Chapter 5: Creative Destruction
On WEDNESDAY, August 18, 1965, Brad Williams ordered a hamburger at the Red Barn restaurant—an experience he remembers with pinpoint accuracy. That might not seem extraordinary, except that Williams was eight years old then and now, at fifty-two, has no particular reason for remembering it. The fact is, Williams remembers almost every detail about his past. What happened on November 7, 1991? Williams replies, “It was a Thursday, a big snowfall had hit a week before . . . and Magic Johnson had announced [a few days earlier] that he was infected with HIV.”
Most people don’t have that kind of memory. Our thoughts work more like this: you are driving and hear an advertisement on the radio. It gives a phone number to call. Recognizing that you don’t have a pen or paper handy—let alone your trusty BlackBerry—you hasten homeward, repeating the number under your breath. Heaven forbid that another thought enters your mind! You get home and jot down the number. And then, like a little demon struggling to be free, the number flees your mind.
So what’s up with human memory? Unlike a computer’s memory system, the human memory system is not infallible. In fact, human memory is more like a garden fountain. The little cup at the top fills, spills the water down to the next cup, then to the next cup, and then down the drain.
“Thank God for that,” states neuropsychologist Elkhonon Goldberg, noting that otherwise, our brains would be clogged with useless information. Indeed, photographic memory might sound like an exciting gift, the kind of superpower that Superman might possess.
But before you make it one of your three wishes, think about its implications: one woman in her forties—with an even greater memory than Williams—recently said her memories nearly drive her mad. It’s “nonstop, uncontrollable and exhausting,” she has said. “I run my entire life through my head every day, and it drives me crazy.”