How normal is a terrible memory?
February 28, 2007 10:17 PM   Subscribe

Bad memory makes me feel stupid.

My memory is absolutely the point where I worry about it and even get depressed. I often can't recall the plot of a movie I've seen a couple of years ago, and I only remember the name of one or two of all of the teachers I had in school (elementary through high school!). I struggle with learning new things, although I can memorize with a great deal of effort and repetition.

The interesting thing about this is that my siblings are extremely intelligent and successful. I've always felt that something was wrong with me, and that I am smart but there's a spot where my thinking doesn't work. It seems to have to do with the way I process information and store memories.

Anyway, I'm just wondering if it's just "normal" for some people to have such a horrible memory. I'm in my 30s and I don't have a history of substance abuse problems, head injury or anything like that.

My current doctor says he's quite sure that I don't have ADD. Sometimes I wonder if I might have even had heavy metal poisoning as a child. I did play with mercury once (around age 13?) and drank from a pewter goblet around age 15-16 (not knowing that pewter contains lead).
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
One of my cousins has always had trouble in school. She was diagnosed with ADHD, which she definitely has and which runs strongly in the family (at least 3 of the 10 cousins), but it still seemed like something else was going on. Eventually her parents and school put her through a whole battery of tests and discovered that her memory is in something like the 5th percentile. She's a bright kid, just can't retain what she learns at all.

Short answer: there are a lot of variations in memory. It's quite possible that you naturally have a poorer memory than many people, but what you describe doesn't sound terribly extreme to me.
posted by hippugeek at 10:51 PM on February 28, 2007

I am a very smart person with a very good memory for ideas. But I have a terrible memory for names, dates, and other facts of that kind. When I was working on a Master's Thesis on Walt Whitman, I could never remember that the first edition of Leaves of Grass was published in 1855. Somehow I managed to burn that into my brain, but I can't remember details of the other editions.

I can never remember book titles or authors, and I just today realized I had forgotten the name of a great-aunt I visited regularly as a child. It eventually came back to me, but still. I don't remember the names of even my favorite elementary school teachers, only a few high school teachers, and none of my college professors.

Over time, I've just figured out that this is how my brain works. I just don't remember that kind of information. Otherwise, my brain works fine.
posted by not that girl at 10:55 PM on February 28, 2007

I often can't recall the plot of a movie I've seen a couple of years ago, and I only remember the name of one or two of all of the teachers I had in school (elementary through high school!).

Me, too. As far as I can tell, some people remember details like this, and some people just don't. If you start forgetting major things, then it's time to worry, but forgetting obscure/unimportant things like the names of people you knew 15 years ago is perfectly normal.

As for learning new things, try different techniques. Some people learn better by doing, others do better by writing or reading, and still others learn by listening or seeing. If you can think of something that comes to you easily (for me it's music), try to consider why this is, and how you can leverage this to help you learn. There are some mnemonic techniques that may help, too.
posted by vorfeed at 10:58 PM on February 28, 2007

Also, some people like to give you shit about this. Don't let them bother you. It's better not to remember these trivial things.

They're the genetic freaks, not you.
posted by mammary16 at 11:29 PM on February 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

what you described sounds pretty normal, or at least wouldn't be categorized as "abyssmal". i just tried and i seriously can't remember at this moment a single teacher name from elementary through high school. i can't even remember any from college. i'd be more worried about metal poisoning if you couldn't remember your mother's name or forgot a plot of a movie you saw last night ...
posted by 5bux at 11:43 PM on February 28, 2007

It's not entirely related to this, but memory is a weird thing. I have an odd problem where I can't remember physical actions. So I can't remember if I locked the door or not (even if I did it 10 seconds ago) but I can remember non physical things like conversations, etc.

This means I have to verbally tell myself when I do physical actions I need to remember because I'll remember that part.
posted by wackybrit at 11:46 PM on February 28, 2007

I'm pretty dumb, but I'm often told that my poor memory (which sounds remarkably similar to yours) is more the result of adhd than simply being stupid. The idea, although I'm not a doctor, is that people with attention deficits don't have a problem remembering things so much as they don't naturally take the energy to do so. What I'd ask you to ask yourself is this: Is there anything you have a pretty decent knowledge about? For instance, do you have an encyclopedic knowledge of comic books, or actors and the movies they've been in, or ANYTHING? Can you go off on the history of print making or football stats or any damn thing that you enjoy a lot? People with naturally bad memories have difficulty remembering anything. People with a problem focusing have difficulty remembering anything that doesn't mean all that much to them. This is often why they appear absent minded and tardy. They simply naturally tend to focus on those things that interest them to the detriment of life's other necessities. They simply don't have enough attention to go around and as they get older they start realizing that all those things which didn't interest them all that much when they were younger are almost totally gone to them now.
posted by shmegegge at 11:56 PM on February 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

You're normal. At least, I hope you are because I consider myself in the same boat as you. I've often felt stupider than a friend because he can remember things we know commonly -- say, details of a novel or someone's name from year ago -- while I have forgotten them. In addition, I forget -- or remember incorrectly -- important details of past experiences that my brother remembers with clarity.

