn't occur to me. But I'll look into it.

This was my thinking, exactly, too. The book I mentioned is an easy read and will fill in the details on how ADD can actually manifest itself in many different people. There are numerous different types of ADD people, and at first they can all seem rather disconnected.

I'm not hyperactive, physically, at all (maybe a little fidgety). But I've just been told by a psychologist that I probably have ADD, and am waiting for a confirmation from a psychiatrist. ADD is very complex. It's much more than the "hyperactive kid" thing I had always assumed it was. It is surprising to make it to 33 and never have noticed, but there you go. It's actually not at all uncommon for the condition to go completely unnoticed.

(And of course, we can't diagnose you from this, and it could be many other things, but ADD is certainly a possibility to pursue).
posted by teece at 11:56 AM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: Oh, and for some practical advice, here is one thing I did:

Go out and buy about 10 - 20 little 2x3 notepads and four times as many cheap pens or pencils.

Put a pad and pen near every phone, by your bed, on the tables next to the couch, on the fridge, in your car, in a pocket in each of your jackets, on at least one table in every room and anyplace else you can think of.

Force yourself to write things down. Everything. Don't think "Ahh, I'll remember this!", because you won't. I often forget what it was I was going to do the second I finish the thought.

Put some extra pens in drawers near the pads. The pens will walk away and you never want to be without one.

Carry a pad with you wherever you go.

Put a whiteboard near the door through which you leave the house every morning. This should also be where you keep your keys, your cell phone, your wallet, and anything else you need to take with you when you go out. If you have to take something to work the next day, clip it to your car keys.

Basically, stop trusting your brain. Assume you'll forget everything you are told. This won't make your memory any worse, but your memory is not going to get any better anyway.

As for ADD, don't let anyone here tell you you have it, and don't let anyone tell you you don't have it. Worse, don't let anyone tell you there's no such thing. Read the book that was mentioned and if it sounds like you, go see a doctor. Being told you have ADD doesn't mean you have to start taking meds. However, It might help you to know the reason you are the way you are and then help you to look at life knowing you have to apply workarounds to everything you do.

And I can relate about not wanting to change the way you are, nor do you have to. Having ADD can actually be fun.

"While the A students are learning the details of photosynthesis, the ADHD kids are staring out the window and pondering if it still works on a cloudy day"

Sums up my school years perfectly.
posted by bondcliff at 11:57 AM on May 3, 2006

And don't think ADD is some sort of disease or 'disorder' (despite that word being in the title). It's yet another case where some American quacks convert a personality trait into a 'disease' for personal gain. As bondcliff goes over, handle this in a practical way and don't be fooled into thinking it's something that needs to be 'cured'.
posted by wackybrit at 12:13 PM on May 3, 2006

Grumblebee, I'm 40 and you've described me pretty well in your post. But from people I've talked to, you're also describing most of us at this age. I am NOT convinced it's ADD - I think varying degrees of forgetfulness are normal as you age. I don't think you're unusual.

The laying awake at night thinking part; very familiar. It happens to me when something wakes me up - my mind starts racing and I can't sleep. I've often wondered if it's a manifestation of flight-or-fight that happens when something brings you out of a deep sleep, because the thoughts are often surprisingly negative.

I use backpackit.com and Google calendar to remind myself to do things, write stuff down as necessary, and generally just try to accept that aging equals greater forgetfulness. Really - ask anyone around your age. We're all "ADD."
posted by TochterAusElysium at 12:29 PM on May 3, 2006

Don't know too much about it, but my short term memory improved dramatically after I started taking Alpha Lipoic Acid as a supplement.
posted by Arthur Dent at 1:09 PM on May 3, 2006

This is interesting, I actually know Grumblebee IRL.

So, curious. How do you manage to memorize (play production and acting)?

Yes, mindfulness, sitting, learning to deal with your monkey mind might very well bring some calmness to the pool. You assume you're two steps ahead in a conversation with someone, already forming your opinons for what you're going to say next and perhaps you haven't slowed down to really listen to what they actually say.

ADD exists, the internet really helps it thrive.

And yet, yet, you manage to read books, memorize plays and manged to organize and store complex information.
posted by filmgeek at 1:14 PM on May 3, 2006

I think varying degrees of forgetfulness are normal as you age.


I don't think you're unusual.

