Username or Password Incorrect. #! @&*% (pardon my expletive). OK, which is it? Is the username or the password incorrect? Retrieve username. OK, that’s correct, so it must be the password. I’ll just click on “forgot password.” Wait. No. I don’t want to create a new password! Why am I not able to retrieve the password? OK, I guess I need to jump through the hoops. I’ll use the password I thought it was. WHAT?! I can’t use a previous password? But, when I tried to log in, you told me my password was incorrect! My new password is required to be a minimum of eight characters with at least one uppercase letter, at least one lowercase, a number, and a special character—but the special character may not be @ or # and I must enter it using my toes while standing on my head. OK, I made up that last part, but the rest of it is pretty spot on.
This wasn’t meant to be a rant but it feels good to get that out of my head. I need to save that space for more important things. I’ve been walking down memory lane recently and noted with friends how it’s funny that we can remember things from childhood, such as our previous addresses or our first phone number, but can’t seem to remember current passwords that are necessary for life as we know it.
What is going on in our brains that we have the ability to recite song lyrics verbatim but when we need important information in the moment, it’s just crickets?
The science of memory
There are three stages in the memory process: encoding, storage, and retrieval (Melton 1963). Encoding is the initial learning of the information, storage refers to maintaining that information over time, and retrieval is the ability to access and recall that information. Memories are created with the reactivation of neurons in your brain. That, coupled with your experiences, forms the memory.
There are many theories about the types of memory. Some researchers suggest that rather than types, like the process, there are stages. In this view, you begin with sensory memory, which transitions to short-term memory and then may become a long-term memory. Every time we would give someone our phone number, in the days before everyone had a cell phone, we had to say our number out loud. While doing so, we would hear ourselves saying it, which created an echoic memory. An echoic memory involves sound and hearing. We did this over and over throughout the years, to anyone that we wanted to give our number to, that is, unless we wrote our phone number down to give to them. Writing it down created a haptic memory. A haptic memory is associated with the sense of touch. Between repeatedly saying it or writing it, the repetition created a long-term memory. That is why you can still rattle off that phone number even though you haven’t used it for years— or in my case, decades.
Modern memory hurdles
But why is it so hard to remember that password you need right now? Firstly, you never say it out loud. So, orally verbalize things you want to remember. You keep that password to yourself because revealing it could wreak havoc upon your life. If you write it down, it is only the one time when you created it, and only because you were afraid you wouldn’t remember. Write down things that you want to commit to memory. To complicate matters, we are supposed to use a different password for every single thing that requires a password, which is basically EVERY SINGLE THING! Repetition aids in cementing memories. Lastly, your brain knows it is useless to commit that password to long-term memory; for the sake of cybersecurity, you are forced to change your password when you are least expecting to do so. When that occurs, the requirements to create new passwords keep getting more complicated. Thus, it is proof that it’s not us. Our memory and brain are fine. It’s a jokester techie out there having a laugh at our expense.
That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
Contributing writer Denise Lum is a Health and Fitness Coach raising her family in Alameda. Contact her via [email protected] or FitnessByDsign.com. Her writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Denise-Lum.