OF REDLANDS, CALIFORNIA  - Founded 24 January 1895

4:00 P.M.

November 29, 2001

Our Mystifying Memory System

by George E. Riday Ph.D.

Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library


This paper selectively indicates some of the marvelous, yet inscrutable, aspects of our ability to remember whether it be for a moment or almost a lifetime. Various authorities in the science of memory are called upon to express their beliefs concerning certain theories of remembering and forgetting. The paper includes a section on mnemonics with an illustration of a popular one. A number of amazing feats of memory are included. Many of them are possessed by individuals who are lacking in normal intelligence. The closing section introduces the controversy over false memory the numerous legal battles in connection with them in the area of childhood sexual abuse.

Biography of George Riday

George E. Riday was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1912. Following graduation from Eastern College and Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary he served as a minister in churches in New Jersey. During the Second World War he served as a chaplain in the United States Army for five years. He received his Master’s degree in psychology from Wayne State University and his Ph.D. degree from the University of Michigan. He was on the Psychology Staff at Patton State Hospital and in private practice. He taught at San Bernardino Valley College and was an adjunct professor at four local institutions. He is married to the former Phyllis Hewson and has four married children, ten grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

I suppose the reason for presenting a paper on the subject of memory is prompted by my own age and the fact that we recently moved to a retirement community; Plymouth Village.  Almost every day at least one resident is going to make reference to memory loss. However, memory loss is not reserved just for the elderly. It is not uncommon to hear a young person remark, “I’ve forgotten where I was at the time it happened but…’’ There’s no denying, of course , that memory impairment is usually considered to be a senior accomplishment.

Fortunately, brain science is bringing memory out of the shadows into the light of research.  Dr. Barry Gordon,   M.D., Ph.D., heads the division of Cognitive Neurology of  the Neurology Department  at Johns Hopkins where he is also director of the  Neuropsychology   and Memory Disorders Clinic.  He says, “ It may seem odd but people can have problems with their memory not only because they have too little, but because they have too much. Often those who complain the most don’t have a problem at all.  Even stranger, those who do have the most problems often do not think there is anything wrong.”

There are many beliefs about memory that most of us have heard. Which of the following do you accept?

1.      People can lose their identities but have them return from a blow on the head.

2.      People tend to block out the memory of a traumatic experience such as sexual abuse during childhood.

3.      As you grow old your memory gets worse and there is nothing you can do about it.

4.      Forgetting is a sign that there is something wrong with your brain.

5.      The more your memory problems bother you, the more serious they are.

6.      A person can murder or seriously hurt someone and never remember it.

7.      We lose 10,000 brain cells a day and one day we just run out.

8.      Those who  think they have Alzheimer’s disease probably do.

9.      A good way to tell whether or not your memory is normal is to compare yourself with others.

10.  Everything you ever learned is locked inside your head. You just have to find the key to get it out.


Now let’s see what Dr. Gordon has to say about these fairly common beliefs. He and other researchers claim that none of these statements is completely true.   Human memory is fickle. It is capable of performing astounding feats and at the same time  muddling the most mundane tasks. You cannot remember whether you turned off the burner this morning before leaving the house, yet it is relatively easy to learn and recognize thousands of different faces.  One of the most frequently heard complaints from older patients is failing memory. People worry the first time they forget the name of an acquaintance fearing thay may have Alzheimer’s disease. According to a 1993 study 67% of the adult population claim they have experienced memory loss.

Now  we will look at the experts comments concerning popular beliefs about  memory.

  1. People lose their identities but get them back from a blow on the head.

This is the stuff of Hollywood movies, not reality. A blow on the head can disorient a person temporarily, so that he forgets his name for a brief time but rarely is the knowledge of who you are wiped out completely

2. People tend to block out the memory of a traumatic experience such as sexual abuse in childhood.

There is much public controversy over whether emotional trauma makes you forget or remember all too well. But scientifically, there is little disagreement. People, even children, are likely to remember a traumatic episode. A crisis or stress situation triggers the “fight or flight response,’’ and the release of hormones such as adrenaline. These hormones actually help preserve memories, not block them. Study after study has shown that memories of past events are notoriously inaccurate and unreliable. Many memory experts believe that, with encouragement some folk can easily conjure up false memories of early abuse “remembering” incidents that never happened.

3. As you grow old your memory gets worse and there is nothing you can do about it.

Yes – and no.  Yes, slight memory deficits are completely normal as you age. And no, you do not just have to live with them. A few simple strategies can help keep your thinking vibrant, improve the quality of your everyday life, and perhaps improve your memory ability.

