Memory

The media tend to be highly conventional, if not downright stereotypical.  Once a person or event enters the news, that person or event will often continue to dominate the airwaves or front page for days or weeks until something strikingly new comes along.  And I have often wondered if people in the press were reading my emails when, in the midst of all the conventional tripe, a very different topic will be addressed, often with statements remarkably similar to what I expressed in a recent email.  That is especially true when it occurs with a day or two after my email was sent.  Some people might suggest ESP at work, and still others might find comfort in thinking of it as divine intervention.  Maybe I’m just a tiny step ahead of the media and most other people in addressing emergent issues.  Or maybe I’m just very good at spotting articles relating to things of personal interest. 

The latest example is an article on memory by Joshua Foer appearing in the New York times.  About ten days prior to Mr. Foer’s article, I noticed a couple of phenomena that started me thinking about the mechanics of memory, and I emailed friends to announce that I was embarking on a search for articles on memory research. 

The first incident involved playing a game online which entails entering all possible words of three, four, five and six letters from six letters provided for each round.  As the words are entered, they are posted on tiny sign boards on the screen and one of those signboards is gold-colored to indicate that when that word is entered, extra time will be awarded for finishing the round. 

To make the game more interesting, I often choose to enter that bonus word last.  Sometimes I immediately know what that bonus word is before I begin entering any words.  But I make a mental note to avoid entering that word until the end.  And if there are a lot of words, by the time I get to that word I find myself unable to recall what it was. 

The second incident occurred while watching an interview with a Hollywood actress.  During the interview, her husband was mentioned numerous times as “your husband” or “my husband.”  And I knew that I should know her husband’s name, but couldn’t remember it.  I did, however recall her husband’s sister’s name, and many other details about her husband’s family, but still failed to recall his name.   How is it, I wondered, that I could recall so much detail about his family but not recall his name?

Today, ten days after my email, Joshua Foer’s article on memory appears in the New York Times.  But Mr. Foer wasn’t reading my email and it wasn’t ESP.  In fact the article, while quite informative and interesting, is also a bit self-serving.  It is adapted from a new book by Mr. Foehr entitled “Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything,” which is scheduled to be published by Penguin Press in March.

Read Joshua Foer’s article.

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