I memorized all the Presidents of the United States in chronological order , just to keep my brain sharp. I can still recite them. I learned all the states and their capitals, too, and can do those . What do I tend to forget? The names of people I don’t really care about .

--Abigail Van Buren

So you can quote verbatim from a Guy de Maupassant work that you studied in junior high but you just dialed a phone number and can’t remember whose? All it means is that you’re quite normal, for memory is selective.

“We are amazing as storage devices,” says Robert A. Bjork, a UCLA psychology professor and expert on memory. “There’s apparently almost no limit to what we can store in memory. But at any one time we can have highly selective access in the sense of being able to recall.

“What’s accessible to us is very dependent on our mood state, our physical state, our environmental surroundings, interpersonal surroundings.”


For example: “If you’re at a high school reunion, or walking around the town in which you grew up, there will be almost a rush of memories (causing) you to recall events and names you might not have thought about in decades.”

Memory, Bjork says, is not a container that fills up; rather it’s “some sort of scaffolding structure”--the more it’s built up, the more places there are to put things.

You remember statistics of big games. They don’t mean much now, but they’ve kind of stuck in there. I remember pretty well the plays from a game in 1981 when I scored 29 points for the Houston Rockets against the Boston Celtics. I have trouble remembering birthdays and anniversaries .

--Laker Coach Mike Dunleavy

“The memory machine is selective about what gets in and selective about how it changes over time,” says Elizabeth Loftus, professor of psychology at the University of Washington and author of several books on memory.

“You just remember the happier times in your life and forget about the sad times,” says Loftus. “People remember their vacations as being happier than they actually were. They forget that it rained and the car ran out of gas. You remember things in selective ways so your memory conforms to how you wish the past was.”

None of this indicates any mental aberration, she says. In fact, “depressed people tend to dwell on the bad stuff. Sometimes their memories can be in some ways a little more accurate.”

She refers to memory as having a “superiority complex. You remember that you gave more to charity or your kids walked and talked at an earlier age than they actually did. You conveniently forget things that maybe were embarrassing to you.”

This is different from lying, she says, in that false memories are actually created over time and that people recall embellished or distorted events with great conviction--”It’s their truth.”


What has happened to the original, accurate memory? Loftus believes it may actually be destroyed.

“We’ll show people an accident where a car goes through a red light and then ask leading and suggestive questions until we get people to say it was a green light,” she says. Later, even under hypnosis, “that red light can’t be found.” In a new book, “Witness for the Defense,” she explores “how memory fails in criminal situations, leading to conviction of the wrong person and other tragedies in the criminal justice system.”

Life’s accumulation of memories is warped through the retelling process, too, Bjork says: “It may be that we end up not remembering this thing that happened when we were 12 in some literal way, we remember only what we recall about it.”

I can remember the starting lineup of the first baseball team I ever went to see, the Hollywood Stars, in 1947, at Gilmore Field. I was 8 years old. But I can’t remember last night’s starting lineup. I’ve tried every trick in the book for remembering names, but none of them works for me except to associate people with places. I remember the number of my first telephone. I can’t remember the sexes of my staff’s children.

--Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky Mark Rosenzweig, a UC Berkeley psychologist with a longtime interest in the brain mechanisms of memory, says, “The things that are important, or have consequences for us, tend to be remembered. However, we’re awfully good in general at remembering even the inconsequential.”

But, he points out, there is a big difference between “what’s stored in memory and what’s available at any given moment for retrieval. We may not get access to it at the time we want.”

Access, he says, is determined partly by “the extent to which one is in the same situation as when one first learned or first acquired the information. If you want to be able to do a performance that depends on memory, the more you’re able to practice in the situation in which you’re expected to perform, the better off you’ll be.

I remember a fight about money that my aunt had with my father in the kitchen when I was a boy. It’s a searing emotional memory for me, coming from a repressed Irish Catholic New England background. When I run into financial problems, like my father did, bam, there it is. But I’m very forgetful . . . . I can reconstruct the history of evolution but I can’t remember whether I’ve put the sugar in my wife’s tea .

--Timothy Leary

People remember frivolous, useless bits of information both because an event initially had an impact on them and because each time that memory is retrieved it becomes more retrievable in the future, Bjork says.

A person may not be able to recall something like a Social Security number because there is no need to do so: “We have it on a card with us.”

Whether you remember what you learned in college depends, he says, on “how it matches your life.” When people express to him concern that they are losing their memory, Bjork has a “good news, bad news” response: You haven’t forgotten. You simply can’t recall.

He asks rhetorically, “Does that mean everything you get exposed to you remember forever? No. You need to do what’s necessary initially to get this stored or integrated in long-term memory.”

What’s the most useless piece of information I’ve ever carried around? Show tunes. I know every word to every one that’s ever been written. What do I have trouble remembering? Everything. Names. And my own (Cole of California swimsuit) line after it’s done. I’ve looked at it for six months, then we show it, then I don’t remember what was in it .

--Designer Anne Cole

“Given the storage characteristics of the memory system, we do not really want everything that exists in our memory to be retrievable. How slow and confusing the process would be,” says Bjork.

With age, people show relatively little loss in semantic memory (knowledge base), or in procedural memory, which is how to do something. Episodic memory is what determines whether you remember the name of someone you just met or whether you have told a particular story to a particular person.

One does tend to forget names as one gets older, he adds, but “even if your memory performance stayed the same, you’d make somewhat more errors because you do nothing but accumulate names over your lifetime.”

Creating challenges, having hobbies, engaging regularly in meaningful conversation can all “make a big difference” in memory retention, says Bjork.

“If you sit around and reminisce about those few key events in your life . . . that can be a kind of trap for older people. They sit around reminiscing about fewer and fewer things and other things become less accessible in memory. That could be a trap for anybody at any age.”

My head is filled with silly things. I try hard, as I grow older, to discard them, but they’re built in. I remember a phone number from when I was living in Connecticut, back in 1956. I remember addresses that I lived at. There are millions of things I don’t remember, but when something triggers them, there they come.

--Artie Shaw

Memory plays tricks. People who get paid to help others increase their memories offer such suggestions as kicking the drawer closed after you put your car keys inside and using bizarre images to remember names. (That’s Mr. Crane; picture him with a giant crane atop his head).

Except in cases of senility or disease, Loftus and others who chart memory agree there does not have to be a dramatic drop after age 65. Studies show some decline but, Loftus asks, “Are they not absorbing (information) as well, or don’t they retrieve it as well?”

Loftus and Bjork dismiss the theory that people are suffering memory lapses because of information overload in the ‘90s. An interested, active person, they say, will retain good memory power.

“Use it or lose it,” Loftus advises.

In a Pickle Over Remembering

Our memories are always playing tricks on us. What tricks can we use to fight back and recall something we really want to remember?

The experts recommend mnemonics, named after Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory. These devices include word association and a technique familiar to decades of grade schoolers.

Can’t spell A-R-I-T-H-M-E-T-I-C? Try “A Rat In The House Might Eat The Ice Cream.” Can you name the planets in our solar system? “My Very Elegant Mother Just Served Us Nine Pickles” should bring to mind Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.

Of course there is one catch--you have to memorize the mnemonic device itself.