What Is a Working Memory?
in defense of forgetting
You cannot have good without bad, like you cannot have light without shadow — this is a core belief of mine, worked out mostly by writing myself through my worst emotional storms. Time and again, no matter how far I run, I end up right back at the door of acceptance.
My forgetfulness has been one of the hardest things for me to accept, because it doesn’t seem like there’s anything good about it. It has been a catalyst of shame in my life since childhood, and it’s difficult to think of it as anything other than a dysfunction.
I forget to switch the laundry until it sours, I forget to pay bills, I forget my loved ones’ birthdays, I forget my own anniversary (The fact that I don’t remember where I put our marriage license has become a bit of a running joke in my house.)
It’s frustrating, and no amount of life hacks can suffice to seal up the sieve of my mind. So, in the spirit of acceptance, I’ve been digging into my favorite coping mechanism (Google Scholar), and pulled up some answers that help — not to remember things, but to make friends with my forgetting.
I’ve found that it has a purpose.
A 2021 study in Cognition found divergent thinking (that non-linear, expansive kind which generates novel ideas; “thinking outside the box”) was linked with memory errors — creative people misremembered things more.
A similar study in 2014 concluded that “forgetting may contribute to the ability to think creatively.” Memory researcher Daniel Schacter has argued that these “sins” of memory are the necessary cost of flexibility and problem-solving.
You can’t remember too precisely, because then you can’t generalize your memories to solve problems in the present. And you can’t remember too much, because your brain would struggle with information management.
If you have to forget some things in order to come up with new ideas, then it makes sense that the more ideas you have, the more forgetful you’ll be.
Have you ever taken one of those strengths tests that corporations love using to categorize our personalities? I had to take one in my freshman year of college as part of some class assignment that was supposed to help us figure out our careers, and my top strength came back as ideation, a word I’d never heard before.
The most popular of these kinds of tests is called CliftonStrengths, and it describes ideation like this:
An idea is a connection. Yours is the kind of mind that is always looking for connections, and so you are intrigued when seemingly disparate phenomena can be linked by an obscure connection. An idea is a new perspective on familiar challenges. You revel in taking the world we all know and turning it around so we can view it from a strange but strangely enlightening angle. You love all these ideas because they are profound, because they are novel, because they are clarifying, because they are contrary, and because they are bizarre.
The creative process is actually just a process of making connections, taking things that exist and using them to bring about a new thing that didn’t exist before. Divergent thinking. But I don’t get to be a divergent thinker and a person who remembers to water my houseplants — there’s just not enough energy in my body for all of that.
ADHD research mostly makes me feel like shit about myself, but one thing my idea-obsessed mind loves doing is casting a wide net for words, and I’ve found my favorite kind of scholarly validation in research on creativity.
I discovered a paper by Ditta & Storm that takes Schacter’s “sins” of memory I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, and applies them to creative cognition:
…there are many examples in the creativity literature of factors and individual differences related to having reduced attentional control being predictive of better creative performance…
They argue that, if you’re trying to be creative or solve a problem, inattention is good, actually:
…a memory system that allows people to drift away from a problem may be more beneficial in the context of creative cognition than one that makes people remain incessantly focused.
Mind wandering, even without conscious awareness, can lead to moments of insight as the mind mulls over a problem that had been left behind.
They also talk about something they call blocking, which sounds exactly like what the ADHD world calls hyperfocus — the ability to block everything out except the thing you’re working on for hours at a time:
…blocking and being fixated on a certain problem can be advantageous, focusing people toward the information that is most likely to be helpful or appropriate and limiting the extent to which people are inundated by the avalanche of irrelevant and unhelpful information that is perpetually available in memory.
Ultimately, both absentmindedness and blocking seem to be important for creativity, if not simultaneously then definitely in the context of specific types of tasks…people may be at their most creative when they are able to flexibly alternate between these two ways of thinking, giving them the benefits of both in a way that could not be accomplished by one alone…
I relate to this, because I flip back and forth between mind-wandering and hyperfocusing constantly. It’s not something I can fully control (though I’m not sure that’s even really possible).
Ideation comes at a cost, however, and a relentlessly creative mind is not always a gift. Sometimes it feels like I’m being buried by my thoughts. Sometimes I can’t sleep because ideas keep knocking at the door of my mind. Sometimes I have no idea where to begin — thoughts come so fast, they overwhelm me, and I get stuck.
I’ve felt the most distress when I resisted the ebb and flow my body was trying to do, and the most shame when I let the world’s judgements of it inform my own. When I started leaning into it and not allowing myself to feel ashamed of it, my distress eased and my creativity exploded.
Shame is culturally induced, and it shapes our experiences. In his book The Importance of Suffering, James Davies writes:
…because how we are marked can shape how we feel, when trying to make sense of any human experience we must always relate it to the sociocultural context which defines and pronounces upon this experience; the context through which, in other words, all our experience is culturally mediated.
…most people broadly accept the social reality with which they are presented and thus proceed to use the standards of that reality to assess the condition and value of their own lives.
Davies thinks that much of our suffering is caused by the way our culture responds to experiences like sorrow or madness. Other anthropologists have studied this and agree — Tanya Luhrmann found that people who hear voices and live in more collectivist cultures that do not view these experiences as symptoms of psychiatric disease report that their voices are more benevolent.
Likewise, if the world around me celebrated my ideation and accommodated my forgetfulness instead of telling me it’s dysfunctional, I don’t think I’d have much of a reason to spiral into self-hatred over it, or to fear for my ability to survive so much that I fell into a pit of depression.
Getting free of the shame spiral means challenging some deeply embedded beliefs about myself. It means shutting down the voice in my head that screams, You’re late! You forgot! You suck! It’s hard when I’ve been listening to that voice for so long, and turning it off is an ongoing practice, but slowly, slowly, it’s getting easier.
If my brain must forget in order to ideate, then I don’t really have a “working memory problem” — my memory is “working” just fine. It’s just not working for a capitalist ideal of success, which requires that I’m able to manage, schedule, and remember everything.
Yeah, yeah, the problem is capitalism, we know. But I have to live in this world, now, as it is, in this brain that chronically forgets. So how do I deal with this inconvenient truth about myself?
The best answer I have is to ask for help. I surround myself with people who will patiently remind me of things, who are secure enough in themselves to not consider it a personal attack when I inevitably forget something important, who are merciful enough to forgive me when I make mistakes, who are quick to laughter instead of anger.
The second best answer I have is to write everything down, constantly. I generate lists upon lists to keep myself from getting completely lost every day. I pour my ideas onto paper and lock them up there. I write prose to immortalize what I don’t want to forget. I freeze precious time in photographs that become mnemonic devices for my past.
Then I let the rest of it go, because what else can I do?
Error is inevitable, dates and documents trivial in a mind busy bringing new things into existence. If you can’t create without destroying, then memory is the toll I must pay to ride the highway of ideation.