A Blinding Flash of the Oblivious: Memory Loss and You

Among the many potentially worrisome effects of growing older—or just living, period—memory loss affects us all. I’m sure there are others, but since I can’t recall them at the moment, I’ll focus on forgetfulness.

Fortunately for all of us, there are some tricks that memory experts would probably disdain, but which I have found to be quite effective.

What’s in a Name?

One of the biggest problems with memory loss is forgetting people’s names. It’s especially embarrassing when those people happen to be your friends, or your children.

But millions of American Southerners know how to beat this problem, and now I’m going to pass the secret along to you. You only have to know the name of one person in any group. Just say that person’s name followed by “and them.”

For example, let’s say the Wilsons are coming over for dinner, but all you can remember is that the wife’s name is Jane. Just say, “Honey, isn’t tonight when Jane and them are coming over for dinner?” This is perfectly acceptable Southern speech, and when its value becomes better known I’m sure it will catch on everywhere else, too.

If you’re speaking directly to Jane Wilson and you can’t remember her name or anybody else’s in the family, you can use another time-honored Southern locution and say “Y’all are coming over this Saturday night, aren’t you?” (If you’re really Southern you can say “You’uns.”)

However, if you are Mr. Wilson and you have forgotten your own spouse’s name, this technique won’t help you very much. You can’t very well refer to yourselves as “me and them” without getting into trouble on the home front.

Spectral Analysis

For the forgetful, colors are a faithful ally. All you have to know is the color of any object or substance. Just follow it with “thing(s)” or “stuff,” and your problem is solved. It also helps if you have on the tip of your tongue another adjective or two describing your subject. Here are some examples:

  • Red stuff = Ketchup
  • Round white things = Ping-pong balls
  • Prickly black things = Porcupines (or sweetgum balls, or dead cacti)
  • Green stuff = Guacamole (or money, or really old mayonnaise)
  • Cold mushy brown stuff = Uncooked hamburger meat
  • Big beige thing with drawers = Filing cabinet (or an overweight Caucasian man in his underwear)
  • Flat burnt sienna things = Fooled you; burnt sienna is a crayon color, not a real color.

Let’s See, It Was Here A Month Ago…

So far we’ve looked at ways to remember words and names. What about remembering where you put things?

The things most of us have trouble keeping up with are:

  1. unpaid bills
  2. the car keys
  3. the car

The answers to the first two depend on your personality type. Are you better at deductive or inductive reasoning?

Generally, if you’re better at deductive reasoning, that means that you start with a general notion of what’s going on and then look for the logical underpinnings to support your conclusion. As I was told when I took a series of aptitude tests years ago, this kind of person also tends to be neat, punctual, and constipated. So they never lose important things like the car keys, or the phone bill, or the W-2 form (and especially not late in the evening on April 14).

Then there are the creative, fun, popular people who are better at inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning enables a person to cobble together a bunch of different, possibly totally unrelated, pieces of information and see patterns and relationships in them. We tend to be a little looser about such mundane details as putting all those little rectangular flat white things in the big beige thing with drawers.

But the advantage is that we remember there’s a pencil underneath that T-shirt on top of the bookcase. And we remember (as long as somebody else didn’t go into some kind of self-righteous cleaning frenzy) that the phone bill is probably behind the cereal box, which, the last time we saw it, was in the refrigerator to keep the bugs from getting into it.

So the important thing here is: If you are better at deductive reasoning, you don’t need my advice, because you’re already an uptight, dour neat freak who never loses anything. If you’re better at inductive reasoning, the key is never clean up. Because if you do, the natural order of things will be disturbed, and you won’t be able to remember where the pencil is, because the T-shirt isn’t there anymore!

As far as remembering where the car is, here are some suggestions:

  • Put something unusual on the rear-view mirror, like a Pee-Wee Herman doll, or a half-eaten sandwich.
  • Have an insignificant little accident with your car, so that, for example, the right front parking light is bashed in. This will not only give your car a kind of “Road Warrior” panache, but it will also make it more recognizable from afar in the mall parking lot.
  • Always park in the same place. It’s worth walking a couple of extra hundred feet if you can always get the same parking spot at work or the grocery store.
  • Get a car alarm. Not to keep out the burglars, of course. No self-respecting thief would rob a car that has the right front parking light bashed in. Just press a button on the remote control, and your car alarm will emit a cheerful chirp, small honk, or a gleeful “WOO-WOO-WOO!” Wander around pressing the button and listen to see if your car is getting closer or farther away. If the sound dies out, either a) your battery has run down, b) you’re out of range of the car and should just call a cab, or c) the parking brake has failed and the car is rolling downhill into a busy thoroughfare.
  • Only go places that have valet parking. If your job doesn’t have valet parking, consider trying to get one that does.

Amnesian Fields

So far we’ve talked only about the disadvantages of memory loss and how to overcome them. But there can be certain comforts in forgetting, too.

Just as “time heals all wounds,” the slackening of memory can be a balm. As a distant landscape is often more beautiful than an immediate one, life itself becomes more pleasant as its sharp edges soften and colors blend. Eventually, if we’re lucky, everything will become a sort of blurred field from which we can’t discern bothersome details—much as life was when we were babies.

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