Friday, December 4, 2015

Memory 102: The memory game

Today I'm going to build on my previous article looking into how memory works, exploring some features that you might never have noticed before.  In this article, I really want you to play and explore along with me, and do some of the work yourself.  This is how you'll really get the most out of it!

What I want you to do, is to think back about ten years - to something you used to do quite regularly with a loved one, who possibly is no longer with us.  This event needs to be something you haven't done for a while.  It can be visiting a relative, training, anything.  But it needs to have been a semi-routine.

Last time  I talked about one such occurrence for me - going downstairs for breakfast when I used to visit my in-laws.  But today, I'm going to explore another set of memories ...

I've talked before about my grandmother who died last year.  I have such fond memories of visiting her and my grandad in Stoke, where we'd stay the weekend.

We'd arrive in the afternoon, and she'd be waiting for us, usually dinner was being prepared, and there was a smell of onions and carrots being chopped.  She'd always have plenty of cardboard and tape ready for me, and I'd get busy doing arts and crafts - building from my imagination.  The scissors were kept in the third drawer down next to the living room.  I remember the smooth way the drawer moved on it's runners when opened.

The scissors were heavy and black, made of cast iron, feeling cold in my hand.  They were well used, and flecks of paint were missing all over them.  The rivet which held them together was a little loose, but they worked well enough.  The sellotape was always a pain to find the end, and I can vividly remember the taste of it occasionally when I had to bite it.

As dinner got closer, I remember the hiss-hiss-hiss of the pressure cooker, the rush to tidy the kitchen, help grandad to bring in and set the table, and get the mats and cutlery in place.

In preparing this article, I've been revisiting this set of memories over the last few weeks and putting it under scrutiny.  It's an important one for me.  I suspect you have something very similar about your grandparents.

It seems pretty accurate because of the sheer level of detail in there.  But there's a huge problem - despite what I said, this is not a set of memories.  When I look at it critically and explore it, especially trying to find out different times I visited, I realise I don't have multiple memories - it's a SINGLE memory, a bizarre amalgamation of all my visits.  I've found the same looking at my fond memory of coming down for breakfast and talking to my father-in-law when we used to stay with him.

I suspect your chosen event is the same.  You need to look at the memory yourself critically.  Yes, you can remember an occurrence.  Here's the litmus test - try and separate out in your mind different occurrences of the same situation.

For my own memory, it's like a little helper goes "well if it was winter, I remember grandad coming in with a scuttle of coal and a scrap of worn carpet to stoke the fire ... but in summer we'd sit outside, and we'd got to the end of the garden where some of the trees were named after us".

Here's the thing.  You remember the core event of going to your grandparents (or whatever your chosen event was), and you remember some of the different things that happened in different years or in different seasons.  But your mind creates memories to order stitching together the generic memory of "when you used to visit" with a different aspect you remembered "the Christmas I had the Twikki robot".

Generally for a lot of regular events that we do frequently, we don't use up space remembering them.  We create an archetypal memory which is really a "drag and drop template" of "going to grandma's".  We then fill it with all the details of things we do remember, but we also fill in the gaps when we can't remember something.

I know this, because as detailed as my memory is, there are huge problems with the memories when I think critically about them.  During my time growing up with my grandparents they had the kitchen redone, including moving the scissor drawer.  But that's not represented in the memory at all - it's always by the living room.

And it's always the more recently renovated kitchen that I remember (with those smooth running cupboard drawers).  I remember their earlier kitchen unit was given to us, and we used it as a television stand/desk in my bedroom.  But I have no memory of that unit in their house, although I have memories that correlate to that period..

Likewise - my grandfather is absent from most of the memory that I've shared so far until he sets up the table, and for good reason.  Up until 1982, he worked at Chatterley Whitfield mine, and would appear part way through the afternoon.  But the mine was shut in that year, and he took retirement.

If think the year is pre-1982, then he's not present until later in the afternoon, appearing in his pit gear part way through the day.  And (I kid you not) he appears in the memory with his face all dirty, carrying a hard helmet and pit lamp.  Despite those lamps being given in at the pit for recharging.  However if I know the memory is after 1982, then "bing" like a genie of the lamp, he's present from the moment we arrive.

This just allows us to look a little more at how memory works - and those weird little bugs, which have always been there right under your nose!  We remember archetypal templates of events.  And we remember some of the differences - typically clarified like an episode of Friends as "the one where ...".  Then we just mix and match to bake "complete detailed memories".  The problem is, they might not be as accurate as we believe.

So far, we've old been talking about long term reminiscing.  Surely all this is harmless and inconsequential - surely this doesn't impact us at all at work?

How many meetings have you had this year so far?  Looking at how we've uncovered how we bulk together a lot of similar events under a single template.  How's your memory of individual meetings going?  Do you actually remember them?  Or are you mix and matching your archetypal templates with occasional "the time where ..." incidents (which dwell on the differences) sewn in?

How reliable is your memory for guiding you through all this?  Does it correlate with everyone else?  This should be a pretty scary realisation.  But don't worry, we'll explore this more next time.

Further reading ...

If you're interested in exploring more about this before next time, I recommend,


  1. Nicely explained. Here you described the well written article from your in-depth knowledge. Truly impressive and nice information

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