That's ridiculous. "Varying degrees of forgetfulness" is one thing; being unable to remember four digits of a phone number or three things at the grocery store is not, not by a long shot. You're not helping by saying "heck, you're perfectly normal, forget about it." He needs to find a solution. I'm 54 and yes, I tend to forget things (and sometimes have a hard time getting to sleep), but this is way beyond anything I (and I'll wager you) have to deal with.
posted by languagehat at 1:34 PM on May 3, 2006

And don't think ADD is some sort of disease or 'disorder' (despite that word being in the title). It's yet another case where some American quacks convert a personality trait into a 'disease' for personal gain. As bondcliff goes over, handle this in a practical way and don't be fooled into thinking it's something that needs to be 'cured'.

Just a quick note, there are more and less severe forms of ADD, and things that look like it that aren't it at all. Milder forms manifest as quirky personality traits. More severe forms can actually keep someone from living the life they want to lead. Hyperfocus is part of ADD, it's focusing on less-interesting stuff (phone numbers, shopping lists, domestic stuff sometimes) that becomes a total chore.

Some ADD is effectively treated with medication. It's still a hotly debated topic whether or not there's brain chemistry involved; it's nowhere near as simple as wackybrit makes it seem. If you want to chat about ADD, feel free to drop me an email. I've been living with a guy who has it for the last half-decade. I don't have much of an opinion as to whether it's what's plaguing you, at a quick glance it doesn't sound like it.
posted by jessamyn at 1:37 PM on May 3, 2006

I don't know, languagehat; I really do have the same problem (the phone numbers), and so do a lot of people I know. I wasn't trying to provide harmful input, though. Maybe you're just above average?
posted by TochterAusElysium at 1:40 PM on May 3, 2006

TAE: I know you weren't trying to do harm, and I apologize if I sounded that way. But reread this:

But if you tell me your phone number -- lets say it's 778-3914 -- and I'm writing it down, I'll write 778... and then I'll ask you to repeat it, because I will have forgotten the rest. You say, 778-3914. I add 39 and then say, "Sorry, how does it end?" You get exasperated and say, "Jesus! 3914!"

You really have that big a problem? If someone says 3914, you write down the 39 and you've already forgotten the 14? I mean, everybody has problems with phone numbers—the bastards are long, especially with the damn area codes!—but that's extreme. If you do, are you sure a lot of people you know have that big a problem? I mean, I know I'm above average (*preens*), but I don't think I am in this respect. I could be wrong, of course. It happened just the other week.
posted by languagehat at 1:47 PM on May 3, 2006

Ummm...yeah, that happens to me. Maybe I should start considering it a problem! Maybe it was the recreational activities I pursued in my 20s and 30s. I guess I shouldn't speak for other people, though.

Er - what were we talking about?
posted by TochterAusElysium at 1:49 PM on May 3, 2006

Response by poster: languagehat, I really DO have that big of a problem, and I don't think it's age. I think I've always had it. (I was always really bad at games like Simon -- or those puzzles where you look at a page for a minute and then list everything you saw.)

Thanks for all the "Getting Things Done"-like tips. Actually, I have that pretty much under control. I DO get everything from the grocery store, because I DO write things down. Feel free to keep posting such tips, though. They might help someone else.

I want to be really clear that I'm posting about something that irritates me -- not something critical. I get through life okay. I just get irritated when I have to play the answering machine message three times to get the whole number. But if this problem is never solved, I will still be quite capable of happiness and productivity.

filmgeek, asked How do you manage to memorize (play production and acting)? Probably the same way anyone does, by going over the lines over and over and over -- I just have to do it much more than most people. I recently tackled a HUGE role, Vanya in "Uncle Vanya." Pages and pages of lines. And I'm an absolute stickler for fidelity. If I say "too" when the script says "also," I consider that a major problem. I directed the play, too, and I insist that the other actors work is that thorough, so I wasn't going to let my "disability" become an excuse for shoddy work.

It took my hours and hours and hours, but I memorized it. Having put that much work into it (I've done it many times in the past, too), I have absolutely no time for actors who are lazy about learning their lines.

Many actors have told me that they have a problem learning lines. 99% of the time it's bullshit. They don't have a problem -- it's just hard work (which is not at all fun) and they don't want to do it. And in the past, other directors have let them get by with a half-assed job. Well, I'm generally known as an "actors director." I am very gentle with them and very patient -- but not when it comes to lines.
posted by grumblebee at 2:21 PM on May 3, 2006

I forget...

But I did just run across this extremely relevant word:

paraprosexia the inability to pay attention to any one thing, caused by a constant state of distraction

So at least we know what to call it. Oddly, the first Google hit for the word is some woman's blog.
posted by languagehat at 2:21 PM on May 3, 2006

On non-preview: grumblebee, I know you have that big a problem; I was asking TochterAusElysium if she really had that big a problem, because she was saying it was normal. Seems she does, but I still don't think it's normal ("just an age thing"), and apparently you don't either.

