Why You Already Forgot That Book Plot
It’s not all the internet’s fault.
This is an edition of The Wonder Reader, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a set of stories to spark your curiosity and fill you with delight. Sign up here to get it every Saturday morning.
Before writing this newsletter about how hard it is to remember things, I decided to test myself. I wasn’t sure how much of the recent culture I’d consumed would jolt back into my brain; if it turned out I was a memory savant, I figured I should mention that here.
Okay: What was the last TV show I turned on? (The Sopranos). What are the main characters’ names? The secondary characters’? What’s the plot of the latest episode? And also, what was the last book I read? The last article? One original thought I had about it?
Not a savant, it turns out. Remembering is hard. When we talk about the struggles of memory, many of us blame ourselves, lamenting how we’ve let the internet erode our cognitive abilities. “My brain is broken,” we’ll say. But the struggle to remember goes beyond the internet and has a lot to do with how the brain works.
As our senior editor Julie Beck explained in 2018, the internet has dealt a huge blow to our recall memory—the ability to spontaneously call up information in your mind—because that skill is not as necessary when we can just turn to Google. But these memory issues go way back: In one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates warns that writing could cause forgetfulness. And sure enough, “writing absolutely killed memory,” one researcher told Beck.
The trade-offs, that researcher noted, may be worth it: What we’ve lost in memory, we’ve gained in access to information. And “not all memories that wander are lost,” Beck writes. Some of them are just hanging around until the right cue brings them back to the front of our mind.
Today’s reading list explores how the human mind remembers, and how it forgets.
Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read
By Julie Beck
… and the movies and TV shows we watch too.
By Annika Neklason
The world’s most accomplished memorizers insist their powers aren’t an innate gift, but rather a skill that anyone can hone.
You’ve Probably Seen Yourself in Your Memories
By Jacob Stern
Remembering your life in the third person is a little creepy and surprisingly common.
- Imagining the future is just another form of memory: When you imagine your future, you’re really just using projections of your past, Julie explained in 2017.
- You won’t remember the pandemic the way you think you will: “We don’t shelve a pristine first edition of an experience in a dust-free inner sanctum; we sloppily pass the memory around, inviting comment,” Melissa Faye Greene wrote in 2021.
In her piece, Julie highlights one good practice for those of us eager to improve our memory skills: Space out the process of reading a book or watching a show, because your memories get reinforced the more times you reaccess them. In other words, say goodbye to the binge.