Forgetting and Remembering

When Memory Fails

by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
From the ADD & Memory Series
Forgetting and Remembering Part 1

Red telehone with memo


There are three harbingers of Old Age:

one is memory loss
and I forget the other two.

What IS Memory, anyway?

All kidding aside, when we think about human memory loss, what is it that we think we’re losing?

The educated “man on the street” would probably say that memory is our ability to store, retain, and recall information.

And he would be right — but the kind of information we utilize memory to store, retain and recall is more complex and comprehensive than most of us realize (and it matters!)

When we “can’t remember” – when only one component of memory fails us (recall on demand) – it is not really the same as when we “forget.”

Most of the time, for most of us with CRS [Can’t Remember Stuff], the information we are trying to “remember” hasn’t been lost, we just can’t seem to recall it when we need it.

  • It is still stored somewhere in that brain of ours, and we probably will recall it later (once we no longer need it, right?)
  • It’s just that our cognitive file clerk is unable to locate it the moment we ask for it.

Most of us could come up with one or more items on the following list of the kinds of things we know we once knew but can no longer recall – which prompts us to say “we don’t remember.”

  1. Facts of various types (like names, phone numbers, birthdays, or how many pints in a quart)
  2. Intellectual or physical procedures (how to determine the square root of a number, tie a Double Windsor knot in a man’s tie, or drive a stick-shift)
  3. Experiences from our past (from our second kiss to our second-cousin’s graduation from college, as well as what transpired in our own lives immediately before, during or after momentous events in everyone’s “memory”)
  4. Elements of language (noun and verb tense agreement, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, metaphors, similes and more – including how they fit together to form a “grammatically correct” sentence that conveys exactly what we mean to communicate – as well as how to write it down and spell it!)
  5. Locations (how to get to our parent’s new house — as well as where they hide the back-up roll of toilet paper)
  6. Promises and plans (Was that TONIGHT?)

OR anything else we expect ourselves to “remember” without having to “look it up.”

And that’s just the tip of the memory iceberg!

When we speak of memory loss (or memory troubles), we could be talking about any of those arenas, and-a-whole-lot-more!


NOT Black and White

We seldom have troubles with ALL types of memory, yet we speak of our unreliable or declining “memory” in a black and white fashion, as if it affected us across the board.

The more you know about how memory is supposed to work, the better armed you are for how to remember things when yours works differently – so read on!

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Memory and Cognition

The essence of the human ability to THINK is our ability to remember.

The essence of memory is registration and recall — getting it in and getting it out.

Amnesia victims teach us the importance of recall. It makes no difference what information has been registered if the individual is unable to recall the registration — but the importance of effective registration must not be undervalued.

Does a Tree make a sound?

FallenTreeThe tree falling in the forest does not make a sound to the ear that is out of “hearing range” of the vibration that tree initiates as it falls or as it lands.

Unless the hearing mechanism registers the vibration, there is no sound. Not for us, anyway.

Likewise, unless an individual is available to perceive an initiating event, the event has not “occurred” for that individual.

  • As night turns to day, the sun brings light to the landscape. DAWN — that’s a signal for those of us who can SEE, that daylight is returning to the land.

Stevie Wonder could not register the fact that the sun has risen by sight, so unless there were another way to cue him that “daylight” has begun he would be aware only of the endless “darkness” of night.

  • Christopher Reeve, after the accident in which he was paralyzed, would not have been able to register a touch on his right elbow as a signal to turn to the person doing the touching if his attention were focused on something to his left.
  • Without the existence of alternative cues, asking Stevie Wonder or Christopher Reeve to remember those events they did not register would be an exercise in futility. 

For them, they did not occur to BE recalled.

Which means that unless you were aware that you saw it, heard it, felt it, tasted it, or consciously generated the information internally (as with a thought or an action), the event didn’t “happen” – for YOU.

  • IMPORTANT CONCEPT: Unless we focus on an event as it occurs, there is no neurological awareness that a decision to store needs to be made.