Also, my "I forget..." was a response to her "what were we talking about?"
posted by languagehat at 2:24 PM on May 3, 2006

Response by poster: I like the word paraprosexia.

I don't come across as scatterbrained. I appear to attend to one thing without distraction. But while I'm seemingly doing this, I'm actually multitasking. Tends to work well. Except in the circumstances I've outlined in this thread.
posted by grumblebee at 2:30 PM on May 3, 2006

Well, I've learned something today. Unfortunately, I'll have forgotten it by tomorrow.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 2:43 PM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: grumblebee, how are your recoding skills?

The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information

If you haven't read this classic cognitive paper through once, it might give you some insight (or at least more terminology).
posted by onalark at 2:49 PM on May 3, 2006

You should probably go both directions -- both prop up your memory more and stretch it more. For stretching I have a few ideas.
The next time you hear a phone number on the answering machine, guess what it is after you've written down what you're sure of. Borrow someone's kids to play Memory with you (any cards that have one identical match will do; I've made spelling ones for kids before). The next time you memorize lines, try remembering the whole sentence the way you think it is, correcting it frequently rather than limiting to two words only, (while the exact words are terribly important, it seems more important that you already grasp the meaning your first run through).

And, honestly, for phone numbers it is just polite to give it out no more than three numbers until the previous bit is clearly written down. I would have given out that number as 778 [long pause] 39 [pause] 14. It's just polite. (As is leaving your number at both the beginning and end of a message -- gives you a chance to write it down after you've decided it was important, and go back to the beginning to check it.) I'm quite good with numbers and I'll still listen two or three times to write it down and make sure I've gotten it right.
posted by Margalo Epps at 2:50 PM on May 3, 2006

Something I've noticed that people reporting ADD-like symptoms, including myself, have in common: Chronic lack of sleep, and indulgence in caffeine.
posted by Manjusri at 2:53 PM on May 3, 2006

This happens to me, too, and more so in the past 10 years. (coincidentally... that was about when I stopped learning theatrical lines - not sure if that has anything to do with it.) I used to remember everything, and now my long-term memory is far superior to my short-term memory.

Not to oversimplify, but I find the following to work in similar circumstances: try to remind yourself that this current thing is very important. Often with directions and people's names, I'm already thinking about the next thing, and I hear the info but I don't really take it in, and I expect my aural recall to fill in the blanks...but like you, I only remember part of what was said - especially with longer things like 'right, then left, then right at the stop light.' Sometimes it's as simple as being conscious about it - reminding myself this is important, I need to remember it.

It's not all that different from learning lines...if you concentrate on it, you can do it. It's hard work, like you say, but it may really be that straightforward, and it definitely requires practice. I've found that when I truly focus on the information, rather than what I'm going to do with the information, or if the table is ready, or what I have to do after I meet with this friend, or whatever - none of which I intended to think about in the first place but my brain just went there...I tend to recall the original information better in the short-term.

Good luck - and let us know what works!
posted by hsoltz at 3:01 PM on May 3, 2006

Response by poster: onalark, I think I'm TOO good at recoding, and I try to be aware of it and watch for it. I'm a sucky speller, because I don't look at the letters -- I take the whole word in as a chunk. Sometimes I've read half a novel, and then something compels me to really LOOK at a character's name. I realize that in my mind, it's been Annabella the whole time, whereas in the text, it's actually Arabella. I just take it in as A-blah-blah-blah-a, and the blah blah blah's become whatever my mind wants them to be.

But you can't do this with a phone number or a shopping list. (I chunk a complicated list of cake ingredients into flour, blah-blah-blah, sugar. I think I do this so that my mind can classify it quickly and move onto the next thing. It's shocking how often this strategy works. Life often rewards you for it. But in some circumstances it doesn't work, and it's a bad habit to get into.)
posted by grumblebee at 3:27 PM on May 3, 2006

Not to oversimplify, but I find the following to work in similar circumstances: try to remind yourself that this current thing is very important. Often with directions and people's names, I'm already thinking about the next thing, and I hear the info but I don't really take it in, and I expect my aural recall to fill in the blanks...but like you, I only remember part of what was said - especially with longer things like 'right, then left, then right at the stop light.' Sometimes it's as simple as being conscious about it - reminding myself this is important, I need to remember it.