The funny thing is, there are totally worthless things that I can remember perfectly. For instance, 12 years after my first day of uni, I still remember what the couple who sat across from me for 4 hours while we all waited for student IDs looked like. I remember the back of a person's t-shirt from a uni class from 10 years ago. I remember what the bathroom floor looked like in the house I lived in when I was 6. Those memories aren't helping me much!

I've just decided that it's my little cross to bear, and I redouble my efforts when I come across something I want to be sure that I remember (an experience, a person's name, details that strike me, etc). I've been getting good results from this, though my memory still doesn't measure up to many peoples', and I don't beat myself up too much when I realize that I've forgotten something I ought to remember. I know that I'll remember the Important Things, and I've learned that if I put my mind to it I can remember things that aren't so important.

So don't beat yourself up about it. We both just have shitty memories.

... but at least I don't have metal poisoning.
posted by barnacles at 12:08 AM on March 1, 2007

How interested are you in what you do remember?

I have similar problems, and mostly stopped fretting about it when I realised I was mostly forgetting things that just weren't that interesting to me. Important as some of them may be...
posted by kmennie at 12:10 AM on March 1, 2007

Is there nothing you can retain? The funny thing with memory is that, both consciously and unconsciously, we choose what we remember to a large extent. We're all incredibly selective. Look at the football fans that can remember hundreds of obscure facts, but, like most of us, would struggle through a History degree. Because it's boring and we don't want to remember.

Is this something you've always had? Or just something that's been affecting you in the last 10 years or so, if so it's probably age-related (we start losing brain cells at from our 20s on). I'm 28 and I've already noticed that I'm not as sharp as my 18 year old self.

If you're worried about it remember (haha, sorry) that the more you use your brain, the better it gets - and the longer it stays strong. Take up crossword puzzles, learn a new language, study a course in something that interests you, anything that you find intellectually stimulating.

And lead can do some serious damage, but I think you have to be under 12 at the time to really lose the IQ points (but don't quote me on that).
posted by kisch mokusch at 12:36 AM on March 1, 2007

I wouldn't worry about it if I were you. Some people are far worse. I can't remember details from movies I watched or books I read after an hour. In fact, I have been known to be completely unable to remember parts of movies I just finished watching.
posted by nightchrome at 1:04 AM on March 1, 2007

I'm like this too. I never remember the details of books or movies - it has happened more than once that I have rented a movie, sat down to watch it, and 10 minutes in realize I've already seen it before. My sisters remember childhood things much better than I do. And if somebody tells me something, like if my boss gives me a task, I don't remember unless I write it down.

I've always been more of a "big picture" than "small details" person - I could tell you the overall theme and plot of a novel, and my fiance, who is the complete opposite of me in this regard, could tell you the name of every single character but could not tell you that the book was about man vs. nature or whatever.

I don't know if maybe I have trouble focusing because I have a great head for phone numbers, addresses and birthdays. I remember almost every single phone number I've ever had, including the one my family had when I was 5. I can also remember names and faces very well. But ask me what happened in a book I just finished or what first grade was like, and I might not be able to tell you.
posted by sutel at 4:09 AM on March 1, 2007

I can totally relate. I cannot remember anything. Most of my childhood is a blur, except the horrible parts. I can't remember books that I've read, unless they really affect me. People remember me, I don't remember them. My sister can rattle off information that I should know with ease. It's embarrassing. But like Barnacle, I accept it.

As an adult I was diagnosed by a psychiatrist with mild to moderate ADD. As others have mentioned, that probably has something to do with it.

I find exercise clears the brain fuzz somewhat.
posted by LoriFLA at 6:39 AM on March 1, 2007

I too have a horrible memory. I find that it's easier to keep lists of everything. Just carry a little notebook with you, like a classy Moleskine, and jot down important things.

