Fighting Fear

Confronting phobias and other fears

The Unreliability of Memory

Can you identify this song?

 People are different, and, in a way, what makes each of us different is the recollection we have of our lives. We remember ourselves in certain ways—having done particular things at particular times. If we were to develop amnesia, as is depicted sometimes in the movies, we would not only not know our names, we would not know what to expect of ourselves in the future because we would not remember how we behaved in the past.

 Obviously, psychotherapy is an attempt to find meaning and purpose in a patient’s life. But how is that possible when memory is fallible? Under the influence of a therapist, or some other powerful person, people will remember things that never happened, including child abuse, sensations prior to birth, and encounters with visitors from outer space. More familiarly, we forget important experiences.  Long before anyone can develop Alzheimer’s disease, or a similar senile disorder, we—all of us—forget critical events. Still, it is important to know the truth even if we have to struggle to know it and even if we know it then only as an approximation of the truth.

I have always had a strange problem with memory. It is the sort of difficulty that would suggest a neurological insult if it occurred later in life; but I have always had this problem. I cannot remember names—or music. And I am a musician. In a way, everyone has trouble remembering particular names or particular songs, but I think I am in a class by myself.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

When I was about eleven years old I was sitting in my living room with my mother listening to someone play the piano on the radio. After about fifteen minutes, I commented to my mother that the music sounded familiar.

“You’ve been playing that music every day for the last six months,” she told me.

I have played the piano since the age of four; and I cannot remember a time when I could not play as effortlessly as I could walk across the floor. I used to practice the piano, do my math homework and listen to Jack Benny on the radio simultaneously. I could play and concentrate on other things at the same time. But if I had to stop playing for any reason, I would not be able to start again without going back to the beginning. When I was in college, I had a radio program playing the piano and I would regularly forget the theme song although I played it every Sunday for three years. (I might mention in passing that I never came across another human being who ever heard this program.)

My favorite musical compositions are the piano concertos of Rachmaninoff. I have heard the second and third piano concertos probably fifty or sixty times, but when I listen to them I cannot tell which is which.

My inability to remember names is just as striking. I learned all of neuroanatomy for a test and forgot all of it the next day. Although I am a writer, I cannot remember the names of the protagonists in my novels. I cannot even remember words that have only the vaguest character of a name, such as “toy chest.” But like other people with focal cognitive disabilities, I have learned to work around them.

Of course, there are others who forget things that one would expect them to know.  George Harrison was once sued successfully for plagiarizing a song. He composed “My Sweet Lord” not realizing consciously that it was almost identical to “He’s so Fine,” which was written seven years earlier.

There have been other such cases. Sometimes a composer who is being sued by someone for copying a song will defend against that accusation by finding another such song that preceded even that first song!  Music is subtle, and songs tend to resemble each other even as stories resemble each other.

I am under the impression I wrote a new song recently; but when I played it, someone in my family thought it “sounded familiar.”  Since—with my memory—anything is possible. I am concerned I might inadvertently have copied it from something I heard ten years ago—or yesterday. I have copyrighted the song, but I would like to know if someone recognizes it.  I play it here on what I am told is an “electric keyboard.” Forgive me. I think the song should be recognizable nevertheless, if, indeed, it has a prior existence.

song with no name

(c) Fredric Neuman Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog

Fredric Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital.

more...

Subscribe to Fighting Fear

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.