Teflon Brain: Thoughts on Why I Can’t Remember Some Stuff for More Than Two Seconds

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Teflon Brain

Teflon Brain

I don’t know anyone’s phone number anymore.  My own, my husband’s and my dad’s because he’s had the same number for almost forty years.  That’s it.  The older I get, the more I notice that my brain can’t be bothered with committing some things to memory at all.  It’s like I have Teflon on my brain when it comes to some information. Nothing sticks.

It is not that I am incapable of learning new things.  On the contrary, I am in hot pursuit of information on a daily basis.  In some ways, I am a friggin’ sponge.

Except for the parts that I’m not.

Because, although there is always more I want to learn, part of what I am noticing as I get older is that I’ve grown lazier.  If someone throws a bunch of numbers at me with the expectation that I do the math in my head, it is not that I am incapable of it, but sometimes I just don’t want to put in that much effort.

Which is why I need to!

(I have to ask myself, “Do I value doing math in my head?”  The answer, unfortunately, is yes.  Shit!)

The more I read about brain plasticity (and it is one of my passions at the moment), the more I realize that the old adage “use it or lose it” is particularly true of brain real estate.  If, for example, you stop skateboarding, the brain will literally remap that area of your brain for something you are doing (like playing Candy Crush).  How well you can ride those wheels in the future may largely depend on if you were a pro or a poser.  The better the skill, the easy it is to slip back into it.

For me, a person who is easily hijacked by the next exciting prospect (Jack of all trades, master of none), staying with things to the point of mastery has not historically been one of my strong suits.  The issue is that without the tenacity to achieve mastery, my brain can and will lose valuable data.  I have already noticed that because I can look things up easily (thank you, Internet!), I don’t commit some things to memory.  As much as I read on neuroscience, I should know the parts of the brain by heart.  I don’t.  I recognize them, but much like doing multiplication in my head, it seems like too much effort to actually memorize them.

Which means, I really need to be doing it.

I was attending a meeting the other night with an older speaker, and I was too well aware of the difficulty he was having with keeping his mind focused.  He would lose his train of thought and it many instances never did find his point.  The older I get, the more this happens to me and I know it’s not because my brain is incapable of keeping track of things.  It’s because I’ve grown lazy with regard to paying attention.

The part of my brain that excels at discarding information it doesn’t really need has become so damned efficient that it dumps stuff I’m still using.

Hey Teflon Brain, I was using that!

At least that’s my theory.  All I know for sure is that while doing short-term memory exercises, I notice that my brain just doesn’t seem to want to pay attention.

Like, yeah, I could, but why bother?

The procrastinator in me is much too skilled at back-burning information.  It is why I have hundreds, make that thousands of books.  (E-books: friend or foe?)  It is why the list of things I want to learn is always more than I am likely capable of in this lifetime.  It is the reason that prioritizing is so crucial to my life and why eliminating the extraneous is definitely one of those priorities.

Can you say minimalist? I can’t possibly hope to get through all that info in the next half a century, can I?

What I am recognizing is there is value in memorizing phone numbers, which I don’t do anymore because my phone does it for me.  There is value in doing math in my head (which I do a little more but, hey, I have a calculator in my phone).  There is value in memorizing information that is germane to the topics I like to talk about.  I cannot tell you how often I have sounded like an idiot because I could remember the concepts but not the specifics.

So, for example, although I am fascinated by the work of Michael Merzenich.  He helped develop a computer program for kids with learning disabilities and autism.  It rewires their brains.  Exciting stuff!

Yet, it took me several conversations with people to remember that the name of the program is Fast ForWord™.  I think I was on my third conversation about it with my husband when I finally focused on remembering it enough to repeat it back without looking it up.  And I couldn’t write Merzenich’s name just now without going to get the book I’m reading (The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge, M.D.).

But why?  Why when I am so excited by the prospect of helping autistic kids be more engaged in the world, can’t I remember specifics well enough to talk about it intelligently with my friends?

Because my brain has learned how easy it is for me to access the information that I want, so it doesn’t bother to retain it.  Teflon Brain!

Is it any wonder I prefer writing over public speaking?  I can stop to look stuff up!

I can’t be the only person who does this.

The next book on my reading list is iBrain by Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan where I am hoping to discover some answers about the subject.  But in the meantime, I think I definitely need to work on committing more things to memory.  I need to quit allowing myself the luxury of knowing I can always look things up.  I mean, it’s fine for certain things – I don’t need to know how to figure out the slope of a line off the top of my head, but I think it may be time to learn the names of the part of the brain and what it is they supposedly do.

Because I am tired of Teflon Brain and I know it’s really just a matter of practice.

How many phone numbers do you know?





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