6 Bizarre Things That Make Your Memory Worse Than You Think
Memory is the Konami LaserScope to our Nintendo brain -- it has the potential to be awesome, yet turns out unwieldy and kind of retarded. Any time we try to use our internal Google, our mighty blob of think mulch turns into a grumpy gnome, running around the skull cavity and frantically digging in file cabinets for that ever-missing folder labeled "Where the hell did I put those [dress shoes/shot glasses/assless chaps]?"
Although the finer workings of our memory bones are still surprisingly ill-understood by brainologists, what they have managed to uncover so far indicates that our rememberin' bits are mainly held together with the neuropsychological equivalent of duct tape and a prayer.
On the bright side, this offers us plenty of scientific excuses for forgetting our cousin's birthday.
Your Memory Depends on the Weather
There's a reason the ability to control weather is such a popular pop culture trope. It's just us wanting to get back at nature because, generally speaking, weather is bullshit. Rainstorms soak clothes and delay big games, tornadoes wreck houses, and unexpected heat waves play merry hell on our mud pit orgies. I don't even have to Google "freak hailstorms" to confidently state that they're the #1 cause of scrotal trauma in nudist colonies.
But the worst weather by far is the kind that gets in your head.
The weather that spin-kicks you in the head is a close second.
Some days it's difficult to remember things and you don't know why. Everything should be fine, yet your brain keeps making farty sounds when you try to remember where you put that winning lottery ticket. It's not your fault. It's just the goddamn weather playing you like a violin.
Much like Y'Shoggo.
You know how people seem gloomier when the weather gets bad? Research suggests that your memory dislikes bad weather even more than your emotions, and it protests with a tendency to go offline whenever the skies go dark. It works the other way around, too: We seem to remember things better when the weather is nice ... at least for some of us. For multiple sclerosis patients, even cloudless skies are not safe: Hot weather can also be horribly bad for their memory.
And don't you just know that somewhere some dick who missed the "MS" part of that sentence is planning ways to play the "sunshine ruined my memory" card right now?
"Sorry, Aunt Sarah -- I would have loved to come to the funeral, but my brain just didn't let me."
Your Memory Hates Numbers
Let's say you have to make an important phone call.
You never remembered to save the number to your phone or ask for a business card, because for the purposes of this story you are a clueless idiot with all adult stuff. What you do have is a crumpled napkin. Shit, you haven't even bothered to write the number down with proper spacing -- all you have there is a long string of numbers.
That ridiculous, ridiculous thing has actually happened to me a couple of times, and I have never once managed to make those calls. To my brain, that long string of numbers might as well have been written in Morse code. By a toddler. That is an orangutan.
Nice job, asshole.
Luckily, this is not just me being a dumbass. Science says we all have the same problem.
Most people have a memory that hates numbers. They're the worst goddamn thing our brains have ever seen and, knowing our browser histories, rest assured that they have seen some shit. Unlike letters, numbers don't offer much context. You need to straight up memorize the fuckers, which takes up lots and lots of head space. If the brain isn't careful, it will soon be filled with strings of numbers just zipping around like a big multiplayer game of Snake.
"Please stop attempting to explain neuropsychology in video game terms."
Luckily, the brain has devised a way to deal with the issue. It commits numbers to memory by quickly vomiting them in small blocks, screaming obscenities with every neuron as it does. If the number in question is one you need often, like a family member's phone number or your own Social Security Number, the blocks will get bigger with time, until you're eventually able to memorize the whole thing like it was a word. This phenomenon is called chunking.
The only psychological phenomenon named after a mildly racist snack.
Chunking is the very reason Social Security Numbers, pin codes, and phone numbers are shaped the way they are. Those small blocks of three to five digits are the only way the short term memories of most people are equipped to deal with numbers. It's so official, even the government has come up with ways to work around our stupidity.
Overloading Your Memory Can Wreck Your Impulse Control
If you're anything like me, large projects that involve lots of studying and memorizing like presentations and tests are poison for your impulse control. I'm not saying I can't hold my own against deadlines -- on the contrary, I've found they respond very well to chin locks. But there's no easier time to let out a bellowing "Fuck yeah!" at the first person offering you a beer than when your brain has been sweating study-blood all day. And then, 10 hours later, you wake up in a bathtub full of ice in Nevada. Now you have to finish your important presentation while trying to figure out what happened last night and locate your missing kidney.
(I'm not saying that last part happens every time. It's 1 in 4, if that.)
"Sir, the usual room is ready."
Every college student can attest that it's easy to give in to vice when your brain knows it will have to wrestle a shoal of mental squids tomorrow. It's because impulse control and memory have their wires crossed. Their functions are essentially an everlasting game of tug-of-war -- the more brainpower you put behind one, the weaker the other one is bound to become.
