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Just because you can't remember where you left your car keys doesn't mean you can't be a great thinker | (KRT) Good news for the absentminded: Just because you can't remember where you left your car keys doesn't mean you can't be a great thinker.

That's because there's ordinary memory, the faculty we use to recall names, dates and other facts, and there's intelligent memory.

Intelligent memory, says Dr. Barry Gordon, is working for us all the time. It's the mental engine that powers problem-solving and creativity, that makes the connections that enable us to enjoy a joke or come up with a new invention.

Ordinary memory is what fails when we can't find those keys, he explains. Intelligent memory contains everything else we know about our keys, such as what they're for and what else they can be used for.

Intelligent memory is a critical tool - and one that can be sharpened, says Gordon, a professor of neurology and cognitive science and founder of the Memory Clinic at Johns Hopkins University. He was in Colorado Springs, Colo., recently to promote his new book, "Intelligent Memory." (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR. )

Mental athletes display their amazing recall of facts and figures at the annual Memory Olympics, but that gift doesn't necessarily help them in day-to-day life, Gordon says. Improving intelligent memory, though, can help us solve everyday problems and excel in our careers and relationships.

"To some extent, the stereotype of the absentminded professor is very true," he says. "You don't have to have a very good ordinary memory to think profound thoughts. In fact, it may hurt you to remember too much of the everyday moment to moment."

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Intelligent memory is largely an unconscious, lightning-fast process - so quick most of us don't know how to access and develop it, Gordon says. His book offers ways to improve intelligent memory, from sparking connections between ideas to enhancing attention.

Failure to pay attention is a problem for both ordinary and intelligent memory, he says. "People blame their memory, but really they never got it in there to begin with," he says.

Gordon also writes about the need at times to allow problems to simmer on the brain's back burner. This "incubation" lets the mind sift through buried memories and associations until an answer surfaces.

"If you're facing a problem and you can't make any headway," he says, "there are many good reasons to say, `Wait, put it down, do something else.'" don't know what they are or where to find them."

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© 2003, The Gazette. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services