Memory-Withered Opinions

Those of us that are older have had the experience of enthusiastically performing a physical task or sport which we have not done for years.  And to our surprise, we find out that though our minds may remember the actions, we may not have the strength or the coordination that we expected — we were deceived by our old memories and our self-image.  And over the next days we suffer for our false images.  In our imagination we are sometimes still that athlete or that strong kid — but our bodies prove our imagination to be a liar.

In a similar way, many of us have strong, confident opinions based on subjects studied many years ago.  But like the body, the mind atrophies and memory fades.  We learn this when someone asks us to defend our positions on topics we once knew well.  Our opinions may be strong but our detailed memories are disturbingly withered.

This withering is obvious with foreign languages.  I also experience this when writing about various religions on this blog –one of my graduate school concentrations. Likewise here are other series I have started but which required more work than I imagined to finish and thus only come back to them occasionally:

As I write on these topics — inspired by strong, certain opinions — I quickly recognize the atrophy of memory and detailed examples I need to support my opinions. I use to have shelves of books on each topic with plentiful notes in the margins at my fingertips.  But I have given most of them all away over the years and am now dependent on scouring the internet for examples.

When we visit blogs where writers are currently immersed in their area of opinion — be that Christianity or any other issue — we may discover that though we have strong opinions, our  supportive memory on these topics have withered.  What do we do then?

This persistence of opinion even though knowledge withers is a natural, adaptive phenomena.  As with all undesigned functions of mind, they come with pros-and-cons.  Here are some:


(a) Life moves fast, we often have to learn, make decisions and move one.  Insights often stay true.

(b) Most of us don’t have persistent memories so we must decide while we have the experience.

(c) Knowledge may wither but insights into principles often hold true.


(a) The data may have changed

(b) At the time of the decision you lacked data

(c) At the time of the decision you had influences that biased your decisions

(d) Your past decision was wrong

Questions for Readers:

  1. Have you experienced this phenomena?  What do you feel about it?  Is it difficult to admit?  Are you patient with others when you recognize that they need time to recollect data to participate helpfully in the discussion?
  2. Which post series would you like to see me persist with even if my data has withered?

Related Post:  Depth & Complexity Deception: How our minds give us false confidence.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

24 responses to “Memory-Withered Opinions

  1. Are you a Radio Lab fan? They recently did a show on memory.
    It was fascinating. Years ago, I learned that our brains don’t remember memories like pulling a book from a shelf, and then returning it when done. We actually rewrite the memory every time we recall it. The constant rewriting can either strengthen certain aspects, let others disappear, and add in fictions. This was a revelation to me, and changed the way I think about my memory. I now think of my brain as an organizing tool for facts, but one that is incapable of holding those facts in it’s memory. I look up everything, and write everything down.

  2. Yes. This is embarrassing sometimes.

    I have only vague memories of the work I did as a graduate student, and some of the memories turned out to be wrong when someone challenged me on them.

    I’ve started several large writing projects, and it’s obvious that I can’t finish all of them. I didn’t have that problem when I was 28. I’m not sure which one(s) to concentrate on, either.

    Hang on… Actually, I think I did have that problem at 28! But I wasn’t writing as much in public so it was less embarrassing when I dropped some.

    By the way, following up on a comment on a earlier post, I’ve switched to writing in Markdown in Scrivener, and (so far) enthusiastically recommend both. Scrivener is really good at keeping track of enormous half-baked writing projects, which is something I’ve known I’ve needed for some years.

  3. Oh, to answer your second question: I’d be most interested to hear about the process of figuring out that the thing you were working on was irremediably bogus, and realizing that you had to walk away from it. Is it possible to write about that without going into details about homeopathy or acupuncture? Maybe the process is the same for whatever the field is, regardless of the content-level issues of *how* it’s bogus.

    (E.g. I walked away from artificial intelligence, which turned out to be pretty much on a par with acupuncture, and maybe the emotional and intellectual process was similar…)

  4. @ Bart: Yes, I began reading about memory issues about 15 years ago and that, only after I had experienced the same first-hand. The research verified many of my personal experiences. And like you, it affected my understanding of self and my world.

    @ David
    LOL ! Yeah, embarrassing.
    Is “Markdown” the same as “Markdown Pro“?
    What do you use Markdown for?
    Are your Macs all Lion friendly now?

    As to the second point.
    I will try to remember to fill out more detail about my disillusion with Homeopathy and Acupuncture. I have the same with much of Buddhism too, as you know. And I know you do too.

    But I think you are right — AI or Homeopathy, the emotional/intellectual processes are probably uncomfortably similar.

  5. Markdown is a syntax, rather than a program; there are many markdown editors.

    Yes, I’m on Lion; not yet switched to Mountain Lion.

    Since I work on pieces over long periods and repeatedly restructure them, using the WordPress editor to write with is not an option. I’ve tried various other things. Markdown is the least egregious I’ve come across so far. (Most recently, I had been writing HMTL in Emacs, which is a chore.)