This means that the more you load your memory, the more likely you are to cave to your impulses. That's why it's so easy to give in to your friends' keg party calls when you're trying to study for that big test tomorrow, and that's why no one who is using their brain ever has a healthy snack when there's chocolate cake available.
Not that we're naming any names, celery.
It's First Come, First Served
Our memory is not unlike a prestigious nightclub: Anyone who wants in has to wait in line. And the bouncer in this particular joint doesn't take bribes -- it's first come, first served to the end. Hanging in the lobby of that club is your brain, and it notices people in the exact order they enter. This may pose some problems; if the 67th person coming in is the love of your life, good luck noticing: Chances are that your memory is too busy rubbing shoulders with whoever came in first. If that person happens to be the love child of Paula Deen and Pax Dickinson -- well, that's just tough.
Still, maybe it's not all lost. Research on commercials has shown that sometimes we can also remember the last thing in our memory conga roughly as well as the first one. Assuming the same applies to all memories, you can always wish that the person of your dreams likes to make a dramatic entrance.
Or is just a habitually, cripplingly, life-destroyingly tardy person.
Your Brain Cheats by Focusing on Details
Remember that time when you stood in a police lineup, only to find that the witness only remembered that the culprit had a huge nose? And as luck would have it, all those other guys had a huge nose too? Sure you do.
Your lawless ass was saved because the brain of the witness was feeling lazy and decided to employ a phenomenon called salience of detail, where it just sort of focused on the most eye-drawing part of the subject and memorized that shit instead of the whole thing.
Here's how it works: Meet Pablo Picasso's Guernica.
The size of that thing is 11 feet 5 inches by 25 feet 5 inches. That's a wall of madness for your memory to deal with, so when it takes a look at the monumental task in front of it, it just wants to skulk into the corner to take a swig from the old hip flask.
So maybe it just cheats. Maybe your head abacus doesn't give a good goddamn about memorizing the entire picture. Maybe it just chooses to focus on one detail and makes the whole memory about that instead. Since the detail is usually the one your eye is most likely drawn to, let's just forget the beast-horse and the flying head and the demon bull and admit that we're obviously talking about the weird boob lady:
Also, let's never discuss the nose of that kid.
There's the image that will burn into your brain. The next day, chances are you won't be able to accurately remember the entire picture, but you'll remember the shit out of the boob lady. Sure, you might dimly remember the entire Guernica, and you'll definitely recognize it if you see it again. But what you truly remember is the boob lady. At least until you forget her over time.
Which you won't.
Your Memory Can Randomly Make Your Life a Lie
I have a memory that's been haunting me for as long as I can remember. I was a baby, just old enough to crawl, but holy shit I was good at that. I roamed the house like a maniac, chewing on toys, pulling on the dog's tail, and generally wreaking havoc on everything under a foot tall, until I ran into my grandfather, who picked me up and stopped my amok crawl. It's the most vivid memory I have, and by far the longest continuous one. Basically, it's like an infant version of that Prodigy video.
It's also a complete and utter fabrication.
I was around 1 year old, and kids that young don't really form memories yet. My family didn't live in that house until years later. We didn't have a dog until I was 9, and my grandpa would probably have reflexively kicked me out of the window if he had suddenly seen me coming for him at ankle height. He was by no means a cruel man, I just happened to look like this:
The hoodie was handy for hiding the horns.
I know all this, but it doesn't stop me from having 15 minutes of baby view cam in my head -- and it seems far more real than most of my actual memories.
The weird thing is that pretty much everyone I tell this story to has at least one like it. Not necessarily baby antics, just these big, bullshit memories taking up brain space like it ain't no thing, which is precisely what they are. These weird fakes happen to lots of people, for various reasons, not all of which involve mushrooms.
Shockingly, it's not your memory's fault. It's just that imagination keeps sneaking into memory's office to randomly doodle dicks all over its papers.
Imagination: The worst co-worker.
This is a memory phenomenon called imagination inflation, and it's exactly what you think: It embellishes the stuff we remember, leading to vivid but inaccurate memories. Imagination can randomly pad up and even completely fabricate details of any event, to the point where any individual memory -- no matter how clearly you remember it -- might be complete and utter horseshit, constructed by your brain just because it got its wires tangled yet again.
As powerful as it may seem, at the end of the day the brain is just a few pounds of moist molecules trying to cope with the entire goddamn universe. We're not trying to play GTA V with a VIC-20 here -- we're tackling GTA MCMLXVI with a pound of gazelle testicles for hardware.
So maybe it's best to let the brain take its shortcuts. The poor thing is trying its best.