The pain of forgetting

There’s an old adage that psychologists study their own deficiencies: I study the psychology of memory.

At times in the past, I was able to discourse fluidly on obscuranta ranging from the internals of software for text processing, Wildean views of suffering, or conspiracy theories behind the construction of the Egyptian pyramids… few wanted to listen, but at least I found my own thoughts interesting.

Painfully, painfully, I feel this rich arcana slowly seeping away. In my personal Hades, I would be doomed to fill a sieve with grains of sand by day, even as they pooled into a puddle of forgetting around my feet by night.

My frustration hardened into a hypergraphic compulsion to externalize everything I learned. I wrote notes on every article, lecture and conversation. I painstakingly heaped my newfound nuggets of knowledge into a gigantic paper haystack.

But then I had a new problem – I couldn’t find any of it. Like a millionaire without the numbers to his Swiss bank account, I was rich and poor at the same time.

Things came to a head when I desperately tried to assimilate a pillar of textbooks for my neuroscience qualifying exams. Every brain area goes by a dozen names, can be organized by location or by lesion, by experiment or experimenter, by projections or inputs, by effect or atrophy, or equally along a dozen other dimensions.

But in my paper prison, each piece of information was confined to a single cell – a place for everything and everything in its place. In order to allow the informational inmates to run free, I needed a way to allow any nugget of knowledge to abide simultaneously in a multitude of homes.

And so I sought to build software to help me. After many musings in the shower, I constructed an elaborate infrastructure that incorporated: dynamically-generated hyperlinks to highlight associations; transclusion to include the same text in multiple places; tags to break down the trammels of tree-based hierarchies; and aliases to allow for multiple names.

Things are better now. I feel mnemonically empowered, or at least less mnemasculated. By granting conjugal visits from my conscious to my unconscious mind, this index-on-steroids means I can find things more easily.

But maintaining this index requires effort whenever I add a new piece. And my memory mansion grows so fast that even if I slept in a different room every night, I’d never return to the same one twice. I simply don’t remember what’s in there to look for it.

So in truth, even this sophisticated system is just a crude ropes-and-pulleys facsimile of my mind. A fixed hyperlink lacks all of the deep isomorphism, insight and spontaneity of an analogy. The ideas trapped there are dead and inert – they don’t bump and bite and spark off one another like active, bustling, living thoughts. And the effort of exhuming them by typing laboriously into a laptop lacks all the rapid, happy spontaneity of immediate recollection.

I dream of distant-future neural prosthetics, a google gland hooked up to my hippocampus. But I am too impatient to wait.

This is the quest that led me to co-found Memrise. I have gone as far as I can efficiently *externalizing* my thoughts. Memrise’s mission is to improve *internalization* – learning faster, forgetting slower.

I know that there is no silver bullet that will fix my memory. But I’m compelled to continue looking for tools and techniques that can boost it and shore it up.

Memory, the persistent effect of experience, provides the tools with which we think. We are the sum of our memories. When we forget, we erode.

2 thoughts on “The pain of forgetting

  1. Hello Greg, after reading:
    “I know that there is no silver bullet that will fix my memory. But I'm compelled to continue looking for tools and techniques that can boost it and shore it up.”
    I could not help but think that what if your memory does not want to remember that particular memory or just wants to remember it partially?? Maybe we want to force our brain to remember what it does not want to. Maybe there is a reason for that. If you went through PTSD you might want to erase the intrusive memories but you would not want to erase it all because those memories make who you are, even the not so nice ones,they do alter your nervous system-may make you more compassionate and a more whole person.
    Just thoughts, but found you writings thought provoking and interesting.
    Would like to chat more about the program at Princeton because I am interested in pursuing a PhD, have a Master in Clinical Psychology and would like some guidance.
    Give me a shout if you want to.

  2. Hey Cinzia,

    Thanks for your comment. I couldn't see a way of getting in touch with you directly, so feel free to send me an email if you want to talk about PhDs at Princeton.


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