Saturday, February 5, 2011

Do You Remember?

I'm currently in love with Nova Science Now on PBS. This week they did an episode on the brain which was seriously cool (mind control, anyone?), but the part that fascinated me the most was when they were talking about the computer that is going to be competing on Jeopardy. It really brings clarity to the wonderful way the human mind words, easily navigating puns and dual meanings a computer would have to be taught to analyze statistically. Thinking about Watson and his vast resources of data I got to thinking about the trickiness of human memory.

I have a "good" memory, but what that really means is that I just have a very particular type of memory. My particular type of memory helped me excel in school, but it also means I forget huge swathes of things... like almost everyone I knew in school. (One of my friends is constantly struggling to remind me of the existence of people I used to speak to on a daily basis.) The way my brain works is simple: Out of sight, out of mind.

I have a trigger memory. (Which means I kick ass at Jeopardy, even if I spend half of every episode ranting about how annoying I find Trebec.) Things get lodged in my brain in relation to one another, stored in spots and called up by triggers that set off cascades of information. But without the right trigger, I draw a big ole blank. I don't know why my brain works this way and luckily I find it entertaining rather than frustrating. (It also makes me rather an odd conversationalist because I follow some rather bizarre tangents, but that's neither here nor there...)

This kind of memory has given me an odd Achilles heel that I have to grit my teeth through. You see, I can't shut off the memory cascade. When I see/hear a trigger, I remember everything associated with it that's stored in my brain. This is fine in most circumstances, but it can add unexpected interference (like background static) to watching movies and reading books (two of my favorite activities).

I can't read reviews of movies I'm actually planning to see, I ask people not to talk about them around me - even if they think they aren't giving anything away - and I even try not to watch too many previews. (I'm one of those people who will walk out of a movie and be able to quote the two lines that were in the preview that hit the cutting room floor and never made it into the feature film.)

But my real problem is people who are just trying to chit-chat who give me their opinions of films. Harmless, right? I hate this, but you can't always plug your ears and yell "La la la la!" when it happens. I went to see the Fighter last week. The ticket clerk told me "the acting's really good" as she handed me my ticket. Innocent enough, but my stupid brain wouldn't shut up about it and I spent the entire movie with a little sotto voce conversation in the back of my head about why she focused on the acting rather than the story or the film itself. Was the story flawed? Would the ending be unsatisfying? Depressing? Why were Oscar movies often such downers? Was "good acting" code for "everyone dies in the end"? Did she usually focus on the acting (which was in fact quite good) or had she only mentioned that because there were a bunch of nominations for actors in the film? Pause to recall the acceptance speeches of Christian Bale (double pause for internal debate on the merits of "method" actors) and Melissa Leo. This segued into the analysis of actors playing real people, other movies set in Boston (hiatus for rundown of all movies by Ben Affleck or Matt Damon), other boxing movies with notable performances - which led to Million Dollar Baby which led to everything directed by Clint Eastwood and the question of whether the ticket taker would have called them good movies or commented on the performances therein. Did she have aspirations to be an actor? Or was she just the kind of person who liked to sound erudite and informed when offering comments on films and thought the acting was more high brow to comment on than just the generic merit of the film? On and on and on... being triggered over and over and over again every time there was a particularly effective acting moment on the screen. (Is that the scene that made her decide the acting was good? What about that one? And that one? Surely, it had to be that one.)

It's the same if it's something someone said to me weeks ago or something said five minutes before I walk in the door (though after several months it starts to fade). And it's worse when it's the opinion of someone I know.

Of course, it's the same with books. If you recommend a book to me, your words will echo in my brain as I read it. Which is part of why I carry books around with me for a while before reading them. To get distance from the people who raved about it when it first came out.

A friend's much-anticipated book released this week. I was in the Can't Wait to Read It camp, but now I find I will not be reading it for a while. Too many people have been gushing to me about it. I can't touch it now without being constantly reminded who sang which praises. In a few months the trigger won't be so fresh and I'll be able to ignore most of the hype when I pick it up. In the mean time, it sure looks pretty on my bedside table.

What kind of memory do you have? I know some people whose memories are strongly tied to emotion or who remember precise wording and others who excel at remembering sequences of events. I'm always stunned when people can remember what they did last week or last year on this date without having to look at a calendar. I know what happened, but the order and the exact date in the past often elude me.

Why do we remember the way we remember? Is it about focus? Can we train ourselves to remember things in different ways? Did you know there are parts of the brain that actually serve to suppress extraneous information? Do you wonder if perhaps we remember far more and in many more ways than we believe ourselves capable of? Do we all, perhaps, have photographic memories waiting to be tapped? Is this why a hypnosis subject can recall detail the conscious mind cannot?

The way the human brain works really fascinates me. So much untapped potential! This is probably part of why I'm so in love with psychic phenomenon books. There's so much we don't understand. So many things we might be capable of if we only accessed our own abilities.

Of deep space, deep seas, and the inner workings of our own craniums - which do you think will be the final frontier?

(You can watch past episodes of NovaScienceNow at

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