I was going to say pretty much the exact same thing. Also, I remember things best if it's an auditory and visual image supporting each other. (Either one or the other is no-where near as helpful.) So I try to pay enough attention that I can "see" the numbers in my head as they're being said and draw the map in my head as directions are given.
posted by desuetude at 4:24 PM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: Meditation is going to be SO good for you, once you give yourself permission to suck at staying focussed.
I keep trying and failing at meditation. I know that it's okay -- if your mind drifts -- to gently nudge it back to your breathing (or mantra or whatever), but two seconds after I nudge it back, it's drifting again. More evidence for ADD?
No, simply evidence that "failing" doesn't mean what you think it means in the context of meditation. The only way to fail at meditation is to get pissed off with it and give it up.

Not only is it OK to nudge your mind back to your point of focus, it's essential - and it's essential to keep doing that.. It's also, initially, extremely bloody difficult. Don't just do something - sit there!

Two seconds between nudges is fine. Beware of traps like thinking "can I do five seconds between nudges yet?" :) Meditation is about training up the ability to let go of achievement. Nobody is better at meditation than anybody else. The only difference between meditators is that at any instant some people are meditating and some people are not.

If you approach meditation as something you Need To Get Good At, it will do you no good at all. If you approach it as something you just do for twenty minutes without fail every day, you'll probably start noticing life changes in a couple of months.

As for missing the inquisitive nature of the monkey mind: have no fear. Any time you're not consciously attending to it, it's still going to work just fine. Meditation is absolutely not going to bust your curiosity.
posted by flabdablet at 4:42 PM on May 3, 2006

Along with what flabdablet said, it might help to think of meditation like physical training. If you're trying to build up your biceps, you can't go do one curl at the gym and immediately have the perfect arm. In the same way, you're not going to sit down and immediately calm your mind unless you practice it over and over. That's what that "nudging" is -- repetitive bicep curls for your brain.

And yes, not being able to do that without practice is not a symptom of ADD. I'm sure it affects those with ADD, but it also affects all the rest of us.
posted by occhiblu at 5:04 PM on May 3, 2006

At 43 I'm learning how to remember again. My situation is quite different than yours. My memory problems are related to prior alcoholism and drug use, major clinical depression and the medication(s) I'm on. I struggle with the short term memory problems you describe. Phone numbers are the devil's work.

One thing I have learned is that the brain is very sensitive to toxins, drugs etc. Cleaning up the diet(pop, junk food and way too much coffee) was one of the first things I did. My diet is now mostly natural/organic with lots of fruits and vegetables. I slip back into my old habits from time to time but things have improved dramatically and the results are positive both physically and mentally.

Recently my rehabilitation coordinator at work lent me The Memory Workbook and I have found it to be helpful, practical and informative. The two main things they emphasize for working(short term) memory are relaxation and attention.

Integrating relaxation/meditation into my daily routine has been very difficult. But I do find that a little goes a long way and I am getting better at it.

Improving attention has been a bit easier. Nowadays I find that I can anticipate that moment when someone is about to spit out a name, phone number or address and I'm ready to do my best, focusing my attention on that bit of data. Other strategies I employ include asking for business cards or politely asking, "Would you mind writing that down for me."

I like the idea mentioned above of keeping pads of paper around to jot down the many many things that churn through my mind. Even better is taking those lists and crossing things off and throwing out pages until your left with the one or two ideas that need to be further pursued.

At work I try to keep a diary of everything I do because when I come back from lunch I often can't remember what I did in the morning.

I still fucking hate the answering machine.
posted by shoesfullofdust at 7:30 PM on May 3, 2006

I think somewhere between chunking, meditation and memorization is your problem.

If you had to go to the grocery store, you say can't remember the three items. But if you had to deliver the line "I want Items X,Y and Z" in a play, you'd find a way to chunk and remember.

The 7 as a magic number report, explains quite a bit about why we can't remember phone numbers - most numbers are 10 digits (3 above the chunk) and bonus...cellphones have made this skill much lazier.

You clearly have the ability to memorize the information (I struggle, struggle, struggle, when asked to act; it's not something I perform regurally either, which makes it harder. Memorizing is a skill that can be improved, like running. And like running, regular memorization has to take place.)

There are systems (associative, pictoral) to help memorize information, some of which you can buy on late night TV (A buddy of mine can memorize 20 digits forward and back.)

Realistically, you can do it. If you call out other actors that procrastinate and struggle on memorizing lines...but you can do that....then it's a question of motivation. You clearly demonstrate that you can do this. The question is do you want to?

