I mention Ericsson's theory to AJ, and she becomes visibly upset. "I just want to call him on the phone and yell at him. If I spent that much time memorizing my life, then I really would be a boring person," she says. "I don't sit around and memorize it. I just know it."
Remembering everything is both maddening and lonely for AJ. "I remember good, which is very comforting. But I also remember bad—and every bad choice," she says. "And I really don't give myself a break. There are all these forks in the road, moments you have to make a choice, and then it's ten years later, and I'm still beating myself up over them. I don't forgive myself for a lot of things. Your memory is the way it is to protect you. I feel like it just hasn't protected me. I would love just for five minutes to be a simple person and not have all this stuff in my head. "Most people have called what I have a gift," AJ says, "but I call it a burden."
The whole point of our nervous system, from the sensory organs that feed information to the massive glob of neurons that interpret it, is to develop a sense of what is happening in the present and what is about to happen in the future, so that we can respond in the best possible way. Our brains are fundamentally prediction machines, and to work they have to find order in the chaos of possible memories. Most of the things that pass through our brains don't need to be remembered any longer than they need to be thought about.
Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter has developed a taxonomy of forgetting to catalog what he calls the seven sins of memory. The sin of absentmindedness: Yo-Yo Ma forgetting his 2.5-million-dollar cello in the back of a taxi. The Vietnam War veteran still haunted by the battlefield suffers from the sin of persistence. The politician who loses a word on the tip of his tongue during a stump speech is experiencing the sin of blocking. Though we curse these failures of memory on an almost daily basis, Schacter says, that's only because we don't see their benefits. Each sin is really the flip side of a virtue, "a price we pay for processes and functions that serve us well in many respects." There are good evolutionary reasons why our memories fail us in the specific ways they do. If everything we looked at, smelled, heard, or thought about was immediately filed away in the enormous database that is our long-term memory, we'd be drowning in irrelevant information.