Many times as I spoke or gave a speech, I was well prepared, eloquent and smooth. I always knew what I was going to talk about.
Then suddenly, in the middle of a sentence, I would hesitate, take a sip of water, scratch the back of my head and smile at the audience. Common words escaped me at inopportune moments. I would then shake my right hand, as if I held a bunch of keys and was trying to get someone’s attention. Then reality sunk in.
I had simply forgotten a key word. I knew what to say after the forgotten word, but nothing would make sense without me saying that particular word, which chose to be forgotten at that exact time.
I would then amaze the audience with my handiwork as I tried to physically construct the word with my hands, all the time smiling or grinning at the people. A few seconds of hell.
Very embarrassing because it happens in public and, often, while someone is filming the proceedings.
Just this past Thursday, my Editor called me into his office to talk to a stringer. The Editor was concerned about “too much opinion” in the stringer’s articles. As he was talking, the phone rang and I was left to explain. I got stuck and could just not remember the word “attribute.”
“It’s a very simple word and it’s at the tip of my tongue,” I said, but the word did not come into my mind until the meeting was over.
Let’s forget the charade! It’s simply called forgetfulness.
Unfortunately, the more you try to remember something, the further away it sinks into your sub conscious.
But a minute or so later, after giving up trying to remember, the word you are trying to recall thuds into your consciousness like a swimmer diving into a pool. But by then, it is too late; you have no one to tell.
“Tragically there are thousands of accidents caused each year by forgetting the simple obvious things,” says the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. “It is a phenomenon that even the most advanced safety culture finds difficult to resolve.”
Imagine you are at your office at the Commerce Park and suddenly remember you left your stove on in your home in Mogoditshane?
How often has someone rammed on the brakes of the car on their way to work having suddenly remembered that they had left their briefcase at home? How often have we seen someone slapping their forehead as they remembered that they had to collect someone discharged from the hospital two hours ago?
Forgetfulness comes in various forms.
People are known to have forgotten children in cars, leave doors open when they go to bed and even forgot their own children when they met them in unexpected places.
Forgetfulness was parodied in the movie Home Alone when an entire family went on an overseas trip but forgot one of their little kids, locking him in the house as they left. Somewhere over the Atlantic, they remembered their offspring!
“A note to the forgetful,” says Michael Reilly writing in the New Scientist Magazine, “be thankful you don’t remember everything. It means your brain is working properly.”
I don’t know about that. I have heard of doctors forgetting their scalpels in the stomachs of patients they had just operated on.
Since my early teens, I have always been bad with faces. I just can’t remember faces. And I have often been embarrassed to see a very cheerful welcoming face who obviously knew me extremely well while I had no idea who they were.
Although my situation was further complicated by people who saw me on television news everyday and greeted me as if we were acquaintances, not bothering to mention we had never met, I soon noticed that I had a particular problem when my wife suffered several embarrassments after I forgot relatives in her presence.
I would know the face in front of me very well. I would know the name very well, too. But I just could not put that name together with that face.
So, whenever I went about with my wife, she watched me carefully and, to head-off any embarrassment, she would just quickly greet the person by name for my benefit. If I didn’t take the bait, she would introduce the person to me, emphasizing the name and attaching a clue. Presto, let there be light! I would immediately chip in, with a broad smile on my face, and tell her not to insult me by suggesting that I could possibly not know who the person in front of me was.
In the past, says the New Scientist, memory loss and confusion were considered a normal part of aging.
“However, scientists now know that most people remain both alert and able as they age, although it may take them longer to remember things.”
The New Scientist goes on to say studies show that the brain only chooses to remember memories it thinks are most relevant, and actively suppresses those that are similar but less used, “helping to lessen the cognitive load and prevent confusion.”
I don’t know about that.
What if it is a collective act, such as one that involved a dog and the police in the UK?
Apparently, police officers in a village called Midlothian picked up a stray dog and took it to a police station at Dalkeith on January 2.
“The dog was placed in a holding kennel,” reported The Scotsman (Jan 23, 2007). “Police only became aware something was wrong when they noticed a bad smell from the kennels in the police station courtyard on 12 January.”
For 10 days, a whole police station forgot about a dog they had placed in their own kennels leading to the dog dying of thirst.
“This is a tragic situation and we express our sympathy. We want to stress we are treating this matter very seriously,” said a spokesperson for the Dalkeith police. “We are appointing a senior officer to investigate all the circumstances.”
Brice Kuhl and his colleagues, researchers at Stanford University in California, said that whenever we are engaged in remembering, the brain adapts.
“It’s constantly re-weighting memories,” says Kuhl. “In the simple tests we carried out, we found that the brain reverses memory to weaken competing memories. This is something that probably happens a lot in the real world.”
The research goes on to say that a good example is the confusion that arises when we change passwords on our computers or email accounts. “We often mix up old and new passwords at first, but through repetition we develop a strong memory of the new password and forget the old one.”
“The process of forgetting serves a good functional purpose,” says Michael Anderson of the University of Oregon, US. “What these guys (Kuhl and associates) have done is clearly establish the neurobiological basis for this process.”
Stress causes forgetfulness. A lot of people experience memory lapses. Some memory problems are serious, and others are not.
“There are, in fact, some medical reasons for forgetfulness,” says the BBC News (Internet edition). “It has been discovered that forgetfulness occurs when an idea is not consigned properly to long-term memory.”
In the transfer from medium- to long-term memory, it says, the idea/identity/fact/appointment is misfiled and thus we either have no recollection of it at all, or we need reminding.
“Because it can be difficult to recognize the boundaries between typical absentmindedness, mild cognitive impairment and the early stages of Alzheimer’s,” says Jane Weaver (How Much Forgetfulness Is Too Much?), “people who are worried about recurring forgetfulness should consult a physician.”
Don’t forget to remember!