4. Forgetting is a sign that there is something wrong with your brain.

Be thankful for your ability to forget – it’s a wonderful blessing. If we were not able to forget we would all go crazy. Being forgetful can be viewed as having too much of a good thing. Take the case of a man who remembered too much and too intensely. He was a Russian who was referred to as“S”. He had near-total recall.  His amazing abilities were described in 1968 by neuropsychologist, A. R. Luria in The Mind of a Mnemonist. Though the Russian forgot very little – sights,  sounds,  conversations,   numbers – he had to work at remembering, and he could not rise above the particulars to sort out what was meaningful to the task at hand. Everyday life was very difficult for him. So the capacity to unconsciously filter our experiences, to remember what is important and discard the rest is a skill to be treasured.

5.  The more your memory problems bother you, the more serious they are.

Generally, the more severe your worries about your memory the less likely you actually have a memory problem. Aging, or an emotional state such as depression or anxiety, for example, can cause your memory to worsen, it is true. But your fears about your memory can skyrocket under these conditions. And some persons complain bitterly about their memory problems even though their memory is relatively normal and has never gotten worse.

6. A person can kill or seriously hurt someone and never remember it

Criminal law allows attorneys to present this defense. Lorene Bobbitt, the Virginia housewife who literally emasculated her husband, testified that she had no recollection of doing so.  Research does suggest that it is possible that a few people may not remember a few acts of passion very well.  But almost everyone can be expected to remember such acts of passion all too well,  reliving them over and over again in their minds.

7.      We lose 10,000 brain cells a day and one day we just run out

As an adult, almost all of the regions of the brain do not lose brain cells as you get older. What you have heard to the contrary is wrong, contradicted by better research methods. You may lose some nerve connections. It is possible that you can even grow new ones, or prevent the ones you have from withering, if you exercise your mind and brain.

8. Those who think they have Alzheimer’s disease probably do.

The typical Alzheimer’s patient does not worry about his or her memory -- friends and family do. Individuals with Alzheimer’s disease are usually not really aware of the severity of their problem.

9. A good way to tell whether or not your memory is normal is to compare yourself    with others.

There is a huge range of ability across the general population, and even a single individual experiences ups and downs in memory ability over the course of a lifetime. Between the extremes of super-memory and true memory loss lies a very broad range of what is normal. Just as some have a talent for music or acting and some do not, some of us are naturally gifted at remembering various kinds of things and some are not.

10. Everything you ever learned is locked inside your head.  You just have to find the key to get it out.

Not true. Our memories are not so much locked away as they are rearranged and repainted. And we forget selectively. You may find the key but realize that the room you step into has been remodeled.  As you can see there are a great many myths about memory.

In my preparation for this paper I have become  increasingly amazed at the scope and complexity of our memory system. My purpose is to describe some of the more strange tricks our memories play on us. Here is the story of George and Charles who are identical twins. They are both mentally retarded. At age 26 their IQs, in the range of 60 to 70, gave them intelligence equivalent to that of an eight or ten-year-old. Yet they could perform phenomenal feats of memory.. When asked, ‘’ In what month of the year 2002 does the first of the month fall on a Friday?  George replied without a moment’s hesitation, ‘’In March, February and November.’’ When does April 21 fall on a Sunday?’’ continued the questioner, and quick as a flash the answer came back, ‘’, In 1968 , 1957, 1963, 1946….’’  How these  mentally retarded individuals are capable of such phenomenal memory feats is still not fully understood by the researchers in the science of memory.

Even though the terms describing them are not the same, it is well accepted that  there are three systems of memory. They are immediate, short-term and long-term memory. Very briefly, immediate memory is thought by some students of memory to be the least understood and most frequently overlooked of the three systems. In fact, most people are not aware that they have an immediate memory system. Perhaps a helpful way to describe this system is to explain that you use it to remember things just long enough to be able to respond to them. When we type we use immediate memory. We look at a word, remember it long enough to press the keys and then go on to the next word. We do not remember the word we just typed, we simply go on to the next word. The same process is at work when we look up a number in the telephone directory. We immediately remember it and then forget it after dialing. As I speak you remember my words long enough to make sense out of what I am trying to say. Paying attention is a most important ingredient in immediate memory.

Our second memory system, short-term memory, comes into play after the information has been attended to and after information has been sorted out as being important to remember. Unfortunately, short-term memory is very limited in the number of items it can retain throughout its rehearsal process. For some inexplicable reason we are unable to rehearse more than seven (give or take two) individual items of information. Everyone can remember strings of five, six, or even seven numbers in a row when someone reads them off but more digits create problems.

