I was thinking recently about memory and how it works and fails to work. All of these are true events.
The initial phase of short term memory is less like memory and more like an extended perception of the present, there is as yet no distinction between what is happening and what has happened. I will call it nanomemory.
For instance, this morning when I was looking for socks I found one, placed it on top of the dresser and commenced to look for another sock. Less than a second later I looked on the top of the dresser and the first thought to cross my mind was “a ha, another sock!” and then of course memory kicked in to compare the present with the now-faded past causing me to smack myself in the head. I am a computer nerd so the those are analogies I find most apt. Perhaps it will work the opposite way for people who understand memory better than computers. This “extended present” is like the cache on a CPU. It stores things that are being worked on right now, in this very nanosecond. A lot of things are written to this particular sector in very quick succession, time is passing, I’m experiencing new things and all the while these data are being stored so to my nanomemory so my brain can work on them.
Next in our timeline is what I will call micromemory. This is the period within two or three minutes of the bit of data in question. My micromemory, at least in the aural spectrum, has gotten very good since it has been constantly stretched working as a barista. The need to have total recall for anything spoken in the preceding 30 seconds has honed this particular area a great deal.. The odd thing is, it doesn’t feel like I’m accessing memory, it feels as if I am playing back a recording. There is, as far as I can tell, no comprehension taking place. This is a good thing because I certainly don’t need a lot of grande lattes floating around in my head taking up space, heaven knows there’s enough useless information up there already.
The next segment is the short term memory, this is an area of immense fallibility for me personally. I imagine this bit of my mental landscape looking something like a game of layrinth, only with no walls, just a tilting plane with a lot of holes in it and memories are the marbles attempting to pass through. It doesn’t seem to matter how important a piece of information might be, in fact it seems that the great weight of a given bit of data makes for a heavier “marble” which is even more likely to fall through the holes. I’ve tried many ways of patching up these holes. I’ve tried to remember things by repeating them to myself out loud, writing them down on my hand, even making myself do mental checks every time I pass through any door just to make sure I haen’t forgotten anything. To No Avail. The curious thing, though, is that when bits of information fall through the holes of my short term memory they don’t just vanish, they plummet onto the vast plane below, which is my long term memory.
Here I will return to my geek analogies (for anyone who would like a good metaphor for a bad short term memory the closest I can think up is a corrupt page file, but that one breaks down). Anyway, my long term memory is like my hard drive. Coincidentally, my computer hard drives are one of the few things I like to keep organized. My music is impeccably sorted, my files are categorized and shuffled into neat well-named folders. This is also true of my long term memory. It’s pretty good. I can usually recall things stored there with only a little bit of searching. There is no conscious process for organizing my long term memory. Perhaps it is simply that when I have time between me and the memories then the linearity becomes more apparent thus providing a ready made filing system for the data of my mind. If you ask me who sings a particular song or who was in a paticular movie I should be able to recall it if the information has ever been presented to me. I wish I could get the same kind of organization for the rest of my memory.
More on memory will certainly follow.