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Mysteries of human memory

Oct 28, 2012 - By Randy Tucker

I can remember an obscure computer protocol from 30 years ago but sometimes can't recall the name of a friend standing right in front of me.

We assume that some things never change. If we do something as a teen-ager, there is no reason we shouldn't be able to do it for the rest of our lives, no matter how long we live.

As you get older these assumptions often lead to searching for aspirin or ibuprofen. The mystery in this entire process is that many of us remain just as strong as we've ever been but our supporting structure doesn't handle the stress as well anymore.

With a couple of dozen trees in our yard October always brings an afternoon or two of gathering leaves and tossing them over the fence to the cows.

I've operated wheel barrows for more than four decades now and have mastered a few techniques that make using them a little easier. One quick method of dumping them is to just grab the handles next to the barrow itself, locking your forearms and lifting everything in one motion, like a human front end loader. This doesn't work well with a load of concrete or dirt, but leaves, sawdust and litter are easy to lift.

It was still easy, but a few hours later I couldn't understand why there was a pain directly in the middle of my neck.

Yep, wheel barrow overuse syndrome.

While muscles work in mysterious ways, one thing is sure. The more you use them, the better they work.

The mind is said to work in similar yet much more mysterious ways. There is nothing more disheartening than knowing someone who is slipping into the dementia associated with Alzheimer's disease. In spite of the obvious lack of memory the victims of this horrible ailment suffer, there are unique moments when memories of something long ago seem to rush to the front of consciousness. Once again they are 8 years old, or meeting the love of their lives for the first time. They may have no idea where they are or any concept of the reality around them, but to them the past is just as real and vibrant as it was a half century or more ago.

Memory might be the most inexplicable aspect of humanity. Religions dip into the mysteries of the consciousness, but all fail to provide a comprehensive understanding of the state of self awareness that sometimes jumps abruptly to our minds with unfathomable confusion.

Do you know someone who can remember the most obscure detail of an event from long ago? I know a couple of people who can tell you what they and everyone else at the table ordered at a Stuckey's roadside restaurant on a trip back in 1967.

Others can remember not only the names of everyone they meet but the names and birthdays of their children as well. It is something I simply can't comprehend.

My grandfather was an incredibly intelligent man, but he couldn't remember names --- sometimes even people in his own family. It is another puzzling quirk of the human psyche.

I often joked to adolescent boys that what they needed was a "photographic" memory instead of the "pornographic" one they always seemed willing to express.

A photographic memory is a real thing. One of my cousins and I shared this ability as young men. Mike and I both used it sparingly, in my case just to take exams in college on occasion.

He didn't describe the effects it had, but in my own experience it was very tiring. During the course of an anthropology, history or literature exam I would concentrate on the essay question in front of me, close my eyes, and the pages of the text associated with the question gradually would appear in dark letters against a pale yellow background.

I could often read the text in its entirety, but on other occasions the words would wax and wane just as a dream can fade and return in a light sleep.

Whether the entire answer appeared or just a tantalizing portion of it, I would get a little light-headed and weary after doing this for a few minutes. I grew to rely on it as a college student and never took notes on reading assignments.

I haven't tried it for over 30 years and am not sure if the ability still remains. But I do know that I can't remember names of people, sometimes at the most inopportune times.

Remembering the debug sequence on some obscure Western Digital hard drive formatting routine from 25 years ago is easy, but sometimes I can't find a name to go with a very familiar face. It can be troubling.

A few years ago, in yet another of the useless fads that permeate public education today, the experts preached that a child should not have to remember anything.

In deference to the dawn of the Internet and the information age kids would just have to look up anything they might need to know with just a few keystrokes or the click of a mouse.

Look up what? Without core knowledge, accessible through a mind trained in using their own innate memory there would be nothing this student could do. Thankfully, it was just a passing fad and didn't get momentum enough to cripple an entire generation.

The mind is a remarkable instrument. Now where did I leave my glasses?

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