Let’s look now at long-term memory. We can define, in rather simple terms, long-term memory as the ability for   information we heard or saw minutes, hours, days, weeks, or even years before we had to remember it. Obviously it is retention of information we have not been rehearsing continuously since the first time it entered our brains. It is information we learned a long time ago and now want to use. Since the information is no longer in our short-term rehearsal system, we have to search for it in long-term memory. It is obvious that much more can be said about the structure of our memory system but I want to get on to some situations and illustrations concerning our mystifying memories.

In his book, The Role of the Brain, Ronald H. Bailey reports that some research has been successful in transferring a memory area from one person’s brain to another’s brain. Researchers have even taken memory tissue from lower animals and have chopped it up and transplanted it in other animals to served as a dietary supplement to provide instant learning. If this procedure has been performed on human beings I am not aware of the fact.

Some of the clues being followed by memory scientists are easily discerned by anyone who taxes his own memory concerning how he recalls. He quickly realizes that his visual memory, recalling images, is quite distinct from his verbal memory, which deals with words and languages.  Memories stored as pictures tend to be the stronger of these two. An Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges tells of a man named Fumes who remembered  “ the shape of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th of April, 1882 and he could compare them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book which he has seen only once, and with the lines in a spray which an oar raised in the Rio Negro on the eve of the battle of Quebracho.’’

The power of the visual memory may account for the remarkable phenomenon of the photographic memory possessed by many children. Technically, known as eidetic memory, or imagery, it allows them to summon up in their minds a detailed image of something they want to remember.  When trying to recall a historic fact or the correct spelling of a word, they create a mental image of a particular page in a textbook an simply read off what they want to know. A teacher told me of a student of his who answered a question on a test in precisely the wording in the textbook.  When confronted with the anomaly the student requested his teacher to turn in the textbook to a certain page and paragraph. The student then recited verbatim the answer on the test. This remarkable ability rarely survives puberty.  Apparently some selection process takes over as the brain matures, and makes memory more discriminating. Instead of remembering a whole printed page, the brain remembers only the relevant words and discards the rest. Perhaps the indiscriminate eidetic memory of childhood explains why the recollection of earlier years are so often full of details. They are cluttered with the charming minutiae that discerning adult minds screen out as being unworthy of keeping.

Just as mysterious as the mechanics of recall are those of its opposite; the unjustly maligned process of forgetting. Although the ability to recall is much admired, the ability to forget is equally important. I suspect that memory would be almost impossible if we were unable to forget. The mind would surely collapse if it were required to find storage space for every experience within our consciousness.  Apparently, the mechanisms of forgetting exist at several stages of the memory-forming process. To begin with, the brain blots out millions of bits of incoming  material every minute of the day. This perpetual, almost entirely unconscious filtering process enables the brain to pay attention, to stay in focus by screening out the myriad impressions con-stantly bombarding the senses. At a social gathering, for instance, perceptual filtering sifts through the multitude of voices and sea of faces and eliminates most of them so they never reach the brain’s center of awareness. Short-term memory evaluates the significance of incoming facts and images and disposes of those unsuitable for permanent storage. But even when stored permanently, memories can become inaccessible to the process of recall. Sometimes they are overlaid by newer, more significant bits of data with stronger electrical signals. The latter phenomenon is termed  the interference  theory of forgetting, and is commonly illustrated with a classic anecdote about an absent-mended professor of ichthyology who claimed that every time he memorized the name of a student he forgot the name of a fish. And, of course, there’s the one about Norbert Wiener, the renown MIT professor. While walking across the campus he was stopped by a student who asked him a question. When the question was answered the professor asked,’’ In which direction was I walking when you stopped me?’’ The student indicated the direction and Professor Wiener said, ‘’Then I’ve had    my lunch.’’

In order to improve our memory system we would do well to assist it as much as possible by organizing our input. We tend to receive information from long-term memory according to the manner in which we have organized it for storage. Almost anyone can recite the months of the year in about 10 seconds but how long would it take to recall them in alphabetical order? The same 12 items, all well known, are much harder to  retrieve in alphabetical order because they are not organized that way in memory.  Can you image a telephone directory listing its numbers in random order? Similarly, you are giving your memory system a task it will not accept if you try to remember large amounts of information  in a haphazard manner. It is helpful to organize items you want to remember in alphabetical order or according to categories, historical sequence, size shape, or any other way that will make retrieval easier.

