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No mind retains consciously everything that has ever impressed it. It is
necessary that it put aside what ceases to be of importance or value and
make way for new impressions. We found early in our study that the
subconscious never forgets, but harbors the apparently forgotten
throughout the years, allowing it to modify our thinking, our reactions.
But the conscious mind cannot be cluttered with the things of little
importance when the more essential is clamoring. So there is a
forgetting that is very normal. We forget numberless incidents of our
childhood and youth; we may forget the details of much that we have
learned to do automatically; but the subconscious mind is attending to
them for us.

Do you know how to skate? and if so, do you remember just how you did it
the first time? Probably all you recall is that you fell again and again
because your feet would slip away from where you meant them to be. When
you glide over the ice now it is as natural as walking, and as easy. You
cannot remember in detail at all how you first "struck out," nor the
position of your feet and arms and legs, which you felt forced to
assume. At the time there was very real difficulty with every
stroke--each one was an accomplishment to be attempted circumspectly, in
a certain definite way. All you remember now is, vaguely, a tumble or
two, soreness, and lots of fun.

We forget details we have intrusted to others as not a part of our
responsibility. We forget the things which in no way concern us, in
which we have no interest and about which we have no curiosity. And it
is well that we do so. If it were not for the ability to forget, our
minds would be like a room in which we have lived a lifetime, where we
have left everything that has been brought into it since our birth. It
would be piled ceiling high, with no room for us, and with difficulty
only could we find what we want. As we grow from babyhood to childhood,
from childhood to youth, from youth to maturity the room changes with
us. We put off childish things. They are stored away somewhere, in an
attic or basement, or destroyed. And day after day something new is
added, displacing something else. In the case of the mind all these
things are stored and cataloged in the subconscious, and forgotten,
until some need causes us to look into our catalog-index and see the
experience again, or some association calls it back, relating it to
something new. So our discussion of the subconscious involved also a
discussion of memory.

But what of the things we must use frequently and cannot find in our
minds? What of absent-mindedness and faulty memory? In such cases our
minds might be compared to a cluttered room full of things we need and
want to use every day, but in confusion. We know where many of them are,
the ones we care most about; but we have to rummage wildly to find the
rest. We have no proper system of arrangement of our belongings. You
laid down that book somewhere, absent-mindedly, and now you cannot tell
where. You were thinking of something else at the time, and inattention
proves a most common cause of poor memory. Perhaps you simply have more
books than the room can hold in an orderly way, and so you crowded that
one in some corner, and now have no recollection of where you put it.

Poor memory is the result of lack of attention, or divided attention at
the time the particular attention-stimulus knocked. You asked me to buy
a ribbon of a certain shade and a certain width when I went to town. I
was thinking of my dentist appointment. However, I heard your request,
answered it graciously, took the money you offered, still wondering if
the dentist would have to draw that tooth. And the chances are that I
forgot your ribbon. I was giving you only a passive and divided

Or I have more to do than I can possibly accomplish in the next six
hours. You ask me to buy the ribbon. I attend accurately for the moment,
think distractedly, "How can I do it all?--but I will"--and crowd the
intention into an already overburdened corner of my mind, fail to
associate it with the other thoughts already there, and return six hours
later without the ribbon. My sense of hurry, of stress, of the more
important thing to be done, or a reaction of impatience at the request,
forced back the ribbon thought and allowed it to be hidden by others. I
was really giving you only partial attention, or an emotion interfered
with attention; and I forgot.

Hence we find that a faulty memory may exist in an otherwise normal mind
when poor attention, or divided attention due to emotional stress or to
an overcrowded mind, which makes it impossible to properly assort its
material, interferes.

Again, we forget many things because they are unpleasant to remember. We
have no desire, no emotional stimulus to make us remember; or because
some of the associations with the forgotten incident are undesirable.
We forget many things because if we remembered them we would feel called
upon to do some unpleasant duty. You forgot your tennis engagement with
B, perhaps, because you were so engrossed in a pleasure at hand, or in
your work, that anything which interrupted was, under the circumstances,
undesirable. You may have wanted very much to play with him, but some
more pressing desire--to care well for your patient, or to continue the
present amusement--was stronger. Or you forgot because you did not want
to play with him and had no excuse to offer at the time. You wished to
forget. Perhaps he does not play a good game, or you do not like him, or
at least you like some one else much more, and he happened along; so you
forgot B. The unconscious mind saw to it that something else was kept so
prominently before your attention that it could not return to the less

Thus a forgetting may be purely the result of an emotional interference
which makes it, all in all, more pleasant to forget than to remember. If
we would help ourselves or our patients whose memories are faulty, and
who make them worse by their continual fretting over their disability,
we must train ourselves to be willing to forget all that does not in the
least concern our interests or those of the people about us, and does
not add anything desirable to our knowledge. Thus we may avoid
overcrowding the mind. But when we would remember let us give our whole
active attention at the moment of presentation of the new stimulus, and
immediately tie it up with something in past experience; let us
recognize what it is that we should remember, and call the reinforcement
of will, which demands that we remember whether we want to or not.
Sincere desire to remember will inspire early and frequent recalling,
with various associations, or hooks, until the impression becomes
permanent. The average patient's poor memory is made worse by his
agitation and attention to it, and his conviction that he cannot
remember. The fear of forgetting often wastes mental energy which might
otherwise provide keenness of memory. If the nurse ties up some pleasant
association with the things she wants the sick man to remember, and
disregards his painful effort to recall other things, then--unless the
mind is disordered--he will often find normal memory reasserting itself.

We shall consider this question of memory in more detail in a later
chapter of practical suggestions for the nurse.

Next: The Place Of Emotion

Previous: The Normal Mind Instinct

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