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See Inside January/February 2012

Time to Forget




Photoillustration by Aaron Goodman

I sat at a piano in a sun-filled modern church. The audience—other young pianists and their parents—watched as I played the first eight notes of a piece by composer Edvard Grieg. At the ninth note, I froze. I tried again: da dee dee dee, da-da dee dee. Silence. On the third try, chords tumbled from my fingers, and the piece flowed from there.

That event at age 14 was scarring, and I soon stopped taking piano lessons. Two years ago, however, I revisited that dormant memory as the band I joined much later prepared for its public debut. Too bad I’m a terrible performer, I thought gloomily.

But as this month’s special report makes clear, recalling a memory also reshapes it. Memories are not preserved behind air locks in some squishy cellular vault. Rather they resemble clouds swirling in the currents. Change the conditions in which you remember, and the reminiscence twists accordingly, as journalist Ingfei Chen writes in “A Feeling for the Past.” In the mutable landscape of memory, a sharp mind must also delete thoughts selectively. Scientific American Mind’s Ingrid Wickelgren explains why in “Trying to Forget.” If letting things go is a struggle, the nuclear option—a pill to blot out the past—may soon offer respite, writes journalist Adam Piore in “Totaling Recall.”

Experiments on memory reveal how slippery our sense of truth can be. Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, experts on visual illusions, show how researchers exploit our error-ridden models of reality in “Mind-Warping Visions.” For a light take on our all-too-human inconsistencies, turn to “The Partnership Paradox,” by NPR’s Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman. You will learn why your beloved’s once alluring traits now seem so singularly annoying.

As for my botched recital, I no longer dodge the memory as if rotting vegetables were flying at my face. The problem, I now believe, was not stage stupor but my lousy practice record at the time. By rewriting that old memory to underscore effort rather than incapability, I shifted my sense of self—and my hopes for the future.

This article was originally published with the title "From the Editor."

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