I wish someone would give us a good theory to explain the workings of memory. Since I’m not a psychologist, maybe someone has and I just missed hearing about it. Why do people remember certain things and forget certain others?
Sure, there’s the simple fact that short-term memory is, indeed, short-term. If the phone book is on the other side of the room, I have to rush to the phone, saying the number aloud until I get a chance to punch it into the keypad. Even then I sometimes get it wrong. But that is normal. I don’t think I’m necessarily slipping in that aspect of short-term memory.
Yet in other ways I am slipping. Ken Simons, my worthy right-hand man, often reminds that he had given me some significant information about which I can recall nothing at all. And when I think of a new chore that must be handled, I can rush to the to-do list to write it down, but lose it before I get there.
Memory clearly has something to do with repression. I had no opportunity to explore my unwelcome cognitions on Freud's lumpy couch but, like everyone else, I prefer to forget them. I can't always do so. Sometimes an embarrassing gaffe will erupt into the present, arousing anxiety about some trivial foolishness of sixty years ago – such as one silly dispute I had with high school friends about whether to eat ice cream with a fork or a spoon. That particular memory often evades my strategies for repressing it.
Yet other memories are welcome and vivid. Chatting with a friend yesterday, I recounted in exquisite detail a conversation that I had three years ago with Rob Morrow about Fidel Castro, anti-Americanism, and Israeli culpability in the conflict with Palestinians. I remembered his exact words. Why? Partly because the topics were fraught with controversy. Partly because Rob Morrow was a salient person in my world at the time. And partly because I liked the opinions he expressed in that conversation. Had it been disagreeable, I probably would have tried to forget.
An attempt to forget is an emotional project. A few days ago I received a gratuitously hostile letter from a guy whom I had previously liked. Ouch. I knew that it would take two days before the hurt would diminish. Throughout those two days, the event was front-and-center in my attention, a nasty cognition that was being processed. I was deciding how to deal with him hereafter, and it took time for my ambivalence to settle into a clear intention. As the memory became manageable, the pain subsided.
Sometimes it is indeterminate whether a cognition is really a memory, as opposed to an inference, a hunch, or perhaps even a false notion. For example, I cannot recall when two of my aunts died. I know they are dead, and they must have passed on within the past 15 years, but I’ve forgotten the particulars. They lived in California and I hadn’t seen them for many years. They were quite old. Death came as no shock, hence it evidently escaped my attention. Is that the explanation?
Today I came across the name of a colleague whom I haven’t seen in eight or ten years. I think he has some potentially fatal ailment, but I don’t actually remember what disease it is or how I heard about it – if, indeed, I actually did hear. Perhaps it’s not even true. Perhaps it was only a blip of imagination that crossed my mind today. But it still feels true. He’s a nice man. Maybe I’m trying to repress that cognition because I like him and want him to live. Is that the explanation?
Repression doesn’t work very logically, if that is what’s behind forgetfulness. Yesterday I had a conversations that involved two unpleasant memories. My old friend Linda called to discuss her marital troubles. It seems that her husband Arnold has had a mistress, Paula, for many years, though Linda hadn’t found out until recently. Yes, it’s true that decades ago she had seen them kissing, but after a stormy confrontation she had forgiven Arnold and put the memory aside. She hadn’t exactly forgotten, but she had no longer thought about it and never suspected that it was continuing. Now she knows that it was.
As I listened to all this, I wondered how she had managed to trust Arnold. There had been earlier grounds for suspicion. Finally, I gently reminded her. “Of course, there had been that scandal before your marriage,” I said. She had told me about it herself. Arnold had been involved inappropriately with another woman while they were engaged, but though she learned about it, she had not broken the engagement.
Now she has forgotten that. Nothing of the sort ever happened, she said, sounding genuinely mystified. Oh my. Repression. I decided to skip it, not press her to recall.
But then she caught me in a memory lapse of my own. She reminded me that Arnold had once brought Paula to my home. They stayed a week, presumably attending a conference in Toronto. He had intended to share a bedroom with her, but I had put my foot down on that subject. Linda was my friend and I would not go along with such a betrayal of her. Indeed, I had told her what had happened.
“You said that Paula had whorish eyes. You didn’t like her,” Linda said.
I was astonished. I don’t remember ever meeting Paula. I don’t recall that Arnold brought her to my house. Knowing Arnold, I wouldn’t put it past him. But for a whole week? How could I forget a thing like that? I suppose I put it out of my mind as part of my accommodation to Linda, since she chose to stay with him. But why did she retain those particular unpleasant memories and repress others that seem equally unpleasant?
Why did I repress the memory of Arnold’s and Paula’s visit, yet recall the memory of Arnold’s philandering before the marriage? There’s no obvious logic behind it.
I don’t want a perfect memory. Painful recollections remain painful. The only thing to do is manage them. Freud wanted, above all, for his patients to have available to their conscious recall everything that was troublesome. He wanted to transfer all the contents of the unconscious into the conscious mind. I am skeptical about that ambition, for in my experience the pain does not diminish. You just get to remember throughout your lifetime your stupid insistence that ice cream should be eaten with a fork. And every time you think of it, you cringe. Ten thousand times, you cringe. And that’s nothing, compared to some other memories I could tell you about.
Freud was wrong. But who has a better theory?