First Words

Remembering the things that give life

In occupied Paris, Yo-Yo Ma's father memorized Bach violin sonatas by day so he could play them during the blackout each night.

It’s hard to picture anything in our lives not influenced by memory. Even meeting a complete stranger inevitably triggers scores of stored-up mental images of other people and experiences. Without our memory, we’re in sorry shape. Confidence and self-assurance shrinks, and social connections fray.

I’ve discovered that most people have strong personal feelings about their own memory proficiencies or deficiencies. People of every age get frustrated or delighted by what their brain can or can’t remember. A quick guess at the character of my own hippocampus tells me that I can probably pull up, with relative ease, 10,000 to 20,000 names and faces of people I know of or have met. My life is full of interaction with people. Try me at the telephone game, however, where a five-sentence message is whispered from one participant to the next, and I’d forget details, mistakenly add elements, and inadvertently garble what was just whispered to me.

If I want to get really discouraged about my own memory competencies, I consider how poorly I remember all the books and articles I read. Much of this disappointment is due to the inundation of digital news and commentary I receive, some of which I ask for. But there’s also the sheer volume of information that plagues everybody. I don’t know anyone who has perfected the goal of successfully converting tidal waves of information into coherent knowledge that easily gets retained.