Thought of the Week: Vanilla Water

Some time ago, I set up to brew coffee in our filter coffee maker. I put a splash of vanilla in the bottom of the carafe, because that’s what we do, and I set it going. When the carafe began to fill with an extremely pale, yellowish water, I realized I had forgotten a rather important ingredient.

Another time, I thought I’d be clever and set the coffee maker up the night before, so that it would be fresh and waiting to go when we woke up. I filled it up, put the coffee in because I’d learned from my mistake, set the timer, and went to bed. I woke up in the morning to find the kitchen floor flooded with water; I had forgotten to close the lid on the coffee maker.

These are the things I deal with on a daily basis (though I doubt I’m alone). Tonight I couldn’t remember if I had taken my medication this morning, so I took a double dose. The other night I took out the garbage and forgot to leave the door unlocked; I nearly broke my leg trying to climb in through a second-storey window. I’ve also forgotten all the witty things I was going to write in this post.

You see, this topic has come up because I realized the other day that I’d forgotten to post a thought of the week last week (I had to write down that I wanted to write about this in case I forgot). I forget an awful lot of things, both minor and major. I often forget where I left my glasses, or my iPhone (thank goodness for Find My iPhone). Probably the worst thing I ever forgot was Valentine’s Day (I don’t dare forget my wife’s birthday – I have approximately sixteen reminders for this). I’ve even forgotten my son was in the back of the car and drove him to work instead of school.

I read an interesting publication a while back on the nature of forgetfulness. Apparently, walking through doors can affect this greatly. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve gone into a different room and had no idea what I went in there for (I’m trying not to think too hard about that sentence). In the study, they had participants play a simple computer game where they looked at an object in a room, then walked away from the object and were asked to recall what it was. They discovered that significantly fewer participants who walked through a doorway could recall it compared to those who didn’t leave the room, even if they walked a comparable distance away.

Similar studies have shown that memories are often grossly distorted from the actual reality of the event. One example had different subjects taste – or not taste – a piece of chocolate. Some of them were simply given the chocolate; others were told beforehand how wonderful and delicious the chocolate was going to be. Some time later, they were asked to describe the taste; those to whom the taste was described recalled the taste far better – even those who had never tasted it!

These occurrences are so frequent for me that I am becoming increasingly concerned, often to the point of doubting my own thoughts and and considerations. Things I adamantly remember – clearly, vividly, blow by blow – turn out to have never happened. I recall conversations with my wife that never took place, and forget the ones that did.

These two aspects of failing memory – false and absent recall – make me worried for my own sanity. I am already disposed of an ill mind, and these symptoms seem only to reinforce my maladies. Even now, as I have begun to reread my book for editing, I have come across entire passages I don’t recall writing.

So what am I to do? I have tried many memory aids – pieces of string, notes, reminders; often, though, by the time I find pen and paper, I have already forgotten what I intended to write. I don’t remember what the string was for. A date pops up in my calendar, and I can’t remember why. I realize this must seem mundane – perhaps normal, even – but I worry that my memory will continue to degenerate, and I will soon be unable to remember even the simplest of things. Early-onset Alzheimer’s, perhaps?

Tell me – what do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments; I just hope I remember them.

12 thoughts on “Thought of the Week: Vanilla Water

  1. I’m pretty much caught on picturing you climbing through a second story window. Actually everything in there would make a pretty good comic strip. Do you make coffee and stuff all while you’re reading the paper? Or sometimes looking for your glasses that are on your head? Classic.
    I have a pretty big memory problem right now, short and long term. Some things will come back little by little but it’s disturbing. I used to remember everything, and in a span of about a month I forgot it all. I logged onto our bank account with the SAME user name and password for over 13 yrs… I can’t remember how anymore. Same with LOTS of stuff. I remembered 1 of my family members birthdays this year, one of my daughters. I remembered mine but only because I was in the hospital and used it as leverage to get out.
    Anyhow… You’re not alone friend. If I had a second story and was allowed out of my house alone I’d be right there with ya! πŸ™‚

  2. Habits, routine, and checklists should become your friend. Have a place where you look for all of the important stuff like keys, wallet, glasses, etc. Always check for your keys right before you lock the door (or, handy, make it so the only lock is connected to a deadbolt, so that you need your keys to lock yourself out). In the case of medication, you might want an actual sheet where you write a check mark for the date right after you take it. No exceptions to the rules of routine. No, “I’ll write that down after I do x…” because you’ll walk through that door or into another task or thought and before you know it you’ll have no idea. As we get older, we realize that our memories are failing, or that they were never actually as spectacular as we thought. We have more things on our mind, more stuff to do, and more things to remember. We’ve learned to make many processes automatic because we’ve gotten so good at them, that yes, we can now walk and chew gum at the same time. Now we don’t have to think about every step as we do it! We reduce cognitive load at a cost to our memories. There’s actually a really large, fascinating body of research on memory-failings and how they happen as well as how they can be circumvented. The Seven Sins of Memory by Daniel Schacter is a wonderful overview (hey, in terms of required college reading I never sold it back and I still refer to it regularly).

