Question of the Day, August 1, 2, 2015 Your Secret to Memory

What is the secrets to memories?

Interesting how memory varies, what we can easily recall and how memories relate to each other.

I find it easy to recall where things are in space. I can recall exactly where I put something, but if someone else moves it even an inch from where I put it, it is lost to me, and I have to start a systematic grid search to find it.
I used to be very good with numbers – you didn’t want to play blackjack against me, I could easily count 2 decks and recalculate probabilities on the fly, 4 decks was trickier but I perfected that too.

I could draw a map of the major highway network in this country, and I’m reasonably confident I would get all the corners in sequence (at least for the two sections I use most often – about 300 miles) and quite possibly for the whole thousand mile length of it – I drive a lot of miles). I’ve driven close to 2 million miles, and I love driving.

Recalling people’s names I find really difficult. I will know the instant I see them where I met them and where they are from, but it can take a long time before their name comes to mind (usually about 5 minutes after they have gone).

Ailsa is completely different.
She has no significant recall for spatial arrangement. She finds things by colour, and she can probably play about a thousand hours of complex piano works (including single works lasting 90 minutes) from memory and note perfect. She has 50 years of 4 hours a day practice.

My colour vision is restricted to a circle about the size of my thumb nail held at arms length. So I can see colours like red and green if I look straight at them, but if they are just a little of to the side, they look the same to me. I caused great consternation with the examiners when I did my skippers ticket in 1978, and they gave me the colour blindness test. They would ask me which number did I see on a page, and mostly I saw 3 numbers. Most people can only see one of them. And I could see the one they wanted me to see, so I passed, and the others were just as clear to me.

And I have had instances of eidetic recall of people and faces, and it is not common for me.

I have a friend who has full eidetic recall, but just because he can recall the page of any book he has seen, doesn’t mean he has read them or thought about them prior to reading them back to you as a party trick. Very interesting chap. Perhaps the laziest individual I have ever met, and he can usually get away with it, between his memory and being very bright.

It seems to me that we all store memories, at several different levels, but often, as our distinction sets change, we lose access to them.
It seems we can store the raw data of perception, and that is difficult for most to recall, and that is what gives eidetic memory.
It seems we can store the model of reality that our brain creates from this raw data and our distinctions and abstractions, that is our experiential reality, and that is much easier for most of us to recall.
And we can store our experiential state, our emotions, our responses to experiences, the meaning and significance we bring to experience (our stories), and often we collapse the meaning and the experience into a single thing, which is not a powerful way to treat things.

It’s kinda like in a modern digital camera being able to store the RAW files (of perception ) and the much smaller jpg files (filtered down to the set of distinctions we use) and the story we have about the meaning of the file – the annotation we put as the descriptor of the files – and we think they are all the same thing, rather than recognising that they are three very different things.

[followed by]


I used to have a lot of those trauma memories.
One of the tricks that psychiatrists use is an aspect of our memory that is technically known as “destructive read”. What that means is that is seems that when we recall a memory, we actually destroy it, but our systems immediately write it straight back again, but there can be “leakage”.

What leakage means in this context is that our emotional state is not totally determined by the memory, there is also some influence from our surroundings, so that if we are in a safe place, then there will be some aspect of the safeness of that place that gets written back to the memories.
So the act of repeated recalling, in a safe environment, can take the edge off such memories and let us examine them in a more objective fashion, rather having us go back into a catatonic state each time. And the repeated recall also builds confidence and strength that we did in fact survive the incident and will likely survive anything like it in the future, and going catatonic probably isn’t the most powerful of responses (though in some instances it is).

So yeah – memory is a really interesting topic, many nuances at many different levels.

I was so terrorised by playground bullies as a kid, school was one of my most feared places.
Place after place (we moved a lot when I was very young) – the same thing happened.

Took me a long time, a lot of memory work, to come to terms with that. I did it myself, without therapist, often going into a state of shock that left me immobile (unable to move a muscle) for hours, but doing so in the safety of my own bed in my own room, until I could deal with every one of those memories (I was in my mid 20s before I got them all sorted, could recall any of them and continue rational thought).

And about 10 years ago I had an incident where I lost control for about 10 minutes.
We were driving in our campervan. A car sped past us, in rain, on a corner where he couldn’t really see. I moved over and made it as safe as possible for him. Ahead of us was a big stock truck and trailer. The car tried to pass it also, but there was another car coming the other way he didn’t see, and there was a head on collision. I was first on scene. The guy who was in the passing car was sandwiched between his seat and the steering wheel, and in a fairly bad way, but conscious, and didn’t seem to have any major breaks, just lots of blood and bruising. The couple in the car he hit weren’t so good. They were both laid flat (a doctor and his wife), both with major lower body trauma – many breaks (from the shockwave through the floor.
We were out of cell phone coverage, so I sent the next vehicle on scene to call emergency services, helicopter required, 3 seriously injured, and went to our van to get our medical kit. It wasn’t where I put it. That simple fact, of it not being where I knew it to be was enough to tip me over the edge, and I fell into a semiconscious cycle of searching for the first aid kit without success (we eventually figured out Ailsa had put it in the 4WD for a tramping trip a couple of weeks earlier). I was basically unconscious for about 2 minutes, before I managed to regain conscious control, and go out and direct traffic. I could not go back to the people (the sense that I had failed them just overwhelmed me). I sent the first medically trained person (a nurse in the 3rd car on scene), to help.
It took me quite a while to calm myself down to the point that I felt reliably in control again.
I had done what my first aid training demanded, primary assessment, call for trained assistance, contain the scene and minimise further risk.
Took about 30 minutes for the helicopter to arrive, and about another 20 minutes for other emergency services to get there (police, fire ambulance). I was on scene about 2 hours – standing in the rain directing traffic – slowing people down, creating as much safety as possible.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see
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