My memory is like a sieve, except for useless crap

I work as a research scientist, and so my days consist of reading, writing, and reviewing cutting-edge research papers; familiarizing myself with the latest software and technology; and advising graduate students on their theses and research projects. Writing a single grant proposal or research article can involve my reading several dozen papers whose information I need to digest, extract, synthesize, and then incorporate into whatever it is I’m doing. Even though I am able to do this, most of the knowledge I gain fades from memory within a few months. If I need to reuse or write a follow-up to something I’ve done – even a project I’ve worked on full-time for months – this often involves carefully and actively rereading the original sources in order to refresh my memory. As far as I can tell, I’ve always been this way; this isn’t a case of my brainpower getting worse with age.

By contrast, it seems my brain is happy to passively absorb all kinds of useless trivia and indelibly impermeate it into my neurons, whence it can be instantly called up, with perfect fidelity, many decades later. For example, I recently discovered that someone has been uploading to YouTube old episodes of America’s Funniest Home Videos, that silly clip show from ABC which premiered back when I was 11 years old (and which, amazingly, is still on the air today). I’ve been watching through the first and second seasons. Amazingly, not only do I recall each and every winner of the weekly $10,000 prizes before Bob Saget even announces the candidates, but I even remember most of the other videos that aren’t in competition. I can do this even though most of these videos are only a few seconds long, and I only ever saw them once before, over 30 years ago.

Dopers, what ancient, useless crap do your brains automatically store, to the exclusion really important things you really try and need to remember?

I cannot imagine why I still remember my PIN from my freshman year of college (1982-1983) at LacCrosse, but I do, even though I shut that bank account down at the end of the school year. It’s apparently much more important than my blood type.

My skull contains a sieve, a strainer, and a chinois.

Ditto, it is a blessing and a curse.

The answer to a convoluted quiz question last night was “Lake Baikal” and I got it in two seconds because of a single picture of a seal that I’d seen many years ago.

Why did I remember that seal? I have no idea. At the same time I don’t remember my brother’s birthday. Sometime in October is about as close as I can get.

I think this goes for pretty much anyone. This is a poem on the subject by Billy Collins, titled ‘Forgetfulness’:


The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

by Billy Collins

I have most of Billy Collins’ books at home and have read Forgetfulness many times. Today’s reading was rather fresh. I’m going to reread I Chop Some Parsley While Listening To Art Blakey’s Version Of “Three Blind Mice” now.

Yeah, it’s well known around our house that I’m the guy to ask if you need a line from a 1973 Jackson Browne bootleg (btw, it’s “you asshole, you”).

But if you need to know when anyone’s birthday is, or what we’re doing Friday, or anything practical, ask my wife.


I was so excited when I picked up an early Dick Francis book (that I remembered enjoying back in the day)… and realized that, though I recalled a setting here, a character there, I’d completely forgotten whodunnit.

I love getting old! I get to reread my favorite mysteries for the first time!

My wife and I were laughing about this recently when we were watching a TV show, and investigators were asking one character about very specific things that occurred 7 years ago.

MAN - so much of my life is just vague, general outlines. Hell, my wife and I even created a “timeline” - when we moved, family’s marriages/births/deaths/etc, just because we had such difficulty figuring out what events occurred when.

My brain is a junk drawer. 40 years in medicine, still current with board certification, but my head swims with useless info like the theme song to “My Mother the Car” and how the 1960’s Superman tricked Mr. Mxyzptlk by pretending his name spelled backwards was Namrepus instead of Le-lak. Gimme a break.

Just the other day, I was triggered to have an earworm of the Monkees song “gonna buy me a dog” when I read the song title online. I hadn’t heard or even thought of it in over 50 years, but I still knew all the words.

Yet I keep forgetting the proper adult dose of zithromax, despite prescribing it for decades.

Happy to meet a fellow reader of Billy Collins’s work. I also love the work of George Bilgere, Stephen Dobyns, Stanley Kunitz, Marge Piercy, Eleanor Lerman and a few others. I am happy to share some of their best poems with you. Let me know if you are interested and I will send a PM.

I inherited my father’s fund of useless information (as my mother called it) and sometimes that even disappears. But important stuff, some even inside my work expertise area, that’s forgotten. I once didn’t get a job because I totally blanked on an acronym that is really the platform for all instructional designers. Meh, such is life.

This pretty much says it all. There’s some interesting things in there, but its usefulness is questionable.

I remember the middle name and birthday of almost everyone
I’ve ever met (if they told me what they were). :slight_smile:

Names are my bugbear. There is little correlation between the importance of someone in my life and how often I’ve met them etc and whether I will remember their name. I could be stumped by the name of someone I see every day, yet tell you the name of a primary school classmate from over 40 years ago.

I remembered Christian Slater’s name yesterday!

But that was four days after I was thinking about "that guy, the guy from Heathers, who was basically channeling Jack Nicholson. Glad he, whoever he is, toned that schtick down and became the talented… damn, thought that’d do it… we know today. Or don’t know. Except he’s in Mr. Robot and he had a cameo in a Star Trek movie. Not a J. J. Abrams Star Trek (hmm…I can picture him on the bridge…), an OG Star Trek. I mean, come on, he was J.D. in Heathers, I can hear every line of… that guy."

I stuck to my guns, and didn’t IMDB him, just spent over half a week thinking of him twice a day and going “Okay, today’s gotta be the day…”

I have occasionally forgotten the names of very famous actors, famous authors, and famous scientists. Or as my older brother – who is even older and more demented than I am – once said, while struggling with a lost memory fragment, “of course I can’t remember it, it’s a name!”

Yet I can remember the names of casual friends in elementary and high school. In a thread where someone was asking about the first book you remember reading as a child, of course I could remember the exact book, and even remember what its cover looked like. But I have occasionally forgotten my own PIN or password, the ones that I use almost daily. I’m not joking. I once called my cell phone provider, and went through a whole rigmarole to establish my identity (thank og I could remember things like my own name) to get my voicemail password reset. After it was reset, the original one came back to me with the obviousness of a sunrise.

Old age is an interesting voyage.

My neighbour solemnly informs people that he suffers from nomic aphasia.

Sounds a whole lot more special than saying “I can’t remember your damn name”.

Decades ago, I recall reading an article in the newspaper about “normal” brains and “paranoid” brains, accompanied by two illustrated brains labeled accordingly, and the types of thoughts each would typically have. The normal brain was concerned with things like remembering to pick up Jimmy after school, do laundry and other mundane tasks of existence. Among other things, the paranoid brain was thinking about Ty Cobb’s lifetime batting average (.367) and sordid sex facts about John Dillinger (did you know… uh, never mind).

I long ago became resigned that I had a paranoid brain and that it would forever – or at least while it worked more or less properly - be filled with generally useless information designed to drive (what’s left of) my imagination. Although it doesn’t happen often IME, some of that useless info can become useful, though usually only in trifling ways.

The OP begs the question: is any info truly useless? Are there cases where ignorance really is the better way? Where not knowing off the top of one’s head the name of the bad guy (Jarnac) in the obscure film noir Cornered (1945) might allow one to remember something inarguably more useful/practical that would otherwise be pushed out of memory?

I am inclined to believe ignorance is sometimes the better way, but it’s an inclination that does not sit comfortably. On the other hand, still remembering so many worthless sports statistics I read in my misspent youth while not being able to recall whether I paid this or that bill is extremely irksome.

Well, if my scientific career doesn’t pan out, then at least I’d make a kick-ass video archivist for AFV.