Memory is a funny thing. Why do we immediately forget the name of a person we’ve just met? Why is the name of the last book we read just on the tip of our tongues? Why have our car keys somehow skittered away on their own? Is this kind of thing normal or could it be (sharp indrawn breath) a sign of aging?
I’m in the middle of Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, in which the author explores the “art and science of remembering everything.” I don’t read a great deal of non-fiction, but this fascinating and well-written book has kept me captivated from the start. The most interesting premise (and one I’ve actually been able to remember) is that humans are very, very good at remembering spatial details, humorous images, and anything to do with sex. Skipping the last two for second, think about the last time you visited someone’s house (even if it was for the first time). Can you picture the entryway? Do you remember the general layout? For example, I bet you can recall where the kitchen was and remember details even down to where the sink was in relationship to the refrigerator. We don’t try to memorize those things – they go into our brains naturally. However, less concrete information such as the series of random digits in a phone number or someone’s name just slip away like water.
One of the techniques used by contestants in the USA Memory Championship (and yes, that’s a real thing) is to associate something you want to remember with a vivid image in a specific location. Meet a guy named Mark Baker at your company kickoff? Picture him in a white baker’s hat carrying a loaf of French bread with a giant neon green check mark on it. Put him in your company’s meeting room or even in a toilet in your company’s bathroom (remember how humorous images work). There’s an image you’re unlikely to forget.
When you think about it, coming up with both a vivid image and a location from your memory is an act of creativity. And it’s what mystery writers do best – creating vivid images of people and actions anchored in memorable settings. Think about your favorite novels – Miss Marple in St. Mary Meade, Brother Cadfael in Shrewsbury, Kevin Corvelli in Hawaii. I think it’s why so many people prefer real books to ebooks. Having something you hold in your hands makes the words real. The location on the page (so intangible in an ebook) becomes a memory prop. How often do you think of something you’ve read and picture where you saw the words on the printed page? When I flip back through a book to reread a paragraph, somehow I know it was about two-thirds of the way down on the right-hand page. So…readers and writers have a built in advantage when it comes to memory. So why is my own memory so poor?
I think it boils down to paying attention. Half the time, I’m “multi-tasking” – by which I mean I’m thinking about one thing (often a plot twist or character) while I’m doing something else. So I walk into the house and drop my keys in the mail pile. I don’t “forget” where they are – I’m just unaware where I put them. The same goes for meeting people. I’m too worried about remembering my own name or I’m distracted by everything else that’s happening. I don’t take the time to focus on a face, to transform the new name into a vivid image in a memory place. The good news is that, according to Foer anyway, practice really does help your memory improve. For me, I think practicing being present – being aware of the here and now, concentrating on what I’m doing or who I’m meeting instead of on my own inner world would be of enormous value. So that’s what I’m going to do…right after I work out this one hitch in my latest plot.