Pick up a system like "Getting Things Done" which relies upon lists of things. Stop worrying about 'What Am I Remembering" and start concentrating on life.
posted by unixrat at 6:45 AM on March 1, 2007

Playing with mercury once will not give you heavy metal poisoning. That pewter goblet, unless an antique, likely did not contain lead, and even so, it's unlikely that this was significant and long-term enough exposure to cause any damage.

People have different aptitudes for remembering different details. (I have a very good memory for faces and voices, but cannot remember names to an embarrassing degree. I can't remember the names of the principal characters of films a couple of hours later. )

You beat yourself up a lot in your post, You seem to be looking for a diagnosis that will reinforce this idea that you're damaged or inadequate. This way lies madness. If I knew you personally, I'd probably shake you by the shoulders, tell you to leave comparisons to your siblings out of it, and then work on giving you a good ol' fashioned shot of self-esteem.

I know this gets thrown out as a suggestion a lot around here, but doing some volunteer work may give you a sense of accomplishment and perspective that would help you better appreciate the skills that you do possess.

(As my short-term memory is spotty, I carry a small notebook everywhere and jot down anything that I will need to remember. Anyone who gives me grief gets a withering glance.)
posted by desuetude at 7:09 AM on March 1, 2007

i'm much like nightcrome. i can remember the bizarrest of geographical and historical facts about places, but i'd have trouble telling you about the plot of the book i'm still reading---Leon Uris's Armageddon---and I'm not sure I could tell you the name of the last movie I saw, let alone its plot. In fact, I couldn't tell you with certainty when I saw it, although I know it was within the last month.

I occasionally try carrying around notebooks and the like---I just forget I have them, or forget to write things in them, or forget to look in them for what I wrote before. . . . .
posted by FlyingMonkey at 7:35 AM on March 1, 2007

I hope you're normal, because I'm just as bad (if not worse), and I'm still in my 20s. I have no history of drugs or head trauma or metal poisoning, but I have 15-20 instances per day of being just about to say something when I completely forget what it was. I can remember only very little of a week long vacation I took 3 or 4 years ago. My husband remembers things that happened while we were dating that I have no recollection of whatsoever. I can't remember many names of teachers and classmates from school. However, sometimes seeing a particular thing will jog my memory - like looking at my yearbook.

I think everyone has different things they are better at remembering than others, and some of us just have bad memories.
posted by geeky at 8:03 AM on March 1, 2007

Actually, now that I think about it, maybe your memory isn't the problem. Maybe the problem is that you don't know the proper way to access your memories.

For me, I find it's mostly visual. If I was about to say something and then forget what it was, I find that looking at whatever I was looking at when I first had the thought will jog my memory. Same with the yearbooks I mentioned - I can't classmates on my own, but looking at my yearbook helps me recall shared classes or friendships.
posted by geeky at 8:08 AM on March 1, 2007

You sound almost exactly like me. I wouldn't worry about your bad memory, as it doesn't really seem that uncommon. As some have said, I think the key isn't to improve your memory, as much as just adapting to it: write the important things down, so you don't have to remember. Judging from the number of books on the topic of memory, we're hardly the only one that always seem to forget things.

What concerns me more is that you seem pretty depressed / anxious. (Maybe I'm just misunderstanding, though.) Check out some of the tests online and see what they say.
posted by fogster at 8:53 AM on March 1, 2007

You can stop thinking of yourself in a bad light for memory problems-- it is when you have trouble learning new stuff or connecting the dots that you should worry. I never can remember the author or title of the book I am presently reading and when asked, "What are you reading these days?" feel so stupid for saying "I can't remember." But that hasn't changed-- I have always had this problem and so I try not to be alarmed. Apparently Author/Title isn't as important to me as content.

As for content, while thrillers are completely forgettable (Once I was reading a thriller and realized I had read it before when I was 10 pages from the end) the content of non-fiction books that really grip my interest is easily retained for years-- even decades.

My aural memory is much greater than my visual memory and therefore books I have heard read aloud are retained much easier than books I have read to myself.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 9:18 AM on March 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think it's pretty amazing that you remember drinking out of a pewter goblet as a teenager.
posted by notswedish at 10:15 AM on March 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Damn. I wish this wasn't an anon post. I'd like some more details.

It's not abnormal to forget the plot of a movie. Movie plots -- unless you see them over and over -- go into your temporary memory. You're not going to remember the plot unless it gets transferred to your permanent memory. And that's not going to happen unless the movie is deeply meaningful to you or you see it over and over.

