Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


A Few Thoughts on Memory

Recently I was showing a friend a walking trail at a park I hadn't visited for at least 4-5 years, and in the middle of our walk I blurted out, "I listened to football here." I couldn't remember the exact details--probably, I believe, because it had happened multiple times and I was remembering more than one thing--but I knew without a doubt I'd had sports radio playing on my headphones while doing the same thing in the past. It was such a vivid sensation, I had to share. That wasn't the first time it's happened. I make a habit of listening to audiobooks on long walks, hikes, and runs. Later, whether it's the very next time I use that same section of trail or road or months or even years later, I'll suddenly have a vivid memory of a scene or section from a book I was listening to when at that spot previously. The physical location is somehow linked to the listening experience and the activity.

Those events seem to be spontaneous triggers for specific memories. The same can happen with particular smells, songs, and other sensory associations. More often, I'll be trying to remember something and coming up blank at first, yet I'll know the memory or information is rattling around in my brain somewhere. If another person is involved, I'll ask them to keep describing the situation in different ways, until they say the one thing that clicks and suddenly I'll have access to the memory. It indeed was in there, I just had to figure out how to find it. As a librarian, I think of it as needing to find the right keyword for my search to bring up the results I want. I know the the information exists, I just have to figure out how it was classified, labeled, and stored so I can find it, and sometimes I have to try multiple searches before I can figure it out.

I'm not crazy, because that's the way memory works. And once you know that's how memory works, there are tricks you can teach yourself to make it work better. The sensory associations are key, particularly images. When I remember the football and audiobooks on my walks, I'm not remembering the words I was hearing, but the images I created in my head when I heard them. Those images are linked to the images of my physical surroundings when they played through my head, so when I revisit the places the other images come with them. The human brain's ability to recall images is much more vast than most people realize, so if you want to remember something they key is to associate it to an image.

Joshua Foer describes his experience of learning just that in Moonwalking with Einstein. While observing the event for a journalistic article, he became so intrigued by the U.S.A. Memory Championships that he decided to enter the competitive memory world and a year later won the title. He found that memory masters don't necessarily have superior intelligence or innate talent, they just practice hard using the classic mnemonic device of memory palaces--remembered or imagined physical spaces in which you mentally place images of what you want to remember, so that by "walking" through the palaces later you encounter the images and remember what they represent. As I read, I couldn't help but be reminded of Christopher McDougall's Born to Run, because the two books are written with similar structures. Like McDougall, Foer describes how went from becoming aware of an elite group who compete in an unusual task to becoming one of them. Along the way he sought out experts and learned everything he could about the topic. Interwoven with his personal experience is stories about the unusual personalities and characters he met who compete in the field, an exploration into the history of the field, and an investigation into the science of the field, the human potential and limitations. I'm pretty sure I won't be building any memory palaces of my own, but I learned a lot of interesting things and had fun doing so.

After having learned how to memorize poetry and numbers, cards and biographies, I'm convinced that remembering more is only the most obvious benefit of the many months I spent training my memory. What I had really trained my brain to do, as much as to memorize, was to be more mindful, and to pay attention to the world around me. Remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice. . . .

How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We're all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say networks of our memory. No lasting joke, invention, insight, or work of art was ever produced by an external memory. Not yet, at least. Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and source of our character. Competing to see who can memorize more pages of poetry might seem beside the point, but it's about taking a stand against forgetfulness, and embracing primal capacities from which too many of us have become estranged. That's what Ed had been trying to impart to me from the beginning: that memory training is not just for the sake of performing party tricks; it's about nurturing something profoundly and essentially human.


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