The Importance of a Good Forgettery

‘How does it happen, doctor, that I can’t remember as well as I used to? I carefully put things away, and then I have absolutely no idea where to look for them. As for names, I am hopeless. My memory goes back on me in so many ways, it worries me all the time. Ought I take a memory course or a vacation, or do you think there may be something really the matter? I have been looking up my ancestors and find one or two cases of insanity not so very many generations back. You might just as well tell me the worst.’

Thus many a conscientious patient, past middle age but still vigorous and hard-working, will consult a brain specialist, and for no weightier symptom than increasing forgetfulness. And the fatherly physician — for they all are fatherly when encountered in their native lair, the office — will gradually evolve from his worried patient how much work he is swinging, how many houses he is running, how many family cares are always on his mind.

‘Now let’s look the situation over critically,’ the doctor continues. ‘You are over fifty years old. Can you climb mountains with your old-time agility? Do you still, when playing tennis, prefer singles, or are you satisfied with doubles? Do you eat as much as you used to thirty years ago? The answer is no. Then while you have eased up on your legs and heart and stomach, you are putting more and more on your mind. And because your mind baulks, you make matters worse by introducing the confusing element of worry. You admit you still have the power of reason and the power of concentration, both qualities requiring high intelligence for which memory serves as a tool. And you admit that your memory holds the important facts in readiness for you; so your only complaint seems to be that your mind can’t remember all you would ask of it. Why try to remember so much? Try not to. My prescription for aging patients suffering from your malady is this notebook,’ concludes the doctor with more than a suspicion of a twinkle in his eye. ‘Here is a drawer full of notebooks and extra leaves, all at your disposal. My one request is that you come to me for refills and the sooner the better.’

The patient departs. A great weight is lifted from his shoulders, while he looks forward to the carrying-out of the doctor’s advice as simplicity itself. But he has no conception of the difficulties in changing the habits of a lifetime. His conscientious, overworked, scolded mind was so accustomed to hanging on to every item that came within its grasp that it had no conscious outlet, no method of scrapping the daily riffraff of facts that percolated in through the eyes and cars. Even bridge, which he dearly loved and often applied as an antidote for the cares of the day, pursued him in the small hours of the morning. Every card of that important hand where he might have made a grand slam would mockingly pass before his eyes. Not a memory course but a forgetting system was what he needed. A dinner appointment popped in and out of his mind every half hour; and as for a lecture engagement, he might as well not attempt any serious work the day that nightmare was hanging over him.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a mere sculptor, who made no pretense to the slightest business ability, knew enough to make the postman take the part of a daily reminder. Saint-Gaudens would write his appointments on postcards and arrange with his wife to mail them to his studio at appropriate dates. This may have been a little hard on the wife, but it shows that he realized that it was absolutely impossible to put his best energy into his work and keep track of outside details at the same time.

It was not only engagements which constantly unsettled our friend’s mind, and the general press of business, but also making a final decision. If a purchase were to be made, — a new stove perhaps, — he would find himself mulling over the comparative advantages of coal, electricity, and gas long after the new stove had been set up. To expect to obtain the best results of concentrated effort where self-criticism was constantly interrupting the train of thought, was like expecting a schoolboy to solve a problem in geometry while he was wondering whether or not he would have a chance to play in the football match that afternoon.

Observing himself from the new point of view of trying to forget, our friend was dismayed at the uselessness of the items which stuck in his mind. How often he had laughed at his hopelessly inaccurate wife, who never remembered any figures! But this superior attitude gradually passed through a period of questioning tolerance and ended in admiration. If he could only forget as easily! The household cares never seemed a burden to her, though without any visible worrying she forced the expenses within the allotted budget even in the lean months. A good sense of proportion more than balanced her vagueness.

Of course, there were always some facts which our friend needed to hold in his mind. As an aid to his memory he found the well-known method of forming an association or mental picture a great help, as was also the old-time custom of repetition. Conversely, facts necessary for reference but not to be memorized were jotted down in a ‘memory jogger’ with the greatest speed, Test he remember.’ With but little practice he was soon able to whip out his notebook and pencil with such agility that these reference items were successfully prevented from forcing an entrance into his memory department. This closing of the memory department by conscious effort was the first decided step toward recovery. Soon the problem resolved itself into consulting the notebook often and filing away the items of permanent value where they could be brought to light when needed.

The improvement of the patient was astonishing. The dull aching in the back of the head occurred less and less often and the suspicious attitude toward his perfectly good mind was a thing of the past. When with a smiling countenance he called at the doctor’s office to ask for a notebook refill, no embarrassing questions were asked. The doctor merely congratulated the patient on his new acquisition of a first-class forgettery.