Saturday, April 26, 2008

Now I Remember

So in my post from yesterday I talked about the normal process of memory and forgetting. Right after I published that post I started thinking about all the weird little things that I remember.

In order to be a doctor you have to have a pretty good memory. You start out by memorizing muscles and bones and nerves and blood vessels, and work your way into the body by memorizing types of cells and cell processes and biochemical reactions. (How many of you remember how many molecules of ATP are produced in the Kreb's cycle?) The comedian who played Father Guido Sarducci on Saturday Night Live used to have this bit where he'd advertise for the Five Minute College. By sending him lots of money and taking his Five Minute College course, you could get a college degree while learning everything a college graduate remembers five minutes after leaving college.

I'm always surprised by the little factoids and trivia I remember, both in day-to-day life and from college days decades ago. I remember my friend's apartment number because it's the same as the year Jamestown was founded. I remember my childhood phone number (OK, that's an easy one---it's two digits repeated two or three times) as well as the addresses for all the apartments I've ever lived in.

Remembering things too well is rarely a problem for people. When it happens it's usually in the context of unpleasant or horrible memories, memories that intrude on day-to-day life and are upsetting or interfere with one's ability to function, as in post-traumatic stress disorder. These situations are usually managed with therapy, although now people are also experimenting with the use of medications to prevent the formation of intrusive memories after traumatic events. This is still too experimental to be practically useful, however.

Of course, we know that memory is not always a reliable thing. We remember childhood events differently than our older siblings, or not at all. In the 1980's following years of a movement for the treatment of trauma survivors we learned both that bad memories can be repressed, but also they can be created through false memory syndrome. The amazing thing is that false memories can be just as convincing to the individual as real ones.

Speaking of false memory syndrome, here's a practical example. When I started writing this post I was feeling rather pleased with myself that I remembered how many ATP's were produced by the Kreb's cycle. I was wrong. See if your memory is better than mine by checking out this link here.