Cheat sheet for patient with temporary short-term memory loss

This reminds me of one of my favorite movies, Memento.

A couple years ago, Redditor JoDiegoJo was hospitalized for a variety of unexplained symptoms — headaches, fever, vomiting, dehydration, and difficulty waking up. And then, to top it all off, when she came to in the hospital, she had lost her short-term memory.

After having the same conversation with her over and over, her close friend wrote this cheat-sheet to catch her up on the confusing situation that she was continually re-experiencing...

Funny and thorough Q-&-A note for a friend with short-term memory loss


  1. I’ve seen quite a few of these sheets, and they’re funny, sad, and scary to read all at once.

    One thing they all had in common was the response to a non sequitor remark. It’s funny on the surface, thinking that the person has a simple one track mind, but once you see enough of them, it becomes apparent just how deterministic our minds are. Same input to the same state will result in the same output. The illusion of free will shows itself to be an illusion.

      1. No. As far as we can tell, the universe isn’t completely deterministic. I’m saying that the human mind is very deterministic, and people without the short term memory to prevent retreading the same path over and over will. As individuals, we are deterministic machines. I made no claim about the universe as a whole being that way.

        1. Yeah, I am reading about the unconscious mind now (by coincidence.) I was just riffing on the idea of no free will and how many ways that can be interpreted. Apparently we are a story we tell ourselves to explain the actions of the underlying animal. Shades of gray there of course, most of them toward the dark end.

          1. Why not both?

            Shuffle a deck of cards, and deal out five cards. Those cards turn out to be a full house. Coincidence in the sense that it’s a small chance of happening, and predetermined in the sense that those cards were in just the right spot to end the shuffling at the top of the deck.

      1. If could safely, reliably, and temporarily shut off my short term memory faculties, I would love to do so for experiments. Being asked for a comment on a short article multiple times would be a simple way to run the tests.

        I wonder if knowing that I have retrograde amnesia would affect how my response would be. I have a scary vision of trying to say random things, and seeing nearly identical non sequitors in the results.

    1. I don’t know that this specific thing doesn’t have to do with memory itself. My grandmother does this. She has vascular dementia and some other complications. As a result she has basically no short term memory at all, and deeply impaired functioning. Talking to her, strangely, is a like part talk board and part parrot. She has a desire for the interaction, but you have to call and return along certain patterns because there are only so many things she can remember to say, or even observations she seems able to make. So she might say “That coffee was good” many times, should anything be there to trigger “coffee” to her. It’s like the last things she thought about it, or bits of memories, are still intact enough that she uses them to kind of patch together an interaction.

      Some times it really feels like what is happening is that the environment is triggering a thought that is on the cusp of something else. The way you might run your tongue over the gap where a tooth was lost, over and over, never quite finding what should be there.

      But then I think the idea and the sensation of free will are psychological phenomena. Probably necessary ones though.

    2. You know, I was thinking this same thing.  Having read a few letters like this, I think that upon learning I had the condition, my first question would be, “How many times have we had the same exact conversation?”  And I would be surprised if the answer was anything other than something like “50–and that’s your first question every time.”  I mean, unless something NEW is presented to me, why WOULD I expect my reactions and thoughts to be anything different than the times before.  Certainly there are subtle differences; position in the bed, degree of discomfort, whether I’m hungry or not, time of day, the position of the curtains in the window, whether there’s someone else in the room, what’s playing on TV.  But without any new information, the state of my mind hasn’t been altered in any way, so I would anticipate it to respond to the same way.  If it did, I’d actually be concerned.  Because then that would mean that I’m not in control of my own thinking, that the outcomes of my ability to process new information and act accordingly is at the mercy of some random process that I can’t understand or influence. Hell, any way you look at it, free will is an illusion.

  2. If that ever happens to me I’m granting permission ahead of time to write “Remember Sammy Jankis” between the forefinger and thumb on the back of my left hand.

      1. Man, I loved that movie.

        If that ever happens to me I’m granting permission ahead of time to write “Remember Sammy Jankis” between the forefinger and thumb on the back of my left hand.

  3. Oh, man, you could have a lot of fun with one of these cheat sheets:

    “Wait . . . ALIENS? I was kidnapped by ALIENS? And they hit me with an amnesia ray?”

    1. Somewhat along those lines, John Varley’s 1989 short story “Just Another Perfect Day” (Can be found in THE JOHN VARLEY READER, 2004).

  4. ‘No, your grandma didn’t speak in tongues, but she did sob.  You called her a dipshit.’

    Was that one of the questions:’ Is grandma speaking in tongues?’  ‘No, she’s sobbing.’ ‘ Dipshit.’  (over and over)  I think I might have left that one off the cheatsheet, just her to hear her ask, then call grandma a dipshit all day. LOL

  5. —Because it is VERY tiresome to have the same conversation over and over and over again with somebody who has short term memory loss.  At least that’s what they told me after I recovered from it.  

