Absent-Minded Professors

Most of us know somebody, often male, who can’t seem to remember details about things he has done or where he is supposed to be or people he has met and so on, but can effortlessly remember the physics or chemistry or math or economics required to explain some problem at hand — even though those courses were completed several decades ago. Men of this ilk can be extremely annoying to a wife who naturally assumes that if he really cared about her he would remember that they met at a particular restaurant, and would know that April 23rd is their anniversary without having to look it up, or — horrors — be reminded on the 24th.

I am travelling today, and over Skype I gave my son a laptop tour of my friend Magdalena’s house. “Nicholas and I painted this room together a few years ago,” Magdalena told him as we entered her living room.

After a short pause, I heard myself say “We did?”  Good thing she’s not my wife.

It turns out that it is possible to have lousy episodic memory but great semantic memory. Really, Magdalena — I’m not making this up. Episodic memory is memory about events — having met someone, having been somewhere, needing to be somewhere, etc. Semantic memory is about concepts. If tomorrow you explain to somebody the difference between episodic memory and semantic memory, you are using your semantic memory to do so. If you add that you read it in some guy’s blog, you are using your episodic memory. And if you explain this to your wife to justify having forgotten her birthday, you are using wishful thinking.

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One Comment

  1. Posted November 24, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Within a couple of hours I did actually remember painting that room with her. Better late than never?

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