So you could never be expected to “remember” a particular event, because, as far as your conscious awareness is concerned, there is no evidence that it ever happened (which is another reason why distractibility is such a big problem in the lives of those of us with alphabet disorders, card-carrying members of the attentional deficit spectrum).

The Memory Process

The important word in the heading above is process, a cascade of steps, each step dependent on the other, only beginning with awareness.

  • Events must be registered – stored in your short-term memory banks – for you to be able to access the information at all, but not everything we register is destined for long-term storage.
  • Unless our brain determines that the content is relevant to our being, it never passes it along from our awareness-in-the-moment to our long-term storage tanks, which can be a conscious, subconscious, or unconscious decision.

In other words, unless your brain makes a decision to store, the event evaporates after anywhere from ten seconds to about 20-30 minutes — the information does not become a part of your memory banks, so NOT “remembering” it is to be expected.

Forgetting is a GOOD thing

We would be overwhelmed with data if our ADDled brains stored every passing stimulus forever – every single thing we ever saw, heard, felt, or thought in every single minute of every single day.

Do we really need to be able to recall the overheard snatches of conversation between two tourists talking about how they well they slept last night?

Unless there is something unusual about the time period, why would we need to remember where we parked the car on any random Wednesday last January?

But wait, there’s more . . .

linksIn order to be able to recall information at a later date, it must be linked for retrieval.

That means that, not only must it be stored in your memory banks, it must be linked in a manner that the information can be accessed when it is requested: recall on demand.

Learning experts tell us that if we want to make sure we recall something particular (for example, an actor who must memorize his or her lines, or a student who will be tested), repeated exposure is important: rehearsal or review.

Memory gurus extol the virtues of repeating a person’s name several times after being introduced to them. Language teachers introduce new vocabulary several different ways and in several different contexts.

  • Each repetition strengthens the linkage, increasing the chances that we will “remember” the information when we need it.
  • We also increase memory’s reliability by increasing the number and type of the links themselves – with mnemonics or visualization, for example.

Remembering is an act of cognitive consciousness

Any technique that increases our ATTENTION on an element we know we will expect to recall later increases the likelihood that our expectations won’t be frustrated.

  • The more we pay attention to paying attention, the sharper THAT skill becomes, so remembering becomes easier and more reliable as time goes by.
  • BUT, not all techniques work equally well for everyone – which far too many “memory experts” don’t seem to know, understand or believe.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

  • Unless we understand ourselves – sherlocking our own functionality, what works best for us, and what doesn’t work (or isn’t worth the struggle to force it to work) – attempting to use  “sure-bet memory enhancing techniques” that don’t work well for US will have the opposite effect.
  • We’ll stop trying to remember, concluding that we are “broken” in some manner that can’t be fixed.
  • And that’s a crying shame! With a little bit of help and relevant information, we can ALL improve our functioning in just about any arena we choose – including memory.

Review for Registration and Recall

In order to be able to “remember” something, the event must have been

  1. Registered by your brain
  2. Stored in your brain’s “memory banks”
  3. Linked in such a way that it is
  4. Retrievable on demand

Cognitive decline

Steady decline in many cognitive processes has been reported across the lifespan, accelerating from the thirties, so they say.

  • Although neuron loss is minor after 20 years of age, each decade there is a 10% reduction in the total length of the brain’s myelinated axons,[15]  which could mean anything or nothing where our memories are concerned.
  • There are a number of other brain changes as we age that are believed to be responsible for what we observe but, at this time, nobody really knows for sure.

Our Memories, Growing Older

Research has focused in particular on memory and age, and has found decline in many types of memory as we grow older, but not in ALL.

Semantic memory or general knowledge (such as vocabulary definitions) typically increases or remains steady.

Working memory buffers are likely to become smaller as we age (and start out smaller for those of us with alphabet disorders), but the links to long-term, older memories appear to remain or to grow stronger.

Self-fulfilling prophesies

HOWEVER you choose to explain it, it’s fairly well documented that our expectations shape our experience of living.

Unless you choose to watch your memory wash away like sand-castles on the shore-line, you need to arm yourself with enough information that you don’t have to lose it as you age – and that life-long memory deficits can be worked around – so that you without-a-doubt BELIEVE it.

