Everyone has found themselves in a part of their house having forgotten why they went there. Most people have discovered that the way to remember is to retrace your steps to the place where you had the thought. Memory is strongly linked to location.
When I was 34 I flew out to Iran as one of a multi-nation team. I was introduced to other project members, two of whom were from Canada and flying back to London the next day. To help their visit I suggested that they meet my boss – and found that I couldn’t remember his name! Over the next few years I became familiar with the phenomenon: while in the USA I had difficulty recalling UK data; while in the UK, US information was slow to recall.
A bunch of psychologists took some volunteers to the bottom of a swimming pool and taught them stuff. Back on dry land they tested poorly. Returned to deep water where they had done the learning, results were noticeably better.
Niko Tinbergen won a Nobel Prize, amongst other things, for figuring out how a stickleback, a tiny fish with a brain to match, could find its way back to its spawning ground. He coined the term ‘block and release’ for the way that the fish remembered the trip roughly 100 meters at a time. At the end of a stretch, some marker triggered access to the next block of information and the release of the last lot. Mother Nature re-invents useful techniques. It wouldn’t be surprising if we were designed the same way.
The way our memories perform, or rather – don’t, is interesting to a 30-something but if you are 60-something you start worrying about the early onset of Alzheimer’s. Am I losing it? Is this the beginning of the slippery slope?
And nothing screws up your memory like imagining that your memory is screwed up.
Both my son and my wife were born with photographic memories. I say ‘born with’ because that facility fades, or at least it did with them. Picture the library of their heads filling up with every day’s recordings. Over the years it must get more difficult to surface the memory you want. In his late forties my son began to rely on me to remember things. Now he’s got used to waiting for the memory to ‘pop’ to the surface and is no longer panicked that he has lost it.
I’ve been playing that game for longer but then I’ve got 20 years more stuff in my head and I never had a great memory to start with. These days I have to wait for large tracts of memory to surface. ‘What did you do last summer?’ Hang on a minute, or two, it will come back to me. (Or it has so far.)