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Barry Gordon, M.D., Ph.D.

. . . brain scientist. Dr. Gordon studies and treats memory and language disorders. He is a professor of neurology and cognitive science, founder of the Memory Clinic and holds an endowed chair to study the treatment of brain disorders at The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. His books include Intelligent Memory: Improve the Memory that Makes You Smarter and Memory: Remembering and Forgetting in Everyday Life.

Excerpts3:27 secs

      Memory is vast, resists aging and gets better with experience, says Dr. Barry Gordon, who studies memory and brain disorders including autism. So why can’t you remember where you put your car keys?

     Because in fact, there are two kinds of memory, Dr. Gordon says.  Both are constantly being built up, simultaneously.  One is our immediate “working” memory.  It deals with specifics and is very limited.  The other is a longer term, permanent memory based on associations, what Dr. Gordon calls our “intelligent” memory. Both kinds of memory are important, of course, Dr. Gordon asserts. But where working memory is inherently limited even for the healthiest brains, “intelligent” memory, where associations reside, is vast.
     Think of immediate, working memory as a tunnel which constrains the enormous amount of input our physical senses are constantly generating, narrows what we register.  Then consider the big permanent, “intelligent” memory.  Dr. Gordon calls it’s our “other mind,” grounded in experience, constantly soaking in sensations, whether we consciously remember the sensations or not.

     This “intelligent,” associational memory can actually be “tuned up,” he says. How? The number of nodes in our permanent memory increase as experience widens; simply having those experiences enhances how the brain searches the nodes; that then enhances how the brain deals with the results of searches. Permanent memory actually gets better the more we use it.

     So instead of obsessing over keys, why not play to our strengths? Dr. Gordon asks.  OK, first deal with our undeniable present day demands for absolute accuracy -- put those pesky car keys in the same place and so on. Then focus on our extraordinary, far greater permanent memory. “Just Do It,” Dr. Gordon urges.  Seek out new experiences.  Take a new route home from work. Read more widely.  Go somewhere new on vacation. Expose yourself to things with which you disagree and figure out why you do. Put a scientific common sense attitude to work, realizing that nobody has a hammerlock on truth.

     And beware of “multi-tasking,” Dr. Gordon counsels. It isn’t the cell phone that makes the driver dangerous, it’s the talking! Pay attention, he says, whatever the task.  Attention, along with sleep, are crucial to optimal function and to learning. Besides, when we are distracted, our mental shields are down and everyone is more susceptible to falsehoods slipping in when that happens.

     You will not see immediate benefits from expanding your experiences, even though the memories are forming. That’s because you’re not going to use that additional information or additional mental strategy right away. But you will. Mother was right, Dr. Gordon says. If you invest in your mind, it really will pay you back!

[This Program was recorded September 22, 2003, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Dr. Barry Gordon tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell that the parts of the human brain that control thinking, reasoning and perception, throughout life are profoundly modifiable --“plastic.” He explains how behavior shapes brains.

Conversation 2

Humans and other primates seem designed to learn, says Dr. Gordon, who describes at least two different ways we do so.  He distinguishes “procedural” memory from memory based on “associations.”  He describes how both work and how they differ, then relates today’s exciting developments in brain studies to humanity’s apparent course over eons. He gives examples of good science challenging its fondest beliefs and demonstrates the importance of everyone having similarly productive errors in everyday life.

Conversation 3

Science is formalized common sense and truth is provisional, says Dr. Gordon, relating a general need for appropriate skepticism to his scientific work on human memory. He distinguishes the inconvenience of forgetting where the car keys are to the generally far more important associational memory. Associational memory -- “intelligent memory” -- he reports, resists aging, gets better through experience, and can be “tuned up.” How? Add any kind of new experience and this memory begins to built and be enhanced. “Invest in your mind” turns out, he says, to in fact be an excellent strategy for expanding “intelligent” memory. He celebrates the great differences between individuals.

Conversation 4

Recalling that our ancestors’ lives were also challenging, Dr. Gordon speaks to what is optimal for us right now.  Sleep matters, he says, then connects rest, attention and learning. “Multi-tasking,” Dr. Gordon explains, has very high costs.  He expands with examples, including the dangers of drivers with cellphones:  It’s not the phones, he reports, it’s the TALKING that makes it dangerous -- attention itself is the critical factor.  We are all of everything we experience, Dr. Gordon says and amplifies.

Conversation 5

Dr. Gordon compares our ancestors’ need to remember approximately and associationally to today’s need for accuracy. Our memory is constantly being remodeled, he says, and explains the limitations of memory. An important lesson, he urges, is that even though you are confident of something, it may not be true! He urges people to “edit” out bad connections in memories and wrong modes of thinking. He gives examples of how advertising and others can secretly establish connections, urges caution, and encourages people to experience a wide range of ideas, experiences and perspectives.

Conversation 6

Distinguishing between immediate working memory and longer term permanent memory, Dr. Gordon notes that we build up the two simultaneously and use them in combination. He describes how useful the working memory “bottleneck” is between our senses and permanent memory, both of which have enormous capacity. He describes how propaganda works in the brain and adds a cautionary tale about the dangers of multi-tasking.


Our thanks to Dr. Gordon for his spirited response to the needs of those with autism in the face of its realities.  We are delighted by his enthusiasm for his work which offers the rest of us a chance to remember what is important. We also thank Dr. Thomas Insel.

Related Links:
Intelligent Memory, written by Dr. Gordon and co-authored by Lisa Berger, is published by Viking
You will find more information about “intelligent memory” at Dr. Gordon’s website expanding on his ideas.

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