In upcoming articles, we’ll take a look at the various categories and types of memories, and I’ll bet you a year’s free coaching that you will discover that your memory is pretty darned good in at least one of them.

To prime the expectation pump, take a look at the examples below – taken from the Memory Module I developed for of the world’s first ADD Coach Training, almost 20 years ago now.
(Feel free to reproduce and share as long as you make sure you remember to tell folks where you got the information, right there on the page – see the copyright notice at the bottom of home/new for how that works and for other uses)

Memory is NOT a zero-sum game

How do we explain the following familiar scenarios?

  • The accountant who can’t remember anybody’s name but can add six figure columns of numbers in his head.
  • The lead dancer of City Ballet who dances multiple roles flawlessly, season after season, yet consistently makes emergency calls home because she has forgotten her wallet – and has to ask the stage manager which ballet they are performing each night, until they are three weeks into the season.
  • A ten year old boy who can tell you the batting average of every player in a 200 card stack of baseball cards yet can’t remember the names of the state capitals that he was expected to regurgitate on his geography exam — or how to spell Mississippi.
  • The hospitalized accident victim who couldn’t remember the names, addresses or telephone numbers of any of his friends or family, yet was able to dial their numbers on the telephone and recognize that he knew them from their voices.
  • And how about the professor who prides himself on knowing the name of every student in a large lecture hall by the end of the first week of every term who is jokingly referred to as “the frowsy flasher” because he has forgotten to zip his fly on returning from the bathroom and has worn his sweater inside out on more than one occasion.
  • Absent-minded Aunt Ida, who can’t really remember much of anything. She has never referred to a recipe in her life and consistently puts together deliciously varied menus of all the old family favorites learned by watching the various family members cook.

She can also scan through her pantry and discover in seconds that she’ll have to change the menu from Grandma Ula’s fried chicken to Uncle Edgar’s barbecued chicken because she is out of cornmeal.

AND she can make on-the-spot substitutions for missing ingredients that are less essential (she actually improved Mama Randall’s pound cake the time they were out of sour cream by substituting yogurt and pureed cottage cheese instead!)

Clearly, these individuals have excellent memories in some ways. 

  • Is it that they only remember what’s important to them?
  • Are they passive-aggressive?
  • Are they remembering only those things that have been
    repeated a certain number of times?

What, exactly, causes memory for some things to be so keen
when memory for others is so lousy?

  • Do we write them off for what they can’t remember,
    dooming them to further memory decline?
  • Or can we take what they CAN remember with ease and use it
    to strengthen memory in areas that aren’t very strong? [HINT: yes!]

As I said earlier in this article, the more you know about how memory is supposed to work, the better armed you are for how to remember things when yours works differently.

The articles in this series are designed to help sherlock
every single area of memory struggle in your life
– so stay tuned!

As always, if you want notification of new articles in the ADD and Memory Series – or any new posts on this blog – give your email address to the nice form on the top of the skinny column to the right. (You only have to do this once, so if you’ve already asked for notification about a prior series, you’re covered for this one too). STRICT No Spam Policy

IN ANY CASE, stay tuned.
There’s a lot to know, a lot here already, and a lot more to come – in this Series and in others.
Get it here while it’s still free for the taking.

Want to work directly with me? If you’d like some one-on-one (couples or group) coaching help with anything that came up while you were reading this Series, click HERE for Brain-based Coaching with mgh, with a contact form at its end, or click the E-me link on the menubar at the top of every page. Fill out the form, submit, and an email SOS is on its way to me; we’ll schedule a call to talk about what you need. I’ll get back to you ASAP (accent on the “P”ossible!)

Related articles right here on
(in case you missed them above)

Related articles ’round the ‘net

Memory Tips and Tricks around the ‘net

I-net articles about the Cognitive Benefits of Exercise

BY THE WAY: Since is an Evergreen site, I revisit all my content periodically to update links — when you link back, like, follow or comment, you STAY on the page. When you do not, you run a high risk of getting replaced by a site with a more generous come-from.


About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

7 Responses to Forgetting and Remembering

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