The Metaphor of Memory

December 31, 2009

On numerous occasions, I have commented (or worse yet, others have helpfully pointed out to me) that I have a memory like a sieve, although I can easily imagine sieves all over the world taking umbrage at being drawn into that comparison. It would be easy enough to blame it on the natural process of aging, but it has been part of my life for as long as I can remember, which is something of a paradox if you think about it. This may have been passed down to me maternally, as my mother was always embroiled in discussions (she called them discussions; I called them arguments, as they inevitably ended up that way) about minutiae from her recent or distant past:

Mom: Remember when we went to Miami, and stopped in that hotel in Winter Garden, where the seals were in the swimming pool? It was in the summer of 1962.

Me: I think it was ’63, because it was later that year that President Kennedy was assassinated, but I don’t remember any seals.

Mom: Kennedy was assassinated in 1962, so I’m right. Besides, that was the year we got the new Plymouth and it was our first vacation in that car.

Brother: Um, Mom, actually Bruce is right; Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Have a look here… (he proffers the World Almanac)

Mom: (adjusting bifocals, perusing the page with consternation) Well, that’s just wrong! I know that was the first vacation we took in the Plymouth. And it was a 1962 model, I remember that as clearly as if it were yesterday… (which was to say, none too clearly)

Me: (patiently) Perhaps we didn’t take a vacation the year we got the Plymouth, and this was the first vacation, but a year later?

Sister: (chiming in for the first time) I thought there were porpoises in the pool…

Mom: (glaring at my sister) I think I can tell a whale from a porpoise! (I know, you’re wondering where the whale came from; I was wondering that too.) Just a minute! It had to be 1962, because your Uncle Frank was there, and he died right after that…

Typically there was no real resolution to these, um, discussions, and we kids all bolted to neutral corners at our earliest convenience.

I should point out that, in my case, it is not long-term memory that is at issue. It is the short-term variant that bedevils me on a daily, if not hourly basis. I can remember all manner of arcane factoids from my distant past: the date of the Battle of Hastings (1066); the name of the four little holes in the front fender of a Buick (Cruiserline Ventiports); the capitals of North Dakota, Burkina Faso, and Malaysia (Bismarck, Ougadougou, and Kuala Lumpur, respectively); the entire second verse of “Louie, Louie”, which I will not go into here and now; conjugation of irregular verbs in Spanish; the list goes on. What I cannot remember with any degree of accuracy are: the birthdays or anniversaries of any of my friends or relatives (I am doing well to remember Christmas…); where I put my keys last time I set them down; what I came out to the kitchen for; what I was supposed to get at the store that was so obvious there was clearly no reason to add it to the list.

I have a theory about this, a metaphor, if you will: I think it works like a water glass being filled from a pitcher. One’s brain is the water glass, and the pitcher contains the sum of all information (the water), some of which gets poured into your glass. For the first several years of your life, the glass doesn’t get full, so no worries. You just keep on adding information, and you can keep track of it fairly easily. Naturally this varies from person to person, depending on the size of the glass, the rate at which information is poured in, and so forth. The problem comes when the glass is topped up, and there is no room for one more iota of information. You can keep pouring the water in, to be sure, but it simply runs over the rim of the glass, spilling onto the table below. This, in my estimation, is what happens to my short-term memory; it just washes over the side, taking my keys along with it, and depositing them somewhere I cannot begin to recall. Long-term memory bytes are basically unaffected, as they have secured their places in the glass, and are not likely to be evacuated unless the new water (or information) is poured in exceptionally forcefully (such as when your boss says “If you miss the deadline this afternoon, Tierney, don’t bother showing up for work tomorrow.”). Those moments are anomalies, though; most of the assembled facts floating around in the glass are impervious to the threat of information displacement, and I, for one, can rest easy in the knowledge that if I ever appear on Jeopardy, I will be able to look Alex Trebek confidently in the eye and say “’Louie, Louie’ lyrics for $200, Alex…”

Happy 2009, all! I mean, um, 2010. Heh-heh!

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