Friday, 21 May 2010

Thanks For (Some Of) The Memories

I've been thinking about memory. I read somewhere about the relationship between sleep and memory, how sleep is the time that short term memory gets filtered and moved into long term memory, and how this is the reason that those who don't sleep properly have difficulty remembering things. Dreams are apparently the result of rounding errors in the process, as memories don't quite fit into their allotted places and random visual images are generated.

If only there were a way of defragging long term memory, purging it of things that are no longer relevant and re-ordering it to make finding the relevant files more efficient.

I think there are three main categories of long term memory.

Firstly, there are one-off events of significant emotional content. The sight of my wife on our wedding day, swathed in black lace on a beach in Hong Kong, flanked by seven bridesmaids in the colours of the rainbow. The feel of my new-born daughter balanced on my arm (she didn't reach from my hand to my elbow), crying with virgin lungs (I would never again be so relieved to hear her cry). The involuntary loosening of the sphincter as I wore a Confederate flag T-shirt at 10 (I liked 'the Dukes of Hazzard') and a bunch of 18 year old skinheads told me how they liked beating up rockabillies (I had no idea what one was, but assumed they were talking about me). The sound of 'I want to know what love is' playing at a school disco, as my 15 year old self finally got to dance with the long-adored Diane Bradley. They're all big moments in someone's life, and will always be in long term memory, whether you want them or not.

Then there are memories that just stay because of repetition. I dread to think how many advertising slogans and jingles are here. I know that the current 'Go Compare' one will do the same, and the meerkats with their 'simples'. Without having any control over it, these inane adverts will be added to the mnemonic file already containing 'nice one Cyril', 'watch out, there's a Humphrey about', 'choc ice and chips? Don't tell your mother', 'if you see Sid, tell him', 'it's too orangey for crows' and a thousand others, even the family who base their entire existence around a humble stock cube. These are the ones I'd dearly love to get rid of, to make room for things like when the dustmen come, or when my direct debits come out of my account. I'd love to know those things.

Repetition would also cover work-based things, once you learn the system of doing something, and do it for long enough, you never forget it. It also covers numbers. People I rang regularly when I had to dial a number I still remember and probably always will. The sterling / Hong Kong dollar exchange rate on 31 December 1989 was 13.983. I will never forget that because I worked at the HongKong and Shanghai Bank and had to convert every single balance to Hong Kong dollars so I could report back to Hong Kong for the year end. So I typed that number into an old electric calculator literally thousands of time.

I think the third type of memory is those where you really think about something in a highly focussed way. When I used to write computer programs for a living, I used to get totally absorbed by them. It would be a physical effort to come back to the real world. But because I put so much of myself into them, I never forgot anything about them. I had sites where I would go back and change something I'd written 5 years earlier, and as soon as I saw the code, it would all come flooding back.

I think the reason kids seem to have good memories is that they have less to remember, less irrelevant crap to wade through before they find an answer, less competing opinions to make them doubt they have the answer. How much happier would we be if we could just jettison some old and irrelevant memories and give us something more like the memory of a child, still keeping our adult experience but letting us view the world with a child's simplicity and directness. And if brains really are like computers, they will certainly run better if they aren't filled to capacity.

1 comment:

  1. If there was a medical procedure available to defrage, i would not hesitate.

    One of my "grumpy old women" type gripes is that we are bombarded, to the point of being brainwashed, by the media, especially product advertising, on the Internet, TV, Radio, Billboards, Magazines, Newpapers.
    Everywhere we look there is information going in, as the eyes go about their data input, add to this our ears, and all the data they input, and likewise with the rest of our senses. The human has evolved yes, but are our brains, or nervous systems really designed to cope with this much external stimuli.

    It is a well known fact that stress related illnesses are on the increase, and have been for some time, and it seems to me that the more technology we have available, the more we plug ourselves into. What if, like a hardrive we burn ourselves out through overload. How do we know that our currant way of living, with everything portable, phone, music, internet, work office, etc, often all in one small gadget, and us permanantly attactched to it, isn't going to fry our brains.

    How often do we turn it all off and just relax, how often do any of us sit in silence, or go somewhere quiet to think, to re-connect with ourselves, or simply just to be. I fear we are mostly connected to a gadget, rather than to ourselves, or our loved ones.

    In how many households is it now the norm for each individual family member to be in a separate room, doing a solitary activity?

    In my house i try to make sure we have family time, times we do things together, If the TV is on, ie we are watching something as a family, then i mute the adverts immediatly. We have time with all the gadgets switched off, time to be creative and use your own minds rather than have it all laid out for us, and i encourage alone, but quiet time, a chance for body and brain to breathe. But due to the amount of input, it can take days of having a break just for our minds to process the data already taken on board, it is always playing catch up. This causes havock with remebering, for instance, why you went to the shop, and you then buy bread when you wanted milk for your tea (or is that just or what day your direct debit goes out! or which appointment is on which day at which time and at which venue, am. It can also cause problems with sleep, and dreams, especially when we are plugged in and stimulating our brains right up until (and often beyone) bedtime!

    So be kind to your mind, and give it regular breaks from technolgy, and regular contact with your fellow human beings face to face, and quiet time's good for you!

    And so to bed, to rest my weary head, for fear that all this thinking, writing and being wired to the net, might blow a fuse, or cause a short circuit.