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Opinion Shapers

Steve Unger

This column may be doomed from the get-go. It was supposed to be an article about the power of the human memory, but I forgot what I was planning to write. Seriously, no joke. I’m not trying to get a cheap laugh: I truly did forget what I wanted to include. Darn. Let’s try retracing our steps, like many of us do when we forget where we left our keys, glasses or shoes.

My idea for this topic was inspired the other day by a conversation with my wife. She casually asked me if I remembered some certain restaurant we went to years ago, and I responded with, “Yes, that’s where . . .” and then I mentioned a bad memory I associated with that particular evening. (To be honest, I’ve also forgotten the name of the place or what my unpleasant experience was.) Well, she bristled slightly and said, “Why do you do that? Why remember the bad parts?”

Tough question. I guess my answer should have been something like, if we’d had a nice time there, then I’d have a good memory of it now.

Isn’t that human nature, though? When something nasty happens to us, that event sticks in our minds. But it’s technically no harder or easier to recall than a great memory, is it? It’s like the old joke, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the show?” Trauma is funny that way.

Shortly after that exchange with my wife, two other related incidents lent themselves to the fodder for this article.

I was talking to my 21-year-old son about some contemporary band we heard on the radio, and he confessed he had stopped listening to popular music after my heart attack last summer. He was afraid that if he discovered a new song he liked, he would forever associate it painfully with his father’s near-death episode. Once I recovered, the deal no longer applied, but I could see his point.

Then I read a magazine article which discussed how a person’s attitude can affect the ways his or her brain processes memories. In other words, people who are naturally happy and upbeat are more likely to have good memories in general. Really? On the other hand, people who are innately grumpy often show a greater tendency to remember unhappy things.

I wonder what criteria the researchers used to qualify the participants and compile their data. Would they start out by asking respondents if they were happy people? How do you define such a vague concept? Maybe it depends on when the questions were asked. Most of us were pretty happy after Game Six of the 2011 World Series. Some folks are thrilled when it snows; others hate it. But even happy people have bad days and associated bad memories. That’s just life. Like my son and the timing of his music, things we normally enjoy can be tainted by unpleasant circumstances.

For example, most people probably have good memories of their honeymoons. Then there’s my spin. Of course, I fondly remember going off with my newlywed bride, but what usually comes to mind for me was the string of bad luck we had after running out of money. We’d been married for six days, and we suddenly had to sleep in our rental car and beg for stale muffins for breakfast.

There’s actually more to the tale than that and we laugh about it now, but does it mean I’m a naturally unhappy person because those bizarre events are the lead story in my honeymoon memory book?

I’ll leave you with one more quick anecdote. I had a college psychology class that addressed concepts like these, and one day the teacher asked all of us to anonymously write down what our very earliest memory was. He then read them aloud and kept a running score on the blackboard, rating each memory as good or bad.

He picked up one of the student’s notes which said, “My earliest memory was accidentally knocking my cousin down the stairs when we were 4 years old, and breaking her arm.” The teacher turned around to add another tally mark to the “Bad” score total, but then a mousy little guy in the back of the class blurted out, “Oh, no, sir, that’s a good memory. I hated that little brat!”

Steve Unger has been professionally writing for 30-plus years to help companies sell stuff. His Journal columns are a labor of love to salute the people, places and charm of St. Louis. If you’d like to share a memory of St. Louis or just drop him a line, he can be reached at