    The probable truth is that you’re normal. You can’t remember every second of the day and pay attention to everything all the time, and things slip through the cracks. You get tired, hungry, or worried about something and forget what you’re doing. You have other people seizing your attention in the middle of a task. You’re a little ADD, or your house/life isn’t perfectly organized. We all have our moments, and some of them make for hilarious tales. No, I’m not saying you shouldn’t be concerned and you should just ignore it. You could have a health condition that makes memories a mite cloudier. I am saying that you shouldn’t worry too much if you flub up here and there. I’ve had some uh, pretty similar moments, but I’m stopping before this comment gets longer than your blog post.

    • Wow…thank you for such an incredibly thoughtful comment! Your advice is very good, although much of it I’ve already tried. Case in point – I have a reminder on my iPhone, iPad and iMac to take my meds: one for 7:00 AM and one for 9:00 PM. At 9:00 PM tonight, I saw that I had marked this morning as having been taken, but I have no memory of doing it! Did I check it off without taking them (which I know I’ve done in the past), or did I actually take them and simply not remember? Eek!
      I’ve read a little bit on the research into forgetfulness (my wife, in fact, does neurological research with implications in learning and memory), and there are many fascinating examples. Sigh. I think I really just need to take it one day at a time, and try to put more safeguards in place.
      If I remember to!

  3. In class we learned that when we do something routine (like taking meds, making coffee, locking our door), we’re less likely to form strong memories of the event. It’s easy to blur yesterday into today, or vice versa. So when you take your meds, or grab your keys, you can stop and look for a detail to link the memory back to that day and time. I was standing in the kitchen, swallowed my pills and this person said x, and I said y. Or there’s the medication box with A.M./P.M. and the day of the week on it. Fill it up every week and if the pills are still there you’ll know whether or not you’ve taken them (obviously I’m most concerned about the medication, although let’s face it, some of those other things are definitely inconvenient, embarrassing, or messy).

    Things are more memorable when you’re in the same situation. Context makes all the difference, and that’s probably part of why when a person walks through a door, they’re more likely to forget why they went through it in the first place. If you stop and imagine yourself in that room, visualizing details, you may very well remember why you went there in the first place almost as well as if you’d gone back and looked for the clues again.

    Forgetting certain things can be a skill in and of itself. Even if it’s disturbing that you have no memory of writing something, at least now you can go back and examine your writing from a fresh point of view. If we remembered everything with equal vividness, pain would never cease because we’d always relive it. Admittedly, I like to hold on to hard lessons so I don’t repeat mistakes.

    Too long, again. I promised I’d work on this verbosity/long comment thing. Some of you are just too interesting, and I get too excited about what I have to say. Still…Well, I’m sure your wife is full of tips and useful information. I’ll let her take over from here. πŸ™‚

    • Hmm…you’re not a psychology major by any chance, are you? πŸ˜› I’ve actually been considering those little pill boxes, but I can’t face the thought that I’m already that old! I’m familiar with associative memory – I often remember things not in themselves, but in their context. The problem is when the memories become disjointed – snapshots of memory here and there, with no connection between them.

      Thank you so much for your thoughts!

      • My passion for the subject has obviously outed me. Yup, I have a degree, although I got lost on the way to the master’s I strived for. I kind of cringe when I tell people that, because I know the next question is going to be “So I had this dream, what does Freud say about that?” I don’t do dream analysis. The field is so large now, and has so many competing, interlinking perspectives, that I know their preconception of what I’ve been taught/gleaned/know? is very separate from the reality.

        • I wouldn’t dare ask a psychologist for advice out-of-office – it’s like asking someone from the IRS to help you with your taxes! I considered psychology at one point, but figured I was a little too messed-up to tell other people what to think (yes, I know that’s not actually what they do)! I opted instead for the second-most useless degree in the world: music (the first is English lit.).

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