Sometime, ask a friend (with a "good" memory) to tell you the plot of the best movie he's seen this year. Unless he saw several times (or yesterday), he'll probably have a hard time. For instance, the best movie I've seen recently is "Pan's Labyrinth." I loved it, it was meaningful to me, and I think about it often. I FEEL like I know the plot, but when I actually force myself to go over it (this happened and then this happened...), I'm terrible at it. I remember fragments, and I remember the general feel of the movies and the main characters, but I can't put the sequence of events back together.

Names also go into your temporary memory. That's why, the next day, you can't remember the name of that girl you met at a party the night before. Of course, a teacher's name should be in your permanent memory, because you heard it daily for at least a year. But that was a long time ago.

Memories get connected to other memories, and you dig them up by "spidering" from memory to memory, the way Google spiders from link to link. So your teacher's name was linked to the memory of your classroom, which was linked to the memory of your school. Back when you were attending that school, you thought about these things over and over, and the links weakened. Even after leaving, you probably had nostalgic (or nightmarish) feelings about the school, so while there memories were strong, your feelings got reinforced. But as the school -- and its associated memories -- became less and less relevant to your life, the links weakened. Your teacher's name is probably floating around in your brain somewhere, but it may be like an orphaned web page. Unless other pages link to it, it's going to be hard to find.

Before finally graduating with an MFA, I attended eight schools. At each school, I had good friends. But if I try to think back two schools from my MFA, I can't remember much about the friends I had there. This isn't surprising. I lost touch with these people and so my brain let the links weaken.

Some people can tell you every little detail about their childhood, and I'm sure, in some cases, it's because they have an extraordinary memory. But it also may be because they "live in the past." If you talk about your childhood all the time -- and if you've been talking about it all the time, for years -- then naturally the links are going to stay strong. But if live in the present, your link with the past may weaken.

Many people think they suck at memorization, but, if they do, they suck the way most grownups suck. Note the word "grownups." If the main reason you're upset is that, looking back, you remember that as a kid, you could recall things really easily, then you're making an unfair comparison. Kids need to learn in order to survive, so their brains are wired differently. It's natural for memorization to get harder as you grow older. Compare yourself to others your age (and not to that one guy you know who has a "photographic memory".)

Don't beat yourself up if you hear something once and then can't remember it ten minutes later. That's normal. If you hear something over and over, over the course of several days, and you still can't remember it, then you might want to look into it.

Like you, I have a "bad memory." I found a couple of things that help:

1) Go over the same information three times, in three very different ways. These ways should interact with different senses. For instance, if you're trying to memorize a poem, speak it aloud, read it from the page, and write it down on a sheet of paper.

For me, at least, it doesn't work to just repeat one method over and over. If I do that, my brain doesn't seem to get that it's worth saving in permanent memory. But if I encounter the info in three different forms, my brain says, "Oh, this is important. I'd better hold onto it."

2) Sleep on it and repeat step one. Tons of research shows that sleep is vital to memory retention. So my rule of thumb is that even if it feels memorized, it's not memorized until tomorrow, when I'll memorize it all over again. (The next day's attempt is generally easier.)

Again, I suspect your brain thinks, "Oh, this must be important because I'm hearing it on two separate days! I'd better hold onto it."

Finally, note that we live in a culture that caters to bad memories (and maybe makes bad memories worse?). The world is filled with devices that want to be your memory, and if you use them, your memory will probably get worse. This is not necessarily a bad thing. For the most part, I'm happy to let Google Calendar, PDAs, etc. remember things for me. You just have to decide what's most important to you.

Memory is like a muscle. If you want yours to get better, you need to do memory workouts. (E.g. memorize long poems). Think of yourself as a memory couch potato. It won't be easy at first. It will take you weeks, perhaps, to memorize one poem. And, as with physical exercise, you'll hear the sirens calling you to give up. But if you don't, the next poem will be a little easier.
posted by grumblebee at 1:13 PM on March 1, 2007 [3 favorites]

I just read this article in Scientific American. OK, it is of no use at this time, but in the future, people won't have this problem. For right now, what grumblebee says.
posted by extrabox at 2:07 PM on March 1, 2007

If it really bugs you, get a blood test for lead.

Memory is a skill can be improved. Read The Seven Sins of Memory. Searching Amazon for books on memory brings up a lot of books on improving your memory, and googling improve memory finds a lot of useful-looking pages.
posted by theora55 at 3:04 PM on March 1, 2007

1) Go over the same information three times, in three very different ways. These ways should interact with different senses. For instance, if you're trying to memorize a poem, speak it aloud, read it from the page, and write it down on a sheet of paper.

Yes! This is the way I studied, I found it very helpful. I also use this method in some everyday life situations without realizing it.
posted by LoriFLA at 5:36 PM on March 1, 2007

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