Jeffosophy: a collection of possibly useful things I have learned over the years.




Why a Bad Memory Has Turned Me into a Liar

I have a confession to make. I am a serial liar. I lie frequently and unashamedly. I lie so much I don't even notice it most of the time. But, in my defense, I lie to avoid upsetting people.

Why do I do this? Because I have a terrible memory. This is a problem I have had since last Thursday. And probably much longer, but I cannot remember beyond then. There are people who say, "I can never remember names, but I always remember faces." There are people who say "I can never remember faces, but I can remember names." There are people who remember both. I remember neither. People who remember me are sometimes hurt by this.

False Recognition

Together with a friend, I've been running the Imagination Club for years and years. We organise regular workshops in Brussels and have built a sort of community around it. At any given workshop, participants include people who come regularly, people who come from time to time if the subject interests them, and people who are coming for the first time ever.

Now, I recognise members of the first group. They are like friends. Indeed, many of them are friends. My problem is with the second and third group, the people who come occasionally and the first timers. I have trouble recognising the people who come occasionally, especially if they only come every few months.

I also know that some people will feel hurt if they know me but I have forgotten them. And, like most decent folk, I don't like hurting my fellow human beings. So, I have learned to look people in the eye as they arrive at an Imagination Club event. If there is a flash of recognition in their eyes and possibly a smile on their faces, I smile and say something like, "It's good to see you again."

If their eyes look a little confused, like the owner of the eyes is unsure of protocol, I say, "Hello, welcome to the Imagination Club. This is your first time, isn't it?"

Nine times out of ten, I am correct.

When I am not correct, especially about someone who has been before, I apologise and explain I have a memory problem. I don't want people to feel forgettable. I want them to know it's not them. It's me. People are okay about that and will often say, "It's okay. I haven't been in a long time."

Remember When?

You know how friends, family and lovers often ask, "Do you remember the time when...?" At some point in my life, I got into the habit of saying, "yes," even when I had no recollection of what the other person was talking about. This strategy worked fine and dandy, because usually when I said, "yes," the friend etc would go on and talk about whatever it was she remembered. About half the time, as she told the story, I would eventually remember it, or at least part of it. The other half of the time, I completely forgot it. But, I could feel the experience from the other person's talking about it.

I was not even aware I was lying in this way until a perceptive girlfriend caught me out some years ago. She would ask me if I remember the time when something happened. I would say "yes". She would look at me in the eyes and say, "No you don't" and I'd have to confess that I didn't. Fortunately, she knew about my poor memory and wasn't hurt that I forgot stuff. Indeed, it became a running joke to see if she could catch me out or not. It also made me aware that for many years, I had been lying about remembering stuff.

Now, especially with closer friends, I don't lie so often. I am more likely to say something like, "remind me." And when the friend starts to talk about the event, I often remember. If not, it doesn't matter. Old friends know my memory is poor and forgive my forgetfulness. They understand that there is a difference between being forgetful and being uncaring. They may be surprised that I have completely forgotten events that are still clear memories for them. But, they accept me and my crap memory.

For me, when someone tells a story, of a shared event in the past that I cannot remember, the Jeffrey they speak of seems like someone else. Often, a slightly eccentric character. He often seems more adventurous and more interesting than me.


By my understanding, the brain recreates memories in much the same way the imagination creates ideas. Our brain stores information in a kind of structured way, rather like a database. When you recall something from the past, it's not like your brain pulls up a video clip of that time. Rather, your brain pulls out all the necessary bits of information stored here and there in your brain. It then reconstructs this information to recreate memories. To illustrate: think about a walk you recently took. Okay? Where did you walk? What was the weather like? What did you see? You can probably recall all of this from the initial memory.

What did the walk smell like?

Chances are, when you initially recalled the walk, you didn't recall the smell. You were probably puzzled by the strange question. But, in a split second, your brain added smell information to the reconstructed memory and you could answer me.

In the same way, when you are imagining stuff (or being creative), your brain pulls up various relevant (and if you are exceptionally imaginative, irrelevant) information and tries to put it together in new ways. To illustrate: imagine standing somewhere familiar outside. Imagine flapping your arms. Imagine you lift off and start to fly.

You probably had no trouble with the second exercise, even though you have never flown by flapping your arms - at least, I assume you have not. In much the same way that your brain reconstructs memories (from stored information) when you recall them, your brain can also reconstruct fictions, such as flapping your arms and flying, from the same stored information.

I have a very active, some would say "overactive", imagination. Weird ideas flow continuously like a river of strange visions. And, I suspect this is why my memory is not so good. My brain is naturally too busy creating visions of things that never happened, to remember visions of things that have happened.

I Do Remember Many Things, Including Some Really Obscure Things

  This is not to say that my memory does not work at all. Of course not. I remember lots of things. It's just that I do not remember stuff as well as most other people do. And when I do remember things, I often need a stronger reminder than other people.

But, I remember a lot of things. I even remember some very obscure things. I occasionally remember something a friend or my partner has forgotten. Sometimes, particularly with a relatively new friend, she'll reply. "You remember that? Your memory is very good!" In truth, I find it frustrating when this happens. I know my memory is bad. I know that eventually the person who makes this remark will be disappointed when I forget something that is important to her. I will have to remind her once again, that it is not about her. It is about my faulty memory.

Wouldn't Change Things Now

It might surprise you to know that if my doctor told me that a new medication could vastly improve my memory, I would almost certainly refuse it. I have become used to having a poor memory. I have learned to work around it. For example, I always carry a notebook and a pen with me, so I can write down ideas and reminders. I let new friends know that I have a poor memory and inform them that if I forget things we do together or things about my new friend, it is not because these things are not important. Rather, it is because I have a memory problem.

And I value my imagination. I fear that if my memory was substantially improved, it would come at the cost of my imagination. Moreover, friends, my partner, and family all know my memory doesn't work. They've become accustomed to it. Sometimes they find it amusing.

Suddenly having a great memory would change me. And, overall, I am happy with me as I am.



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