Men’s brains aren’t cut out for detailed memory

GREG BEAN

Whenever my wife and I take a romantic walk down memory lane, remembering our years together as a couple, it always feels a little like tiptoeing through a minefield. One wrong step and BOOM! – you’re blown clean off the river.

We’ll be looking into each other’s eyes, and she’ll ask something innocent-sounding like, “What was I wearing on our first date?”

“Clothes,” I’ll say. “I’m absolutely certain you were wearing clothes.”

“That’s all you remember?” she’ll ask, but implicit in the tone of her question is the accusation that I didn’t think enough of her to remember exactly what she wore that fateful night.

“A skirt?” I’ll ask hopefully.

“Yes, a skirt,” she’ll say. She’s talking to a simpleton here. “A forest green, crushed velvet skirt with an empire waist, a sheer cream-colored silk blouse with a camisole underneath and brand-new high heels. I had on my mother’s cameo necklace, my grandmother’s signet ring, and I’d spritzed myself with Chanel No. 5.”

“That sounds about right,” I’ll agree, the data retrieval function of my brain whirring so desperately that small wisps of smoke are coming from my ears. No green skirt in there, no silk blouse, no cameo necklace. Nada. To tell the truth, all I really remember was thinking she was the prettiest girl I’d met in years and wondering if sneaking a kiss during a slow dance would be over the line. “I loved that skirt somuch I wanted to be buried in it,” I’ll lie.

“What were you wearing?” she’ll ask.

“Pants?” I’ll ask pitifully. “I’m pretty sure I was wearing pants.”

Now she has me, and she’s gonna stick the sword of memory failure right through my gizzard. “You were wearing a black, western-cut shirt with pearl snap buttons, a string tie with a jade and hammered silver slide, faded Levi 501s, a black western belt with a moss agate buckle, and an old pair of black Tony Lama cowboy boots. There was a big scuff mark on the left toe, and you smelled like Old Spice.”

And that’s how it goes when we’re simply discussing our dating period. Forget it when it comes to fond remembrances of our wedding or the birth of our children.

For example, I remember that on the day we got married, the ceremony was in themorning,my groomsman (also the photographer) was so hung over all his pictures were blurry, we went out to breakfast, and afterward we went to my family’s cabin in the mountains. I remember I was wearing a brown velvet suit, because anything as ugly as a brown velvet suit is impossible to forget (we also have blurry photos of me in the suit). As I remember, she was in a dress (blurry photos confirm that memory) and had curly red hair that smelled good. But that’s it.

She, on the other hand, is a treasuretrove of trivia about our wedding day. Not only can she remember every itemof clothing we were wearing, she remembers what our parents were wearing. She remembers what my best man and my brothers were wearing. She remembers what the judge who performed the ceremony said to us afterward. She remembers what she ate for breakfast, what I ate. She remembers what we talked about on the way to the cabin (she says I was mad because she mashed my new cowboy hat in the back of the pickup). She remembers exactly what we ate for our first dinner asman and wife.

“Did we eat food?” I’ll ask.

“Yes,” she’ll say, ticking the items off on her fingers. “We had thinly sliced Virginia ham and your mother’s potato salad. We also had a vegetable plate, cheese, crackers, champagne with strawberries, and chocolate-covered cherries for dessert. You finished it off with three-fingers of Jack Daniel’s, branch water and two ice cubes. I had black coffee.”

Uncanny, right? But not unusual.

As a matter of fact, she seems to remember the minute detail of every second of our married life for more than 25 years. To me, it’s all a swirling cloud of nonspecific shapes. I’ve got the general outline, but the details are maddeningly hazy. For years, there were many times I thought this ability of hers was supernatural and more than a little scary.

Sometimes, I wondered if it was normal, and I was the one who was damaged, cursed by a puny memory and doomed to spendmy golden years trying to remember the names of my kids and where I’ve misplaced my teeth.

After last week, however, I feel a lot better.

I was hanging around after work, drinking a glass of wine and trying to remember what I planned to warm up for dinner, when a segment on the NBC evening news solved this memory mystery once and for all.

As part of a series called “The Truth About Boys and Girls,” reporter Robert Bazell interviewed John Gabrieli, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

According to Gabrieli, recent experiments with CAT scanners and other scientific paraphernalia prove there’s a scientific, demonstrable reason for the differences in the way men (me) store memory in our brains and the way women (my wife) store memory.

In fact, it turns out we store those memories on completely different sides of the brain. Men, Gabrieli explained, store memories on the side of the brain where they can separate the emotions from the details. Women store memories on the other side, the same side where emotional feelings and emotional memories are stored.

Therefore, men remember the main event, but have to access a different hard drive for the detail. And if they happen to come across that detail by random accident, they might not remember an actual event to tie it with, since that information is stored somewhere else. Women, on the other hand, have it all mixed together in the same place, like a memory and emotional casserole, a slumgullion. For them, there is no memory of events without detail, emotional and actual.

Man, I don’t know about you othermale readers, but I’m breathing a sigh of relief. I’m not an insensitive goon after all. I’m just a guy with a normal brain. If I remembered all that emotional detail, then we’d have a problem, but it turns out I’mas normal and unremarkable as Cream of Wheat.

And the next time she asks me what she was wearing – say on our first anniversary – I’ll be able to say with absolute candor, “I haven’t a clue, Darlin’, and I’ll take a CAT scan to prove it.”

Thanks, Professor Gabrieli. As qualityof life research goes, yours was a peach.

Gregory Bean is executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.