The interesting insight for me came from several statements you made (all paraphrased)
1) I multiask
2) I have difficulty concentrating on one thing
3) prioritization

The factors I see are:
Monkey mind (which is a term about that inner voice that distracts you while you're trying to meditate or focus. Often, you just need to let the monkey out...relax...and he'll get tired. Then get back to focusing) needs to be addressed. Both in meditation and in person. You clearly, clearly can focus. It just takes work.

Your choice to believe multitasking is possible. I don't. I think the moment you think you can do two things as once, you are stealing some processing cycles away from one to the other. Which is why, perhaps, you recognize yourself as a lousy driver. I listen to people on the phone chat on IM and they're suddenly reduced to monosyllabic answers.

You tell yourself you can't memorize these items. If I paid you $100 each time you could repeat a phone number 20 min. later, I bet you'd find a system by the end of the week. You see the mundane...as well, mundane.

I do too. I don't put any real effort into memorizing the ephemeral things that aren't important. When you realize that the phone number isn't important, you also realize that you're embarrassed to ask again (it seems like you're not paying attention>)

Summon your skill to pay attention for the small time of phone numbers and shopping lists (till the get transcribed somewhere else) and you won't feel as bad...some level of exercise in memorizing small things and meditation (with patience on your part) will permit this to occur.
posted by filmgeek at 8:17 PM on May 3, 2006

Response by poster: filmgeek, thanks for the considered response. I should clarify a couple of things:

I never meant to imply that I couldn't memorize a grocery list (the way I memorize lines). I can. But that would involve LONGTERM memory. Memorizing lines in a play involves holding them briefly in short-term memory and then transferring them into longterm. In fact, many actors make the mistake of thinking they have something memorized when they don't. The say, "I SWEAR I knew it this morning!" I'm sure they're telling the truth. They DID know it that morning. Unfortunately, they didn't take the time to bake it into longterm memory.

Most people could move a grocery list from short-term to longterm by doing the following: look at the list, see it says eggs, bacon, cheese, bread, milk; say "eggs, bacon, cheese, bread, milk" over and over (say 50 times).

I CAN'T do it that way. I would have to say "eggs, bacon, eggs, bacon, eggs, bacon..." 50 times. THEN I would have to say, "eggs, bacon, cheese" 50 times and so on.

But in the end, I WOULD be able to shift the list into longterm memory. I've done it plenty of times before, I know I can do it. I feel confident about it. So I'm not really looking for a way to do that.

I'm really looking for a way to hold the 7 things in my SHORT-TERM memory that I SHOULD be able to hold -- not the 2 things that I CAN hold. OR, if that's impossible, I'd like to KNOW it's impossible so I can get on with my life and just live with that fact. And I'm curious to know why I can only hold 2 things when others can hold 7. (It's not due to drugs.)

You might say, "What's the big deal? Just bring the list with you." And I would agree, generally. Which is why I said earlier that this isn't a mission-critical issue. Having lived with this problem for decades, I have excellent coping mechanisms (writing things down, working extra hard at the shift-to-longterm thing, etc.), and I usually don't even notice the problem. But every once in a while, something like the phone-number thing comes up, and it's irritating. I get a distinct feeling that I'm not operating at full capacity, and I don't like that.

Your choice to believe multitasking is possible. I don't. I think the moment you think you can do two things as once, you are stealing some processing cycles away from one to the other.

I actually agree with you. I don't think it's possible to REALLY multitask. I was using a sort of shorthand. Let me be a bit more clear:

Some tasks require one's full attention (i.e. driving), but many don't. Take Scrabble: while it's not your turn, you try to figure out how you're going to move when it IS your turn. But say your opponent takes three minutes to make his move. Do you spend all that time thinking of how you'll place your tiles? If not, what DO you do during the rest of that time?

I can't get inside anyone else's head, but it seems to me like some people have genuine mental downtime. I'm not sure exactly what I mean by this -- there must be SOMETHING going on in their head. But if you ask them what they're thinking about, they won't be able to say anything specific. They might say, "I was just waiting for you to make your turn."

I NEVER do that. I'm like the guy who switches channels when the movie hits a slow patch and then switches back to see the car chase. I have NO down time. If there's a pause, I feel compelled to fill it. (I don't mean I feel like I'm a bad person if I don't fill it -- there's nothing WRONG with down time. I mean that if I don't reach for a magazine or something, then I will -- without wanting to or trying to -- reach for a "mental magazine.)

It's not that I'm giving the Scrabble game 50%. I'm giving it 100% when it's my turn and for as-much-time-as-I-need between turns. In fact, I'm probably thinking about scrabble as-much-as someone who DOES have down time. He just has down time; whereas I reach for the magazine. We fill in the gaps in different ways.

