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Jack Smith

Common remedies for coping with short-term memory losses just might prevent a few long-term headaches

March 03, 1987|JACK SMITH

Evidently the loss of short-term memory is as common as a headache or the cold.

Many readers have added their complaints to mine about forgetting what one has gone into another room for, and not being able to remember names and faces.

Several have little routines for remembering what they have gone into another room for.

Helen Colton of Family Forum (nonprofit adult education) says one of her students suggested that when you get up to go into the other room you should say out loud, over and over, what it is you're going for.

"So, many times a day, I walk through my house talking out loud to myself. 'A cup of coffee.' 'A toothpick in the kitchen drawer.' 'Turn on the laundry machine.' You know what, Jack? It works."

Another simple routine works for Roberta Diamond. "Please don't laugh at this. It really works. When you forget what you went into another room for, don't fret. Just go back to the room you got the original thought in and, believe it or not, it will come back to you."

Caroline T. Bales of Alhambra also recommends retracing your steps: "All you have to do to remember is to go back to where you were (your chair) and you will immediately remember what you went to the kitchen to get or to do."

OK. But what if you forget where you came from?

Visualization does it for Edward A. Westphal of San Clemente. He says a memory expert taught him this technique: When he decides to go into another room for something--for example, a book in a bookcase or a tool in the workshop--first he visualizes himself standing in front of the bookcase or tool rack and then he visualizes the book or tool itself. Takes only a couple of seconds, and it works, he says.

Like me, others have had trouble trying to remember names by word association. Evidently the ministry is a perilous profession in this regard, since ministers are expected to remember the names of their congregations.

Reeta Rundlett of Claremont tells of the parson who tried to remember the name of a new member, a Mrs. Lumach, by associating it with stomach. When he met her next he said, "Good morning, Mrs. Kelly!"

Myra Huffman of Laguna Hills, whose mother was a minister's wife, recalls that her mother used word association on her husband's congregation. One Sunday she met a new member named Davenport, and the next Sunday greeted her with, "Good morning, Mrs. Sofa!"

I would probably have called her Mrs. Chesterfield.

Roger Arnebergh, former Los Angeles city attorney, recalls that he used to meet many people when he spoke in public. Later, when accompanied by his wife, he would meet some of them again, but would have forgotten their names. Common courtesy required that he introduce his wife. "How did I handle the situation? I cordially said, 'Well, hello, you remember Emilie?' as I turned to her. Invariably he would say, 'Certainly,' and usually introduce himself to her."

That's OK if you're married.

Ed Shoaf recalls how one politician coped with this embarrassing situation. He would say, to the other man, "Hello, how's Muriel?"

I can't see how that would solve the problem. But its merit may have been that it would create another problem altogether.

By eavesdropping, Joan La Cour discovered James Roosevelt's method for seeming to remember people who lined up to shake his hand. Roosevelt shook each person's hand, then said a few words which invariably caused the person to brighten.

"Edging closer, I heard Mr. Roosevelt say, as he shook the hand of the person next in line, 'How are you? Is that pesky cold gone?' "

And to the next person he said, "All over that head cold?"

Later La Cour asked Roosevelt how he did it. "It's a pretty safe bet that every one of these people has had a cold some time in the past couple of years," he said. "I've never been wrong yet."

On such devices political careers are made.

One wonders at the ability of actors to remember their lines. I have a recurring nightmare of being in a college play and not knowing my lines.

Writes Charlton Heston: "Recalling and interpreting blocks of text is what I do for a living. I don't study lines, I don't forget lines, but that's all my memory does well.

"I read somewhere that the brain is something like a muscle and thus does well what it has been trained to do. Memorizing text, in my case. For everything else, people have to pin notes to my lapel."

Heston recalls standing at a crosswalk on Sunset Boulevard with Walter Seltzer, a producer who knew his weakness. When the light changed, Seltzer gripped his arm and said, "Chuck! There's Howard Koch crossing towards us. You know him well. He's head of Paramount, where we're about to start filming."

" 'Oh, for Pete's sake!' I said. 'I know Howard!' I then embraced a complete stranger."

Sarah Conrad of Glendale reassures me that I don't have prosopagnosia, a disease that causes one to forget faces.

She says, "A person with prosopagnosia has difficulty recognizing family members, well-known persons, and in extreme cases, his own face. . . . So unless you wonder who that strange lady in your wife's bed is, or you wondered who that person on TV giving the State of the Union address was, you don't have prosopagnosia."

I guess I'm OK. At least I still know who the person in my wife's bed is.

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