Is my problem genetics or just modern life? I forget

Shoba Narayan

Dec 7, 2010

Tom Cruise has been in and out of the UAE recently, filming the Mission Impossible sequel. I have a message for him. Tom, if you’re reading this, why not get one of those scientist guys on set to design, not a gizmo that self-destructs, but one that self-reflects. Allow me to explain.

I misplaced my library cards last week and have been turning my home upside down searching for them. As I scramble through bed linen, clean out closets and scurry behind shelves in search of the cards, I wish I had an Ethan Hunt-style sensor embedded in my fingers that could record the objects that pass under them. Whenever I needed to find something I have misplaced, all I would do is scan its memory to spot the location.

So, Tom, how about it? Instead of hanging off tall buildings, why don’t you help me out in this particular mission impossible: keeping track of ordinary objects in my everyday life?

As you might have guessed, I’m the forgetful type. My husband is not. Perhaps half of the human population is forgetful while the other half isn’t. In a cosmic act of retribution, those of us who are forgetful tend to be married to spouses with amazing memories, prompting years of marital jibes.

And after years of suffering, I have a piece of advice for all you smug, satisfied spouses who have never misplaced a thing: when your husband or wife comes to you with the question, “Honey, do you know where I left the car keys?”, control the temptation to say, “Think back to the time when you saw them last.”

You may think you are being helpful, but you’re not. If I could think back to the time when I saw my library cards or car keys last, I’d find them. I wouldn’t be asking you.

Forgetfulness has something to do with age, but not entirely. My husband is older than I and his memory is as sharp as ever. In fact, it’s getting better with age, perhaps because he derives such glee from pointing out my own poor memory.

My father on the other hand, lives up to the stereotype of the preoccupied, forgetful English professor that he is. Naturally, I blame my forgetfulness on the genes I inherited from him. Modern research might be about to corroborate that.

Studies claim to have identified a “liberal gene” and even an “altruistic gene”. A recent study published in the US-based Journal of Politics talked of a gene that predisposes people who seek out new experiences to be more liberal in their views. Naturally, the dreaded “liberal gene” was immediately featured on Fox News.

Meanwhile, German researchers at the University of Bonn have identified a gene associated with altruism in people who give twice as much money to charitable causes as those without it.

And if geneticists can isolate the gene that made me vote for Al Gore and give to charity, why can’t they discover the forgetfulness gene and, if possible, fix it?

Most techniques to combat forgetfulness boil down to the title of a book by the Harvard professor-turned-spiritual yogi, Swami Ram Dass: Remember: Be Here Now. If we knew how to be fully present at all times, so the theory goes, we wouldn’t lose a thing.

In my defence, it’s absolutely impossible for the modern woman to “be here now”. Consider this morning’s scenario at home: my house was in chaos as my children got ready for school. I was braiding my eight-year-old’s hair while she slurped down cereal. The phone rings and the security guard complains that our dog peed on the driveway again; the milkman rings the doorbell; my teenage daughter rushes up with a school question.

By the time I return to the dining table where my younger daughter is still placidly chewing cereal, the real question is: where did I leave that hair tie? See what I mean?

In an ideal situation, I would have ignored the phone and simply braided my younger daughter’s hair. No lost hair ties, no confusion. But that doesn’t happen in my life. Until it does though, I am going to try out an experiment.

In Ayurveda, the ancient Indian healing discipline, there is an exercise called trataka, or candle gazing. Simply put, you sit cross-legged on a mat and gaze unblinkingly at a candle until your eyes tear up. This practice is supposed to improve focus and concentration. Now, where did I leave that candle?


Shoba Narayan is a Bangalore-based journalist and author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes

Subscribe to my newsletter