My wife used to ask me why I bring a book with me -- nowadays my iPod -- when we go out to dinner together. "Do you plan on READING at the table?"

"Of course not," I would tell her. "It's for when you go to the bathroom." And that's true. I certainly would NEVER read (or even want to) while we were sitting at a table together. But I KNOW that if I don't have anything to do for the two minutes that she's in the bathroom, it will feel like I have a horrible itch in my brain that needs to be scratched.

(I generally don't do this around other people. I would worry about offending them. I just deal. But since we're married, she's used to my quirks.)

This is what leads to her comments like the fact that I'm "un-zen" and don't know how to "just be." She's right. I don't even know what it would mean to "just be."

All of this is generally not a problem (usually it's fun and exciting to think about many things), except I sometimes worry that I'm missing out on something -- some sort of inner peace. Also, it's a problem if I'm conversing with someone who talks slowly. My best friend is a really slow talker, and sometimes it drives me crazy. The gaps are SO long, that it's really hard for me to stay focussed. But it's not like I'm going to reach for a book in the middle of his sentence. So I'll just grit my teeth while "the itch" builds up, waiting for him to receive the next word from Alpha Centuri.

And I live in terror of being trapped on a desert island with no books.
posted by grumblebee at 9:01 PM on May 3, 2006

Best answer: Do you transpose the numbers, too? It could be that you're not ADD but that you are, to some degree, dyslexic. I'm not a doctor, but dyslexia would explain a lot of your symptoms--a lot of your problems encoding words and numbers and making that transition from short- to long-term memory. The problem of paraphrasing or substituting your own words also fits.
posted by wheat at 9:24 AM on May 4, 2006

Some people really do have mental downtime. Many of the same people are the ones who sing the praises of "just being". Sometimes it's laziness, sometimes it's enlightenment. People like you remain engaged and active, instead of passively experiencing, and that's a good thing. The problem is that your brain gets bored easily, and as you probably know, nothing is more boring than memorizing stuff. So you're not going to change, just deal with it. Some people were born with streams of consciousness like wide rivers, they carry a lot at once, but flow slowly. Your friend is probably like this. You probably were born with a narrow stream of consciousness, it moves quickly, but doesn't carry too much at once.

People like you are great to have in the crowd when someone is giving a talk, because when the "just be" crowd is "just being" with something the presenter said that doesn't make sense, you'll be there to call him on it.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 6:15 PM on May 4, 2006

Response by poster: Thank you all for your great comments. I'd like to particularly thank wheat for his dyslexia suggestion. Though I've worked with dyslexic children, it never occurred to me that I might be dyslexic. I think of dyslexics as people with reading problems, and I'm a voracious reader. (This may be overcompensation. I come from an intellectual family, and I probably would have been disowned if I didn't read.)

Some people argue that dyslexia and similar disorders are inventions -- they exist to prop up the pharmaceutical and medical industries. I don't fall that far into conspiratorial thinking. But I do think there's a danger. I so want to be able to label myself, that it's seductive to read myself into any disorder. Aspergers sounds like me, I must have it; same with ADD and dyslexia. It's easy to accept the symptoms you have and ignore the ones you don't.

But I read the Wikipedia article on dyslexia with interest, and I will pasted parts of it, below, for others who are interested. I have added some notes.

I have also bolded symptoms that apply to me and italicized symptoms that don't.


Auditory Processing Disorder is the cause of the phonological problems that many dyslexics experience, and causes problems in the auditory memory or working memory and auditory sequencing issues. Many with Auditory Processing issues develop visual learning coping strategies, and benefit from a Whole Language approach to reading, and using multi-colored or multi-formatted text.

[NOTE: I read this and had an ah-ha! moment. But the skeptic in me says that "working memory" is bound up with tons of brain areas. There are probably hundreds of disfunctions, besides dyslexia, that can cause memory problems.]

Dyscalculia - a neurological disorder characterized by a problem with learning fundamentals and one or more of the basic numerical skills. Often people with this disorder can understand very complex mathematical concepts and principles but have difficulty processing formulas and even basic addition and subtraction.

[NOTE: This is me. I program computers, love logic, philosophy and science, and my best friend -- a mathematician -- always tells me I have a good brain for grasping high-level, mathematical concepts. But I suck at arithmetic. Due to this, I pretty much flunked out of math in school. But I'm totally different from most "non-math" people. I'd always assumed my problems with arithmetic stemmed from memorization. It's really hard for me to, say, memorize a multiplication table. If you ask me to add 13 and 7, I'll use my fingers.]

