Remembering to Forget

by Terry Marks-Tarlow

As I arc toward the apex of life, I find myself more and more fascinated with the topic of memory. I don’t conjure up names so well, although truth be told, I was never very good at conjuring up names, especially compared with facts. But with age comes vulnerability, and so I continually check with my husband to make sure I’m not repeating myself. As a clinician, I’m acutely aware that if my memory goes, so does my professional prowess. Indeed, one way of defining any area of expertise is by its huge storehouse of domain-specific learning and memory, mostly of the implicit rather than explicit variety.

Recently, I revisited the work of Luria, an early neuropsychologist famous for studying one patient, dubbed “S”, year after year. “S” was noteworthy for being one of only a handful of people unable to forget anything. Every face “S” encountered, every turn of conversation, every series of random digits he ever memorized—every single detail remained lodged in his head for years, without significant deterioration of recall.

It is easy to see the benefits of such a mind—no misplaced car keys, no post-its stuck to refrigerators, no reviewing material more than once. Perhaps, it is more challenging to perceive the downside of such a prodigious memory. Yet, in my opinion, this downside is equally as significant. For “S” was forever stuck at a very concrete level of thought. He simply couldn’t understand abstract concepts, such as freedom, empathy, or justice. Nor could he partake in metaphorical thought.

Psycholinguist George Lakoff made a great contribution to our understanding of cognitive development. In multiple, brilliant books, he suggested the mind and brain remain intimately and experientially linked to the body through embodied metaphor. Children learn to communicate nonverbally first through embodied interaction with the world. Only by placing bowls on their heads, riding broomsticks through the air and talking to Santa through sardine cans do they begin to internalize the intricacies of our social world. This is the first rung by which all children bootstrap their way up the conceptual ladder. Only at higher levels can they put aside literal objects to enjoy the heights of abstraction and breadth of metaphor.

Whereas “S”  was brilliant in regurgitating facts and figures, his mind remained too cluttered with perceptual details ever to “graduate” into realms of meaning, truth, and beauty. Personally, I can’t imagine the loss of such rich realms, which brings me a newfound appreciation for the value of forgetting. As I see it, being able to forget (in a relaxed and not dissociated way):

  • Ensures I am not compulsively fixated on anything;
  • Indicates I don’t have PTSD;
  • Helps me fulfill Bion’s mandate to put aside memory and desire to start each clinical session afresh;
  • Clears the slate generally, so I remain more present.

Professionally, the more I focus on clinical intuition as my main clinical tool, the more I rely upon my own embodied perceptions and responses in the heat of the moment, and the less I worry or pressure myself to remember specific details. Instead, I trust that what I need to know or conjure up is an emergent property of the intersubjective moment. I can lean on context and the collective wisdom of the relational unconscious to arrive at what is most important.

And so, dear reader, I leave you with this question: do you think I’m rationalizing my own poor recall, or is it really worthwhile to celebrate the art of forgetting alongside the satisfaction of remembering?


terry-marks-tarlowTerry Marks-Tarlow, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Santa Monica, California. She teaches affective neuroscience at Reiss Davis Child Study Center and is author and illustrator of several books, including Psyche’s VeilClinical Intuition in Psychotherapy;  Awakening Clinical Intuition, which was nominated for the 2015 Gradiva Best Book Award; and, most recently, Truly Mindful Coloring (PESI 2017), which includes actual content for mindfulness and prompts for self-reflection.  Dr. Marks-Tarlow sits on the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles County Psychological Association, where she co-founded and curates the annual art exhibition, “Mirrors of the Mind: The Psychotherapist as Artist.” She dances, draws, does yoga, and strives generally to embody her values surrounding a balanced and creative life. For psychotherapy, study groups, supervision or workshops, she can be reached through her website: www.markstarlow.com

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