One Stack Deep
One thing that works for remembering things, at least when I know I need to call upon them in the near future, is index cards. Since starting learning a new language (Icelandic), and, separately, realizing over the holidays that I had lost sight of some important goals, with the added complexities of aging and a more complex life with a new job in a new city, index cards re-entered my life as a necessary tool.
Guides for using them suggest you make your own, and in the two cases where I needed them (for studying Mandarin Chinese and studying for a streetcar driving test), that worked. I hadn’t considered actually constructing my, though until I came across a guide from chinesehacks.com on how to make my own index cards on a keyring. I found all the items for cheap at Daiso’s Vancouver location over the holidays.
There’s no obstacles to stopping me from making them now. I’m going to start small (another thing that works in learning something new) and make one that lists the tasks during my Sunday routine (something else that works in offloading the work my brain needs to do). I can’t wait to see how this goes!
Scientific American reported in December 2011 of research on the doorway effect, which is forgetting what you were going to do as soon as you entered a different room in your abode. Gabriel A. Radvanskya, Sabine A. Krawietza & Andrea K. Tamplina published a paper showing in experiments that people recalled less walking through a doorway than walking the same distance without a doorway.
From the Scientific American report:
Is it walking through the doorway that causes the forgetting, or is it that remembering is easier in the room in which you originally took in the information? Psychologists have known for a while that memory works best when the context during testing matches the context during learning; this is an example of what is called the encoding specificity principle.
Except that walking back to the room in which you thought of what you wanted to do doesn’t improve the chances of remembering what you wanted to do.
The doorway effect suggests that there’s more to the remembering than just what you paid attention to, when it happened, and how hard you tried. Instead, some forms of memory seem to be optimized to keep information ready-to-hand until its shelf life expires, and then purge that information in favor of new stuff.
No real solutions to the problem are offered in the article. Write down a list of what you need to do in the next room? The Scientific American reporters offer a theory that other events trigger purging of short-term memory, and these events probably won’t give you enough time to jot down the thing you needed to do just now.
Avec l’habitude et le pas rapide, nous oublions les choses. Et c’est peut-être grâce à l’oubli que l’histoire et le passé se révèlent. La poussière, la patine offrent la possibilité de la mémoire.
The noosphere is the unified human consciousness. That is not what the network is. I’ve been conceptualising the network as a universal human memory—pace some very serious qualifications. I’ve believed for a while that the internet is a system intimately connected to memory—it resembles more the space of memory, with its strange connections and absences, than any physical space. Memory does not occupy the same dimension as time, either, even when it is augmented, machined, apparently and infinitely recallable memory.
I am talking in part about anamnesis, Plato’s conception of Socrates/himself as midwife rather than teacher; of remembering: only remember. The internet is only a machine, the network is machine-augmented memory, with all the strange ripple-effects that this produces. And memory, socially and culturally constructed, is not only what we, as individuals, have experienced; it is what we, all of us, have experienced: collectively, forever.
The act of forgetting crafts and hones data in the brain as if carving a statue from a block of marble. It enables us to make sense of the world by clearing a path to the thoughts that are truly valuable. It also aids emotional recovery.
Gretchen Reynolds reports on studies linking exercise with improved memory:
For some time, scientists have believed that BDNF [brain-derived neurotrophic factor] helps explain why mental functioning appears to improve with exercise. However, they haven’t fully understood which parts of the brain are affected or how those effects influence thinking. The Irish study suggests that the increases in BDNF prompted by exercise may play a particular role in improving memory and recall.
In the concluding chapter of her book Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, Margaret Heffernan recommends aerobic exercise to help combat poor decision-making. She emphasizes aerobic exercise from other types, like yoga, which she argues makes us feel good but does not make our brains better.
An important part about knowing yourself, according to Drucker [in Managing Oneself], is awareness of how you perform and learn. Some people perform better in situations where they process information through listening. Others learn and perform better by reading.
Ryan Irelan writes to remember. Writing notes gets me partway there, and review is essential. Some of the techniques tried in my past were:
- rewriting my handwritten notes in computer form, the printing them out for later review. I did this in high school, but never again after that. The idea was that rewriting them, with slight re-organization, would help to remember. Did it work? I haven’t done it since.
- taking notes in university worked somewhat, but all lectures I attended were live. If I had the opportunity to listen to the lectures instead, I would have been able to pause the tape, consider a point, and rewind if necessary.
- in May of this year, I had the unusual opportunity to listen to a presentation (about a proposed gondola between Simon Fraser University and Production Way Station in Burnaby, B.C.) twice in the same day, filling in blanks missed the first time and adding points the presenter had not touched on the first time. I could not do any of the questioners and commenters justice because they only spoke once.
People probably either expect (or at least accept) taking notes during meetings. What about during social encounters? I try to make notes directly after, based on very recent memory.
What are your tips, successes and failures with writing notes in lectures, meetings and social encounters?
We can remember which folder we put that CSS file in, but we can’t remember the name of the guy we just met at the party.
- Why can’t I remember much of my childhood?
- What tactics work to enable me to remember something, especially for a test of knowledge, and what most certainly does not work?
- Why am I so bad with names and song lyrics and what an article was called, yet I can remember where I stored something?
- Are computers to blame for my brain’s inability to store and retrieve?
- How different is my muscle memory and my book smarts? Does “life knowledge” count or affect how I remember?
- Where do my emotions fit in?
- How did I get to the point where remembering was important to me?
These and other questions I hope to explore in a pop-up blog I’m calling One Stack Deep. The blog’s name refers to a passage in The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder, a brief history of early 1980s computing. Kidder followed the engineers at Data General around as they built their new machine, codenamed the Eagle Project. When talking about the language engineers use when talking to each other, one engineer uses his vocabulary to describe another engineer in computing terms:
Give me a core dump meant “Tell me your thoughts,” for in the past, when computers used “core memories,” engineers sometimes “dumped” the contents of malfunctioning machines’ storage compartments of memory, a sort of in-box inside a computer; it holds the information in the order in which the information is deposited and whe it gets overfull, it is said to “overflow.” Hence the occasional complaint, “I’ve got a stack overflow.” “His mind is only one stack deep,” says an engineer, describing the failings of a colleague, but the syntax is wrong and he rephrases, saying “See. He can push, but when it comes time to pop, he goes off in all directions” ― which means that the poor fellow can receive and understand information but he can’t retrieve it in an orderly fashion.
I will mostly focus on the storage and retrieval aspects, with the occasional diversion to problem-solving and other interesting avenues, though only how they relate to memory. The unnamed engineer quoted above might have been describing me 30 years later. What follows is an personal journey to understand how my brain works, how it fails, and what I can do about it.