I’m standing in the hallway before the exam, wet palms sticking to the edges of folded papers nervously worn and stained with coffee-coloured circles. My lips are moving in a litany, almost a prayer, of phrases and words which stand alone and bereft in the air; a listener would say that they make perfect sense in the combinations in which I’ve put them, but to my brain they’re meaningless. I can hardly dredge up the critical word for that one process of evolution – now what the hell was that word, it’s just on the tip of my tongue – I glance down to my notes and my eyebrows pinch together over the bridge of my nose as I realize that I’ll never survive in this exam so nervous. I put the sheets down and try to relax.
This was a common scene from my undergraduate years, a time when (unlike in graduate school) exams were a critical method of evaluation and connecting pertinent words to concepts was a requirement. It was during these years that I identified a major flaw in my memory; an inability to recall specific facts in relation to cue words. In its most severe state, this condition is referred to as “overgeneral autobiographical memory (OGM)” and is associated with depression (Gee, May 9th, 2011; Sumner, February 2012; Purse, April 20th, 2012). Essentially, someone struggling with an overgeneral memory will respond to a key word – such as ‘cake’ – with a grouping of memories, rather than a specific one: “I always eat too much cake”, or “My family never makes me cake for my birthday” (Purse, April 20th, 2012).
You probably know many people with an overgeneral-type memory. These are the people who, like me, struggle to make conversation around specific topics (e.g. the names of characters in a novel), navigate their way to familiar/previously visited locations, and can’t recall their to-dos without a written list. However, having an overgeneral-type memory is not always an indicator for OGM. OGM is thought to develop around two factors; 1) the person is vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and/or bipolar disorder; and 2) the person has suffered stressful events which the mind suppresses through focusing on generalities (e.g. in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder) (Gee, May 9th, 2011).
Depending on how one looks at it, an overgeneral-type memory can be blessing or a curse. For those who see it as a curse, training in mindfulness and meditation can help by teaching subjects to:
“…focus on moment-to-moment experiences and to accept their negative thoughts rather than trying to avoid them. [Mindfulness] may help by making people more tolerant of negative memories and short-circuit the impulse to escape them, which can lead to overgenerality” (Gee, May 9th, 2011).
I see an overgeneral-type memory as something to live with and be aware of when I make statements like: “I can’t remember the last time I felt relaxed/happy/enthusiastic/other emotional state”. Knowing that this is how I retrieve information in my brain in the process of “creative reimagination” helps me to curb downward spirals into the cloying embrace of negative thinking. In the narrative example above, not only am I struggling to remember specific facts and words, I’m also thinking that I always struggle to remember things during these exams, what if I sit down and I forget everything during this test?
If you, or anyone who know, struggles with these kinds of thoughts, perhaps making a ‘thought journal’ in which you detail your thinking patterns would be helpful. Simply writing down the pattern of your thoughts on any given day could be very insightful and assist you in identifying the problems, consequences, and solutions of your memory retrieval processes.