  6. TWF

    1) What? Are you kidding me? That’s my whole mental M.O.! 🙂 Often times it seems like I don’t have lots of strong memories, but I do have the persistent lessons learned and other lingering experience. In a way, it’s great because it keeps the mind “uncluttered.” Similar to the “Pros” you mention, you don’t have to replay the memory in order to access the most important information.

    On the other hand, it is real struggle to get my mind to work in a way which holds everything together persistently and consistently. In my blogging realm, it certainly has been challenging to keep all of the information of the Bible readily accessible when I need it, so my notes and internet searches have worked wonders in presenting a coherent picture.

    I’ve sometimes quipped with some debating partners that “the Bible is too big to keep it all in your head at one time.” That’s doubly so when the information conflicts with itself, and the mind must choose what the right version is. It has given me some patience in realizing that it’s not all about “cherry picking” or a purposefully incomplete representation of the truth, but in some cases it is rather a very real limitation of the mind.

    2) That’s a tough question. If I have to choose, I think I am between two: Hinduism and Acupuncture. The side for Hinduism draws from my general religious curiosity. The side for Acupuncture comes from being “hooked” by your description of the odd, radiant sensations which corresponded to a guy pointing at the needles from across the room.

    OK, scratch that. Acupuncture. Definitely. 🙂

  7. Oh, yes, there are so many things I have forgotten. Some are missed (when I notice them, at least), some are not.

    What’s more disturbing, though, is the amount of stuff I remember flawlessly which is useless, and has been useless for years, and which I probably didn’t need to know in the first place. And I think this is the case for most people, except that most people keep up with the hobby the useless stuff came from so that they don’t notice how pointless it is. (How useful is sports trivia, for example?) But also think of advertising jingles from your youth… how many neurons are you wasting on them? And video games: I bet anyone who played any part of the Super Mario Bros. series as a kid remembers more about those games than is comfortable.

    And then there are the things which I remember which I wish I would forget. That’s another fun category.

    But on the physical side, too, I have recently been shocked at how much upper body strength I have lost. It’s not like I’m starting to dodder or anything, or even to get physically infirm (I do a lot of bicycling, but that does very little for your upper body), but I hadn’t done a formal workout for years, and when I recently tried I was amazed at how weak I had become compared with the previous measurements.

  8. Earnest

    I am dismayed by my new reality of static observer of my boys in activities that do not involve me. I feel like I should be doing something during that time. So thank you Sabio for giving me the opportunity to keep my brain fresh while I wait for the most recent activity to end!

  9. @ David Chapman:
    Thanx — I looked up “Markdown” and now understand.

    I am going to buy Shrivener and start using it. Looks fun.

    @ TWF:
    It was fun chatting with you on skype today !! Very cool.
    Yes, I think many people will identify with my observations on this post — kind of common sense, I guess.

    I could see how blogging through the Bible has helped you immensely in addressing those issues on line. I hope to do something similar in the next year.

    Well, David and you want acupuncture, so I will try to concentrate there a bit more in the future.

    @ The Vicar,
    I wish I remembered even useless stuff.
    And yes, sacropenia is an ugly fact of aging.

  10. @ David Chapman:
    Thanx — I looked up “Markdown” and now understand.

    I am going to buy Shrivener and start using it. Looks fun.

    @ TWF:
    It was fun chatting with you on skype today !! Very cool.
    Yes, I think many people will identify with my observations on this post — kind of common sense, I guess.

    I could see how blogging through the Bible has helped you immensely in addressing those issues on line. I hope to do something similar in the next year.

    Well, David and you want acupuncture, so I will try to concentrate there a bit more in the future.

    @ Earnest,
    I’m off to swim with my kids. Later we will bike also. I hope the shared activities don’t fade too quickly. But they will surpass me in everything, of course.

  11. David Chapman

    Scrivener has a free 30-day trial. Might want to try before you buy.

  12. The Vicar

    @Sabio Lantz:

    Well, yes, but I’m not complaining about a loss of mass, but rather of strength. I couldn’t care less about size or mass.

    As for useless stuff: you almost certainly DO remember lots of useless stuff. You probably remember lots of at least some of the following:
    – Advertisements
    – Pop music
    – Details of TV shows (or radio, if you’re old enough — although I doubt that)
    – Details of video games (if you’re young enough)
    – Phone numbers and/or street addresses which are no longer valid (possibly without remembering whose they were)
    – Sports trivia

    Back around 1995-2000, I did a lot of tech stuff with Macs. I am disturbed to find that I can accurately remember the specs for the Mac Color Classic II: it could accommodate up to 36 MB of RAM, had basically the same screen specs on the built-in screen as the Apple 12″ Color Display, and a 33MHz 68030 CPU. That feat of memory may not seem excessive, since it’s just some bare numbers, but consider: the Color Classic II was never sold in this country. I never owned one, even used. I never even SAW one. In fact, as far as I know, I have never even MET anyone who had seen one. And by now, any machines of that model which may still be operating (or even not still in active use but still bootable) are so extravagantly obsolete that you would have difficulty even transferring data to or from a new computer — they had no ports in common with any computer currently being sold, no wireless networking, and didn’t even have a port which could use TCP/IP directly. They had a floppy drive, but you can’t even hook up a USB floppy drive to a current Mac and write files to the old Mac floppy format. And yet some indeterminate number of neurons continue to remember this stuff, while I can’t remember things which I need to know on if not a daily at least a weekly or monthly basis.