[Wikipedia's symptom checklist... I have bolded the items that apply to me and italicized the items that definitely don't.]

* Appears bright, highly intelligent, and articulate but unable to read, write, or spell at grade level.

* Labelled lazy, dumb, careless, immature, "not trying hard enough," or "behavior problem."

* Isn't "behind enough" or "bad enough" to be helped in the school setting.

* High in IQ, yet may not test well academically; tests well orally, but not written.

* Feels dumb; has poor self-esteem; hides or covers up weaknesses with ingenious compensatory strategies; easily frustrated and emotional about school reading or testing.

* Talented in art, drama, music, sports, mechanics, story-telling, sales, business, designing, building, or engineering.

* Seems to "Zone out" or daydream often; gets lost easily or loses track of time.

* Difficulty sustaining attention; seems "hyper" or "daydreamer."

* Learns best through hands-on experience, demonstrations, experimentation, observation, and visual aids. [Note: I have trouble following a lecture, but I learn really well from reading. I can master a computer program by reading the manual away from the computer.]

* Has extended hearing; hears things not said or apparent to others; easily distracted by sounds.

* Difficulty putting thoughts into words; speaks in halting phrases; leaves sentences incomplete; stutters under stress; mispronounces long words, or transposes phrases, words, and syllables when speaking.

* Trouble with writing or copying; pencil grip is unusual; handwriting varies or is illegible. [NOTE: I print. I never mastered cursive.]

* Clumsy, uncoordinated, poor at ball or team sports; difficulties with fine and/or gross motor skills and tasks; prone to motion-sickness. [Note: VERY prone to motion sickness.]

* Can be ambidextrous, and often confuses left/right, over/under. [Note: I have a TERRIBLE time with left/right. If you say, "turn right," I have to think about it for about three seconds before I know which direction you mean.]

* May write in "mirror writing" (writing that appears backwards, but can be read when reflected in a mirror)

* Has difficulty telling time, managing time, learning sequenced information or tasks, or being on time. [NOTE: actually, I always on time, but I think this is because I over-compensate. I realize it's a potential problem, so I make sure I'm always early. I tend to obsessively check my alarm clock about six times before I go to bed.]

* Shows dependence on finger counting and other tricks when doing math; knows answers, but can't do it on paper. [Note: huh? It's EASIER for me to do it on paper. Paper is like using my fingers. I can't do it in my head.]

* Can count, but has difficulty counting objects and dealing with money.

* Can do arithmetic, but fails word problems; when doing math must see the big picture before the detail.

* Excellent long-term memory for experiences, dates, names, locations, and faces. [NOTE: no, I SUCK at dates, names and locations. If I haven't talked to someone for a couple of years, I forget their name. I remember almost no names from High School or College (I've been out of college for 10 years). But I remember the PEOPLE. I can tell you about that guy who told me a funny joke in the cafeteria, but I can't tell you his name. I'm REALLY bad with dates. I can't remember years that I graduated from various schools, anniversaries, etc.]

* Poor memory for sequences, facts and information that have not been experienced.

* Thinks primarily with images and feeling, not sounds or words (little internal dialogue). [Note: Nope, I have ENDLESS internal dialogue. And it can be abstract -- no actual words -- or visual.]

* Extremely disorderly or compulsively orderly. [NOTE: Yes, both. Sloppy housekeeper. Obsessive programer (tons of comments, smart variable names, etc.]

* Can be class clown, trouble-maker, or too quiet. [NOTE: all except trouble-maker.]

* Had unusually early or late developmental stages (talking, crawling, walking, tying shoes). [NOTE: don't know if it matters, but I was a preemie.]

* Prone to ear infections; sensitive to foods, additives, and chemical products. [NOTE: endless, horrible ear infections as a kid. Not many now. I am VERY sensitive to food, in the sense that I'm a picky eater, don't like foods to touch, and when I hate something, I REALLY hate it (i.e. it makes me gag.)]

* Extremely sensitive to human contact- when another person touches them they may feel very "uncomfortable." [NOTE: VERY VERY true!]

* Can be an extra deep or light sleeper; bedwetting [NOTE: thank GOD, I don't have this problem.] beyond appropriate age.

* Unusually high or low tolerance for pain. [NOTE: stubbing my toe is a major catastrophe!]

