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Distractions and cognitive shortcomings are getting in the way of something...but I can't remember what it is

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Jason ChaneyMemory is a fickle thing. Things that should be easy to remember are sometimes inexplicably forgotten. Do you know where your car keys went? Perhaps you should retrace your steps — except you can't recall what you did for the first couple hours of the afternoon.

I used to believe I had a rock star of a memory. I could memorize phone numbers, birthdays, anniversaries — even my driver's license number and social security number. You know how most people can't remember their toddler years? I have a memory from age 2, verified by my parents, that has stuck in my brain like a home video.

But somewhere along the way, that rock star of a memory deteriorated to more of a boy-band version of itself — functional, but often inferior and irritating. I would love to give you some examples, but I can't remember any of them right now (rimshot).

It's hard to pinpoint when it all went wrong, but I have some theories. One is that I no longer need to remember a lot of things. All my phone numbers, special appointments or virtually anything that requires an ounce of recall is — or can be — stored in my smartphone. My phone got smarter, and I didn't.

Another culprit, I believe, is that my life is very busy — kids stuff, work stuff, meetings. It's all competing for my brain's attention and without a processor upgrade or more hard drive space, it can only handle so much. This happened once before, during college, when I crammed so many academic facts into my head that there was nothing left for everyday stuff. I could easily explain the plot of Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises," or describe the Pythagorean Theorem, but I might later forget what liquid I'm supposed to pour into my cereal bowl.

The third and final theory, and one that I'm not eager to accept, is that I'm simply getting old. Never did I think I would be one of those people who, for a moment, forgets their age. But it happened! And I bet it will happen more often in the years ahead because, ya know, that whole aging thing.

But as all this is happening, I am encountering research and literature that suggests my supposed rock star memory probably wasn't as great as I once believed. I recently read in a book that people's memory of an event, even a significant one, is often inaccurate, sometimes to a significant degree. For example, you might remember that time you went to that great party and met those cool new people that took you out on this big boat and everybody went swimming all afternoon. But, if someone were there with a camcorder to document it, their video would reveal that the boat was in fact a lemon that took almost an hour to start, and the cool people at the great party were actually obnoxious people that would have driven you crazy if you had been sober when you met them. And you might discover that the great party was actually pretty lame, and you originally didn't even want to go to it.

Our brain, it seems, has a superb editing feature that kicks in whether we ask it to or not. So, no memory, however good or bad, is all that reliable. Let that sink in for a moment…and while you do that, try not to let your mind get set on autopilot, another moment during which our memory is compromised.

Have you ever been driving on a highway and your mind starts to wander -- a bit of a daydreaming moment while you cruise down the road? Then, suddenly you snap out of it and you're 15 miles down the road with no clue how you got there? I sometimes wonder how often this happens to me — how much have I forgotten simply by zoning out for a bit?

And that's not the only danger in switching to autopilot. Have you ever put your milk in the cupboard or a bag of chips in the freezer? I once caught myself scraping the contents of a paper plate into the trash can. People who are paying attention don't make these mistakes. No wonder we are always losing things.

I really didn't need to tell all you readers about my memory issues. It's the sort of humbling thing I would prefer to keep to myself. But the truth is, I need to write all of this down, so I have a concrete record of my cognitive shortcomings to show to people who have been affected by my memory failures. And if I should misplace it, I know I can find it in the newspaper — I just have to remember the publish date…Uh oh.


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