From the bestselling author of Still Alice, Lisa Genova explores the intricacies of how we remember, why we forget, and what we can do to protect our memories in her new book Remember. Read the excerpt below.
You need memory to learn anything. Without it, information and experiences can’t be retained. New people would remain strangers. You wouldn’t be able to remember the previous sentence by the end of this one. You depend on memory to call your mother later today and to take your heart medication before you go to bed tonight. You need memory to get dressed, brush your teeth, read these words, play tennis, and drive your car. You use your memory from the moment you wake up until the moment you go to sleep, and even then, your memory processes are busy at work.
The significant facts and moments of your life strung together create your life’s narrative and identity. Memory allows you to have a sense of who you are and who you’ve been. If you’ve witnessed someone stripped bare of his or her personal history by Alzheimer’s disease, you know firsthand how essential memory is to the experience of being human.
But for all its miraculous, necessary, and pervasive presence in our lives, memory is far from perfect. Our brains aren’t designed to remember people’s names, to do something later, or to catalog everything we encounter. These imperfections are simply the factory settings. Even in the smartest of heads, memory is fallible. A man famous for memorizing more than a hundred thousand digits of pi can also forget his wife’s birthday or why he walked into his living room.
Why do we remember our first kiss but not our tenth? What determines what we remember and what we forget? Memory is quite economical. In a nutshell, our brains have evolved to remember what is meaningful. They forget what isn’t. The truth is, much of our lives are habitual, routine, and inconsequential. We shower, brush our teeth, drink coffee, commute to work, do our jobs, eat lunch, commute home, eat dinner, watch TV, spend too much time on social media, and go to bed. Day after day. We can’t remember anything about the load of laundry we did last week. And that’s OK. Most of the time, forgetting isn’t actually a problem to solve.
We would probably all agree that forgetting our tenth kiss, last week’s laundry, what we ate for lunch on Wednesday, and whatever is on the head of a penny isn’t such a big deal. These moments and details aren’t particularly significant. However, our brains also forget plenty of things we do care about. I would very much like to remember to return my daughter’s overdue library book, why I just walked into the kitchen, and where I put my glasses. These things matter to me. In these instances, we often forget not because it’s efficient for our brains to do so but because we haven’t supplied our brains with the kinds of input needed to support memory creation and retrieval. These garden-variety memory failures are normal outcomes of our brains’ design. But we seldom think of them this way because most of us aren’t familiar with our memory’s owner’s manual. We would remember more and forget less if we understood how the process works.
Most of what we forget is not a failure of character, a symptom of disease, or even a reasonable cause for fear—places most of us tend to go when memory fails us. We feel worried, embarrassed, or plain scared every time we forget something we believe we should remember or would have remembered back when we were younger. We hold on to the assumption that memory will weaken with age, betray us, and eventually leave us. When we can’t remember our Netflix passwords or the name of that movie starring Tina Fey, we worry that these failures might be early signs of inevitable disease.
Once we understand memory and become familiar with how it functions, its incredible strengths and maddening weaknesses, its natural vulnerabilities and potential superpowers, we can both vastly improve our ability to remember and feel less rattled when we inevitably forget. We can set educated expectations for our memory and create a better relationship with it. We don’t have to fear it anymore. And that can be life changing.
Excerpted from REMEMBER © 2021 by Lisa Genova. Published by Harmony Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC