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Learning to Forget – Tahirah Abdulazeez

It may sound weird but when I first met Tahirah, I was struck by how similar our thought patterns were.  We’re both nerds, scientists turned writers (or is it vice versa), and just the littlest bit dreamy. 🙂 We met at the Farafina Workshop, and I can’t help but imagine that even if we hadn’t then, eventually we would have. I present to you Tahirah (I also love her name) Abdulazeez. She blogs at http://avosilver.wordpress.com

Years ago, I was asked two questions that  resonated with me. The first was suitably mind bending, a philosophical trick question. The second seemed harmless.

“What is your first memory?”

Simple enough, but, it has been like one of those Chinese boxes. One answer or an attempt at an answer opens up a box with a smaller one inside, and so on until infinity.

My first memory is of a car accident. We are in a Peugeot 504. The car crash happens and we end up at the side of the road. It is the middle of nowhere; the destination had been Zaria, where my mother is heading to continue her Master’s degree. Also present are my grandmother, an aunt and I. The aunt leaps out of the semi mangled car and starts to freak out. My stern-faced, kind-hearted grandmother, a consummate disciplinarian steps calmly out of the car after her. She is tall, long limbed and her head tie is tipped back. She walks toward my freaked out aunt and slaps her hard. Not the patented back hand of a telenovela. A proper one, she lifts her long arm from the shoulder and brings it down unto her cheeks. My aunt gapes, her face wet with tears and immobile with shock.

Long after I had injected the memory question into every lull in conversation to shock it back to life, after it had veritably become a party trick, I ran this scene by my mother. She waved me away with a dismissive hand and irritated snort. “That cannot be your first memory; you were only a baby when that happened”

I must have heard the story so many times that it stuck. In my mind I was totally there, saw the whole thing, but it is a false memory. An experience may be fleeting, but the neurons that record them aren’t.  We help to keep memories alive by thinking about events often, stimulating the neurons, lighting them up. As this happens, over and over, a type of neuron-replicating protein creates first a network, then a blue print. In other words, what you choose to remember creates a particular type of mind and builds your cognitive architecture.

If memories are the building blocks of our personality, who we are, then the kinds of memories we feed, that we offer constant stimuli to, differentiates us, makes us individuals. You don’t know that this is happening, until one day in casual conversation someone mentions ATP and you have serious trouble remembering Krebbs Cycle, much to the shame of the A in Chemistry from 10 years ago. And yet, you have no trouble creating a vivid picture of a car accident you never saw. Or remembering the exact way the shoulders of three girls you had spent all night bonding with in the hostel close against you in broad daylight. Your mind has become a fort for memories of hurt and rejection, false memories and bits of trivia like, “a frog swallows its food with its eyeballs”. When you reach for something higher on the mental shelf, you pat uselessly at the dust and cobwebs for things you didn’t give your brain a chance to sustain.

People believe intelligence is a hardwired trait which cannot be improved upon. That even if you did find a way to hike up your IQ points using sophisticated or crude neurological techniques, the moment you stop, your brain resets itself.  It is not a muscle you can train.

Turns out it isn’t true.

Willing yourself to forget certain memories is like demolishing the rickety structures tented all over your brain. You have the chance to create a kind of sophisticated intelligence that lets you leap with elegance and speed from one piece of knowledge picked up ten years ago to a problem you’re facing today. You can build your own mind into something truly beautiful if you can just let yourself forget.


  1. I’m tempted to agree with everything in this post but then there is this subtle connection you keep making between memory and intelligence that does not sit well with me.

    I personally believe that a good memory is the lowest form of intelligence (and probably does not really qualify as intelligence at all)

    The ability to quickly understand things, synthesize new ideas and solve problems (in any field of endeavour) is what I would classify as intelligence – its like when you want to decide how ‘good’ a computer is. Regardless of its storage capacity (ROM), what allows it run complex software and do impressive things is generally the RAM.

    So yes, memory can built and improved upon, intelligence as well, but I do not think they are the same thing neither do I think they can be improved in the same way.

  2. Nice treatise, Tahira.

    First, your writing is like music. really lovely.

    Next, isn’t it amazing what wonders the brain can work? Man is yet to discover half of what the brain can accomplish. Still thinking about it all, effortlessly recalling a pseudo-memory you barely experienced.

    And now you have given me something else to think about. What are my first memories. I remember my husband once telling me that his were of his aunts and neighbours wailing at the deathbed of his mother, and he obliviously playing with other toddlers, in a world of their own.


  3. Awesome post. Hmmm… My first memory? I’m trying to make sure it’s something I actually remembered on my own, not something I’ve been told descriptively over the years 🙂 Still haven’t come up with anything…

  4. Nice post Tahira. Not ordinary in the least. I however tend to agree with Thintank on his assessment of memory and intelligence. Even though some people might call it smarts too. Being able to hold memory for aeons may lead others to believe in your intelligence but it actually has nothing to do with intelligence. I believe intelligence is more of originality than copy and paste.

    • Thanks for all your comments, means a lot.

      On memory and intelligence, there is a link, scientifically between the two. Developing your working memory is associated with learning and improves your intelligence in the long run. Working memory is impaired by distractions at the time of the learning experience, and may be impaired in people with ADHD and other learning disabilities.

      There is also another study that suggests intelligent people are good at forgetting things that have no value to them, and are thus happier, smarter. Not being able to forget is also a factor in depression.

      These two things led me to thinking, that learning, your working memory is affected by clutter, some of which can be emotional, and bothersome to learning. Hence this TedPost.

  5. I started reading and I have been writing down snippets from the article that I can’t wait to share…(copyrighted ofcourse)…..Great Piece.

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