From repetition into memory

One of my tasks in my other life on the job is to serve breakfast to the students in middle school. Just imagine how cheerful most of them are at 7:30 a.m. Actually, there aren’t lots of them who come in, and it’s a rather low-key time of day without much rushing. That could be why I know most of their names and even their four-digit lunch number.

That impresses some of the young students, like the one I greeted by name one morning, as usual. Only this time he had a friend with him who wasn’t a breakfast regular. After I greeted him by name, my regular turned to his friend and said smugly, “See? I told you she knows my name!” And off the two boys went, after I’d been introduced to the newbie.

Knowing their names and numbers got me to again consider the art (science?) of memorizing. In some reading I did on the topic, I found out that memorizing is way different than learning something. Learning is when you get taught something-like the multiplication tables–while memorizing is when you remember what you were taught.

That must be what one of my college professors meant when he would tell us before a test to review our notes so we could remember what we already knew.

For me, repetition makes it easy to learn something. That’s why I can play 10-12 songs on the piano without music: these were songs I liked well enough at one time to play them a lot, and it wasn’t long before there they were in my memory bank.

These breakfast regulars whose numbers I know without checking have all come for breakfast scores of times. And if you hear someone repeat the same four digits every weekday for several years, it’s really not very hard to remember it. Sometimes I recall the number because of the way it’s said, the tone of voice or the mannerisms of the child when he says it.

And then there are the memories we all have, good and bad. That’s part of remembering, too. Why can we recall some things and not others? According to some reading I did, when something especially good happens, a chemical is released in the brain that helps us remember it. Good memories can grow stronger over time, while memories for unimportant things start fading away.

We do need to have strong memories for bad things that happen to us, too, so we remember what we shouldn’t do, like eat chocolate instead of spiders, for instance.

Like the piano pieces I still know, “memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.” the television show “The Wonder Years.”