July 6th, 2001


Memory Organization

Yesterday, one of my colleagues was recapping something that
we had gone over earlier in our presentation. He said, ``If you
remember what I said when I was standing over there....''

This got me to thinking about how memory is organized. Visual
orientation often helps me recall things.

The ``Whaddya Know?'' variety show that airs on NPR on Sundays
(and Saturdays?) has a quiz portion each week. One of the questions
two weeks ago was ``spell `minuscule' or `embarrassment'''. The
contestant said, ``Minuscule --- m-i-n-i-s-c-u-l-e''. I thought, ``Yep.
No doubt.'' But, that was wrong. My wife got back to the car and
I asked her to spell it. She said the same thing.

Anyway.... a couple of days ago we were racking our brains trying
to recall which word it was that was so hard to spell. I finally came
up with it again this morning while lying in bed focussing on what the
sunlight was like that day, where exactly my car was parked, what
the air smelled like, etc. Then, I thought ```meniscus' --- no, but
that's really, really, really close.... ah.... `minuscule'.''

Yet another example is that when I'm taking a test or something,
I often visualize (in my mind's eye) what the page in the book looked
like.... I can often almost read along through critical sections of the
material. It's often easier to do so if I was listening to particular music
that I can also recall.

So, as if I haven't droned on long enough, what this all makes seem
epicly apparent to me is that our memories are incredibly contextual.
When reading, I don't have a memory that's ``just the words'' or
even ``just the way the words looked'' or anything..... I have this
woven memory that includes the humidity and the lighting and my
orientation in the room and the music and the whir of the fan and
the texture of my shirt.

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