  13. @ David,
    Thanx, got it. What do you use as a MarkDown editor?

    @ The Vicar:
    You are right, size isn’t everything but it is related. Muscle weakness is largely related to reduced mass. Decrease mitochondria function and decrease protein synthesis are other factors.

    The Mac story was interesting.

  14. I’m using Scrivener as my Markdown editor. There are better Markdown editors, but Scrivener is good at organizing big projects, which those aren’t. And Markdown is sufficiently trivial that the difference between a minimal editor and a fancy one seems small.

  15. Sabio – Great post, so interesting! Regarding the 2 elements:

    1. Intellectual – well, I think it depends on what field we’re talking about. In the sciences, it’s okay to forget old information; in fact sometimes it may be better. Because if it’s been 6 months to a year since you’ve discussed some topic, it’s almost guaranteed to have advanced in the field anyway.

    So if I’m discussing my ornithology notes from grad school (2009), I sort of have to update myself on the literature anyway. Same could be said for other topics.

    2. Physical – how funny, just last night I decided to try a cartwheel. Wow, did that not go over as I expected, LOL! However, I’m currently in much better shape than I was in college, more athletic for sure. The difficult part has been from when I was 7 and was much tinier, and the balance beam / uneven bars / cartwheels were so much easier as I was closer to the ground. 😉

  16. Oh sorry, second question: having become an omnivore again after being a vegetarian for so long, I’m always interested in other people’s experiences!

  17. @ amelie,
    You are still a young bird — not surprising if you don’t feel the atrophy as acutely as us older birds ! “2009 grad school” — seriously ?😉
    But thanks for empathizing as much as you could — very generous!
    Concerning the Vegetarian posts — Yeah, I should get back on that! Thanx.

  18. CRL

    Hey, I have that problem, and I can’t even use aging or long stretch of time without studying a subject as an excuse! I have a terrible memory for history; when studying for the AP US History exam, I had to read my 600 page-ish review guide several times over because I would get to the Cold War and realize I had forgotten all details about colonial times. One of my close friends loves history, and can get very argumentative about the relative importance of causes of various events. Oftentimes, my opinions contradict hers, however, I can’t remember the facts which led me to them. After looking things up, I do often turn out to have better justifications for my opinions than she does. At first, I would find it difficult to admit that I had trouble justifying my opinions, except with very generalized examples, however, i’ve discovered that it’s really much easier to look things up and respond with a better justified opinion than to try to cover up a lack of knowledge (especially when one is talking online.)

  19. @ CRL,
    Great example, thanx. And likewise, I think we should be generous (when we remember) with others who may be forgetting why they have their opinions and perhaps help them mine for that old data.

  20. I have experienced the same when I go to discussing Christianity. I should keep myself more in shape in this regard (as the other too).

    As for which to pursue, I’d continue on the Homeopathy discourse, as it has the potential to actually save a life or two.

  21. @ myrthryn,
    OK, I hear the vote for Homeopathy. Looks like a lot of projects to fulfill.

    Concerning “keep myself more in shape” for when you “go to discussing Christianity.”

    Well, there are a few options, (1) Get in shape or stay in shape.
    (2) Just admit your new ignorance and see if the person you are discussing the issue with will help you polish your argument. Or if they will run with that and say, “Ha, Ha, I won”. You see, you know you have a good dialogue partner who understands our shared foibles and isn’t after cheap victories. And likewise, we should try to remember to do the same for others.

    #2 was kind of what I was trying to say by this post.

  22. DaCheese

    One of my biggest problems is my pathetic memory for such things. I’m terrible at debating topics with others because even when I *know* I’m right, and I’ve studied the subject extensively, I just can’t recall the specific information and arguments that originally convinced me.

    At one point in my life when I was plagued with self-doubt, this would force me to periodically re-research things, as the doubting part of my mind wouldn’t accept my remembered certainty. I would have to reconstruct all of the arguments and convince myself all over again… argh!

    Not sure which series I’d like to continue. I’m interested in learning about HInduism, but I suppose there are plenty of sources for that. Whereas the whole homeopathy thing (and to a lesser extent acupuncture) seems like a fairly unique perspective and experience. But I guess in that case the very thing that makes the topic interesting might also make the memory withering a bigger handicap…

  23. Dexter

    Maybe loss of acute memory is an aquired positive human trait? I would have been destined for a life of loneliness if I remembered the sting of each rejection shot my way over the years. And how many women would have the second or third child if they remembered the pain of labor (before the days of drugs).
    I contest the memories are meant to protect us as weak and frail humans…
    Good memories are further glorified to give us a ‘sugar high’ while bad memories are quickly diminished or minimized.

  24. @ DaCheese,
    Thanx for the suggestions.

    @ Dexter,
    I think your right. I think the happy mind forgets little, meaningless mistakes or learns from big ones and then forgives itself.

    We have natural THC receptors to aid in forgetting too. They are all there with functions — and not just to smoke weed.

    Good points, thanx.

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