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My Super Memory Freaks People Out


Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

I have an excellent memory for details and while it’s a great asset in my work (I do statistical analysis for a pharmaceutical company), it seems to be a detriment in my personal life for reasons I do not understand.

I can remember innocuous things people said or did or what they wore many months later. Sometimes I bring this up because something in the present time relates to it, but when I do that, people act like I’m making things up — but if I show them proof with a picture or a text, then they act freaked out.

I’m not reminding people they owe me money or screwed something up, so I’m confused by this reaction, and yet it’s happened so many times. It’s really hard for me to curtail my memory and I blurt these things out without thinking because it’s interesting or shows I’m interested in them. I’m talking about things like, “Hey, you wore that the last time we all went to the movies, is that your superhero viewing shirt?” or, “Did you ever hear back from that friend of yours?”

Why is this such an issue with a lot of people?

— Super Memory

Yes, you’re showing interest — but you can also appear too interested, because they’re filtering your remarks through the experience of having typical brains that have typical disposal mechanisms for minutiae. So, for them to remember someone’s shirt from weeks or months ago, plus the context in which it was worn, they’d have to be waaaayyyyy interested in that person. Like, crushing-verging-on-stalkery-obsessed interested. So your innocent brain gymnastics trigger their alarms. It’s a false alarm, but they can’t know that.

Another possibility is that people think — or feel as if — you’re showing them up. Or they just don’t like finding out their memories are faultier than they thought.

So I suggest you either stop sharing so many of the things you notice, or start sharing more about your quirky retention of detail. If they know you’re that way, then you can all treat it more openly as your parlor-trick brain thing.

You might be interested in Marilu Henner, who wrote a book about her super memory. I hope you are, at least, [because] if you read it you’ll be stuck with it.

Re: Super memory:

I also have a super memory. Yes, friend I graduated high school with in 1990, I remember the gray sweatshirt with red elbow patches you wore in gym class that time when Mr. Smith the gym teacher made us run laps for being late.

My solution: I pretend not to remember. When I see someone for the first time in two years, I don’t say, “I hope that econ professor wasn’t too hard on you on that project about free trade you were working on toward your master’s degree.” I say, “Weren’t you in grad school the last time I saw you? What are you up to now?” I do tell my wife the whole truth about all the bizarre details I can remember for decades, but most other people don’t know. They don’t need to know. They don’t want to know. I don’t let them know.

— Anonymous

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