  6. This sounds like a grand idea, but it doesn’t always work — I tried it with a relative with these kind of memory problems, and they could read it, but they couldn’t really conceptualize that what was on the sheet applied to them — they felt it must have been written for some other person who’s not here right now.   And isn’t that odd, they’re having memory problems TOO!

      1. My understanding of memory loss like his is that it isn’t dumped at such a regular interval. Rather, if the context remains the same the span can stretch longer or if the context is very short then so is the span of memory retention. Of course there is a max span but I don’t recall how long that tends to be. An example of a context change is you open a door and introduce yourself. As long as you stand there (up to the max time) they will retain your name. But as soon as you close the door you and your name are lost even if it has been only a few seconds since you introduced yourself.

        So in Memento he could retain a memory long enough to tattoo it but if that memory was about a person he would need to write or tattoo it before they left and changed the context. 

    1. This is a common thing too with brain injury. And also the sensation that everything of yours has been replaced with an exact copy. Like, these are EXACTLY like the shoes I had right down to the smell, but these aren’t my shoes. That guy who came all this way to be here and is crying looks EXACTLY like my dad, but he’s not my dad. Etc…

  7. I had this for a couple hours once when I hit my head snowboarding, and apparently had exactly the same conversation many many times with my friends on the (long) way to the hospital.

  8. My wife once had that knock out gas that doesn’t totally put you out because you can respond to commands. When she was done she was asking the same things over and over. It was kinda funny.

    1. I have a ridiculously overblown gag reflex, and so when I had my wisdom teeth removed they tried putting me under with some specific kind of anesthetic that was maybe going to make it easier.  (It didn’t; they could barely keep my mouth open.  But I was unaware of the whole thing.)

      Apparently as I was recovering, I was talking all about the time I went to Cincinnati.  Nevermind that the closest I had ever been to Cincinnati at the time was Roanoke, Virginia…

      1. I always wish I got that silly from those things. But the worst I did was ask for some water. Why is that bad? My mom handed me a bottle of water. I tried to drink it without considering that my face was numb and basically paralyzed, and that my mouth was full of gauze and blood (explains why I was thirsty). I figured that out when I managed to pour the water in my mouth only to watch helplessly as it continued down my shirt. Now looking like I dressed up for a zombie run I turned to my mom who was laughing hysterically and said “Oh shit. But I’m still thirsty.”

  9. I often get the feeling, staring as I am at my monitor, that I am reading and writing the same comments over and over forever in some bland version of hell.

  10. Gene Wolfe’s fantasy novel Soldier of the Mist is a diary being kept by a man who can’t accumulate memories across periods of unconsciousness. It starts off “Read this every day”, but as it gets longer, it becomes obvious that the protagonist doesn’t have time to read the whole thing every morning, and is losing track of important details. 

    1. I’m wondering if the floor thing could be a symptom; one of my reactions to psychedelics is that floor patterns really grab me, at least if they’re over a moderately large area.  Or maybe they’re just shiny.

    1. I wouldn’t recommend such wishing.  It (having a catheter up the ding-dong) leaves you feeling a constant need to pee, despite the bladder being empty.

  11. The link below the item needs correcting.  It should be:

  12. Interesting order.  My first question would be about the kids (and they haven’t nursed for over a decade).

  13. My best friend in HS got a concussion and had this effect for a few hours; the worst/best part was that every time the nature of his condition dawned on him (every minute or so), he made the same bad joke.

    As for the 50 First Dates reference, I always wondered how she handled the pregnancy/labor they skipped over to get to the last scene of the movie – that would be utterly terrifying.

  14. So if I have 5 minutes of active short term memory, am I gonna want to waste 3 of them reading something like this?

    1.  Yes, because you won’t be remember that you only have a brief recall, and that list would presumably be of the questions you keep asking over, and over, and over, and …

  15. This reminds me of the index cards on keyrings I once saw that Ted Nelson still I presume carries around to assist his memory (not as bad as the OP I believe). Which apparently led to hypertext… 

  16. Off topic a bit, sort of. But one of the best halloween costumes I have ever heard of was a duo of friends. One was dressed as Pinocchio, the other guy wore a white shortsleeved shirt and tatooed himself up with a sharpie like the dude in Momento.

    In his front pocket was a picture of his buddy in the Pinocchio costume from just prior to going out to the bar, and on the back of the picture in sharpie was written “Don’t believe his lies!”

  17. He seems to be suffering anterograde amnesia, the inability to store new things into long term memory. I’m genuinely curious as to why people tend to call this condition “short term memory loss.” Any suggestions? 

    1. Hmm, is it because the things you hold in your head for five minutes—perfectly functional short term memories—then get “lost” on the way to long term memory?

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