* Strong sense of justice; emotionally sensitive; strives for perfection.
posted by grumblebee at 1:04 PM on May 5, 2006

Response by poster: I got a wonderful email from someone following this thread. He asked for my coping strategies. Most of the ones I've come up with help me deal with insomnia. Since they may be of general interest, I'll paste the relevant parts of my reply below:

I haven't learned to meditate yet, though I'm trying. But I can tell you a couple of things that are helpful, particularly with my sleeping problems:

1) it's VITAL that I don't work, work, work and then immediately go to bed. If I do (especially if I've been working on something difficult), I will definitely be unable to sleep. I will keep working in my brain -- even if I finished the work, even if I'm dead tired. Sometimes I actually WILL sleep, but I'll have these horrible dreams where I'm still be working. The dreams won't have any narrative to them; just endless computer code or whatever. So no matter how tired I am, I force myself to watch a half-hour of TV or read a chapter of a novel. It's vital that what I watch/read is engrossing (but not participatory). It can't just be "background noise." It has to capture my brain and save it from the work.

2) I listen to audiobooks on my iPod (audible.com is great!) I keep my iPod by my bed, and when I can't sleep, I listen to a story. Music doesn't work, because I can listen to it and still THINK. But stories can crowd out the thoughts. This sometimes fails. Sometimes I realized I've missed half the story because I'm obsessing about something else. It's sort of a battle between stimulus, but if the story is compelling enough, it will will.

TV/Reading is better, because it's much harder for "bad" thoughts to worm their way in. But TV isn't practical when I'm lying in bed (with my wife, who would be disturbed if I turned the light on or watched TV). If the rushing thoughts totally overwhelm the iPod, I WILL get up, go downstairs, and watch TV. Netflix is really helpful. I make sure I always have compelling DVDs, just in case everything on TV is boring (which is often the case).

By the way, I don't use any drugs -- except a LITTLE caffeine. You and other people have almost convinced me to go off caffeine altogether. But as it stands, I have ONE cup of coffee a day, and I NEVER drink it after 11am. My guess is that it's totally out of my system by bedtime, and I DO love the effect it has in the morning, when I'm groggy. But maybe I'll experiment and go without it for a while. (If I DO have caffeine after about noon -- even one cup of coffee -- I will definitely get no sleep that night!)

I rarely drink alcohol or even have any in the house, but I do find that ONE glass of wine can be helpful. It can relax the rushing thoughts a bit and let me sleep. Two or more glasses of wine will stop me from sleeping.

One thing that's really tough is that the rushing thoughts can be seductive. Sometimes they're bad -- worrying, etc. -- but often they're really interesting. So I find myself in a mental struggle. I'm lying in bed, and without trying to, I start think about something really compelling. And I say to myself, "I should really listen to my iPod and forget about these thoughts for a while, or I won't be able to sleep," But I don't want to, because the thoughts are so damn interesting. Sometimes I say to myself, "Okay, just five more minutes of thinking and then iPod." But the five minutes turns into ten minutes, and then 20, and then it's morning and I've gotten no sleep. Sometimes I give in to this temptation, sometimes I don't.

Another problem is being married and sharing a bed (as-much-as I love this in general). I wish, if a thought occurred to me in the middle of the night, I could just write it down and be done with it. But I can't do that without turning on the light and disturbing my wife. So if I really want to do this, it means tip-toeing out of bed and going downstairs. Which is a commitment to staying up rather than a quick brain-dump.
posted by grumblebee at 1:44 PM on May 5, 2006

A trick that I'm find useful for dealing with the rushing thoughts: When I realize that I'm thinking (rather than sleeping, or listening, or just breathing), I imagine a cloud coming across my mind and wrapping up the thought in fluffy white, and as I imagine the cloud carrying it away, I think, "Thought."

I think I read that first in a meditation article.

I find it's more helpful for quieting my mind than getting into a struggle of thinking about how I shouldn't be thinking. It sounded a bit silly or overly visual when I first read about it, but I'm finding it ridiculously helpful lately. It's nice not to penalize yourself for thinking, but merely stay aware that you are.

And as an aside, I'm not sure you need to "learn" meditation; it sounds like you a decent handle on the idea. You need to "practice" it. I love that "practice" is really the verb that goes with meditation or yoga; it keeps it in the realm of something you *do* rather than something you *know*.
posted by occhiblu at 2:20 PM on May 5, 2006

Good luck, grumblebee. You seem to be leading an examined life, which is best.

I just wanted to add that ADD and dyslexia are not mutually exclusive, and often occur together. I'd definitely consider talking to a professional if I were in your shoes, even if it just ends up ruling both out.

And meditation is a great thing, regardless.
posted by teece at 3:35 PM on May 5, 2006

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