Where'd We Leave That Darn Fact?

(By Danny Rothenberg)
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 11, 2007

Ever wonder why we remember what we remember? Why we recall some things and draw a blank on others? A lot of times, we forget the tiny things: where we tossed our house keys, where we parked the car, the names of the next-door neighbors, our umpteen computer passwords. Occasionally, we forget the huge ones: our wedding anniversary, where we hid the bearer bond, our heart medicine.

"The true art of memory," Samuel Johnson said, "is the art of attention."

The words resonate as the perjury trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby unfolds. "This is a case about memory," Libby's attorney Ted Wells said in his opening argument. "It's about recollection."

Wells will probably emphasize that notion when the defense presents its case beginning tomorrow.

Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, on the other hand, told the jury: "This is not a case about bad memory. This is not a case about forgetfulness."

This, Fitzgerald said, is about the fact that Libby lied.

Is Libby -- a man with enough discipline and organizational skills to be Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff -- a liar? Or is he as forgetful as he says he is?

"You will learn from employees who worked with Mr. Libby, that Mr. Libby was known in the office as having a bad memory," Wells told the court. "It was known. It was common. He was smart as hell, but he did not have a good memory."

Libby says he remembers some things vividly. Others he says he forgets. And still others -- like learning from Cheney that Ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the Central Intelligence Agency -- Libby says he remembered, then forgot, then remembered again.

How would that work?

* * *

First, a lesson in how memory works from Michael Ullman, a neuroscientist at Georgetown University. What we think of as human memory, Ullman says, is actually declarative memory. (There are other types, such as procedural memory, which we use when riding a bike.) Within declarative memory, there are two subsets: semantic memory and episodic memory.

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