Why We Remember Some Things So Well



Ever wonder why we remember some things so well?

Why some things stand out so strongly compared to others?

Why, for example, almost everyone who was alive at the time remembers where he or she was when John Kennedy was shot?

A theory

I have a theory. May not be scientific, but goes like this:

First, an example. Something I remember in great detail.

It was in eighth grade, Jennings Junior High, New London, Connecticut.

The state of Connecticut, in those years a very conservative place, left nothing to question when it came to how schools spent hard earned tax money.

Two elderly women showed up in our classroom one day, intending to test us on two basic skills: spelling and penmanship.

We were given half-slips of lined yellow paper and sharpened No. 2 pencils.

The first of the two ladies, wearing a blue dress with a white collar and tortoiseshell glasses with a small silver chain, went to the front of the classroom.

Spell this

Now, I was not the best speller on earth, but I was fairly confident I'd do all right -- until the lady looked down at her list and read the first word.


"Huh?" I thought. "What?" Then, as she started to read the second word, I hurriedly penciled "ruhsburrahs."

She read out several other words which I knew.

Still a little shook up about that first one, I wasn't doing too badly, but I was still as puzzled as a tick on a mummy. Then she read out another word. "Struhburrahs."

"Oh, shoot!" I thought, scribbling down "struhburrahs."

Then a bell went off in my head. "Struhburrahs?" I asked myself.

"Struhburrahs, my foot! The old lady means strawberries! She's just got a New England potato stuck in her mouth!"

I erased what I had written, wrote down "strawberries," and went back and changed the other mysterious word to "raspberries." I earned a perfect score on the test. All was sweetness and light.

I don't recall

Now for a little scientific background: A few years ago a young man in California had a car accident that damaged the part of his brain which affects emotion.

As a result, he no longer recognizes his parents. He says that the two people who claim to be his parents look like them and sound like them, and are very nice people, but they are not his parents. Because he has no emotional response to them, his memory does not work the way it normally would.

He also has trouble correctly identifying other things which involve emotional responses.

OK, so why do you and I remember some things in such great detail?

It's built into our brains.

Things which are strongly emotional cause a special response; we remember them better. Well, that's my theory.

I was very shook up when that old lady said "ruhsburrahs," and I still remember that moment in great detail.

When I think about other small things I remember so well, it never fails; they always involve some kind of strong emotion.

Can I have my Nobel prize now? Or was it an Emmy they give you for that?

Or the ...

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