The purpose of this paper is not to present memory aids or improvement but the mention of organizing material for longer retention does suggest the appropriateness of mentioning the role of mnemonics.  The word mnemonics is derived from the Greek word for memory or mindful. It is a technique or system for improving the memory by the use of certain formulas. A familiar mnemonic is ‘’Thirty days has September, April, June and November...’’   (I’ve forgotten the rest of it!)  I do have another familiar one that  I find helpful on occasion when I must remember a list of items. I’m sure you recall it. You begin by taking  articles that rhyme successively with the numbers 1 to 10. For example, the word bun rhymes with the number 1.  The word shoe rhymes with the number 2. The word tree rhymes with number 3, etc.   The list goe like this:  


Let us suppose we have to remember this disparate list: HORSE, PENCIL, RED RIBBON. BOOK, FRYING PAN, SAFETY PIN, QUART OF MILK,  HUGE MAN, TENNIS RACKET,  ORIENTAL RUG.

Now we create a mental image of a bun and a horse. How about a horse eating a hamburger?  For the shoe image we’ll put a pencil through the tongue of a shoe. Get the idea? Here is the suggested list but , of course, you make up your own mental pictures.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                ONE             ONE          BUN    A HORSE EATING HAMBURGER



FOUR        DOOR   A BOOK   ON THE FLOOR TO KEEP DOOR                      OPEN            


SIX              BRICKS    A SAFETY PIN     HOLDING BRICKS                      TOGETHER



NINE           LINE    TENNIS RACKET   A SERVE HIT                                   OUT-OF-BOUNDS


This  exercise of nonsense actually does the trick. The more ridiculous the association of the visual image to the item to be remembered the more likely it is to be  fixed in one’s mind.

I want to shift now to a subject that in the realm of memory has   created much controversy. I refer to memory distortion and false memory.  Some of our memories are true, some are a mixture of fact and fantasy, and some are false. Scientific work on memory distortion has captured the attention of the wider mental health field, of the legal profession, and of the general public. One reason for the increased interest in the subject is , that in the last decade hundreds, if not thousands of patients have emerged from psychotherapy accusing their fathers and mothers, their uncles and grandfathers, their former neighbors, their former teachers and therapists of sexually abusing them years ago. The patients often claim that they have repressed or disassociated the ‘’ memories’’  until various therapeutic interventions excavated the distasteful mental contents and made their presence known. After recovering these new memories, patients have confronted their alleged abusers, and sometimes taken them to court, forcing them to pay sizable sums of money in damages. In many cases accused persons have found themselves dragged through the criminal justice system, and occasionally, to their dismay, sent off to prison.

The recovered-memory controversy is over the accuracy of adult claims of ‘’repressed’’ memories of childhood sexual abuse that are often made decades after the alleged events, for which there is no external corroboration.  How can we prove that what  has been ‘’brought to the surface’’ after many years is, in truth, reality?

Here is  an Associated Press news release dated August 14, 1998. CHICAGO ---

Illinois has moved to discipline a prominent psychiatrist accused of convincing a patient that she was a cannibal who ate human-flesh meatloaf and that she also was a child molester and the high priestess of a satanic cult. Depressed after the birth of her second son, Patricia Burgus sought therapy from Dr. Bennett Braun. Burgus says the doctor, through repress-memory therapy, led her to believe she possessed 300 personalities, ate meatloaf of human flesh, sexually abused her children, and served in the cult. In November, Burgus, 42, won a 10.6 million settlement in a lawsuit against Braun, Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s  Hospital to which his practice is connected; and another psychiatrist, at the hospital, Dr. Elva Poznaski.   ‘’I began to add a few things up and realized there was no way I could come from a little town in Iowa, be eating 2000 people a year and nobody said anything about it,’’ Burgus told The Chicago Tribune.

The Illinois Department of Professional Regulation issued a complaint alleging that Braun’s techniques almost destroyed the lives of Burgus and her family. Braun, 58, founded the International Society for the Study of Disassociation. He helped train many of the therapists who, around the nation, treat multiple-personality disorder.

After the difficult birth in 1982, Burgus saw a number of therapists before she was referred  to the Chicago hospital. There, she said, she was incorrectly diagnosed with multiple-personality disorder. She was hospitalized in 1986 and spent more than two years in a psychiatric ward. She said she was given sedative, hypnotic and anti-psychotic drugs in inappropriate doses. She was hypnotized frequently and sometimes restrained with leather straps to stimulate abuse memories, her lawsuit said. Burgus stated that Braun and Poznaski persuaded her to hospitalize her two healthy children, then ages 4 and 5, for almost five years.

Dr. Marlene Hunter, a Canadian psychiatrist who is president of the society Braun started, called him ‘’a very dedicated psychiatrist.’’ She said it was  a ‘’situation where a therapist has done the best he could according to what he thought was right at the time.’’  Braun faces a September 28 preliminary hearing on the state’s complaint.       

With increased interest in the subject of memory and the rather extensive research that is being done we can hope that light will be shed upon those areas in which controversy prevails. I leave you with the anticipation that you will never forget that which is worth remembering  or remember that which is best forgotten.

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