Archive for November 14th, 2010

I am blessed/cursed with a prodigious memory in both the modern and archaic senses of the adjective. My head is stuffed with stuff … including my grandmother’s recipe for stuffing even though I so rarely cook … and although this provides a deep well when looking for a bucketful of references to, say, common experiences with toothpastes, do I really need to carry around, “Crest has been proved to be an effective decay preventive dentifrice that can be of significant value when used in a conscientiously applied program of oral hygiene and regular professional care … ” and a 40-year-old jingle from Ipana commercials, both of which I can conjure in an instant at any given time? (And just did … sigh … )

This is why I almost didn’t bother looking at this article, titled, “A Novel Way to Improve Memory”. After all, why the hell would I want to get any better at stacking more useless crap between my ears?

But I did … read it, that is … and although finding it peripherally interesting, it doesn’t fit.

The most amazing thing about memory is how precisely we forget. Our brain retains only what it predicts will be important in the future and forgets the rest. There is no point in remembering where you parked your car at Wal-Mart last February — unless it was stolen. That would be unforgettable. Scientists have long known how the brain predicts which experiences to retain in long-term memory and which ones to let fade away. But now they have made a new discovery: why we often remember useless stuff.

The first rule of learning is repetition. Repeating something over and over, as you did to learn your multiplication tables, moves memory from temporary short-term storage into permanent long-term memory. This is because the brain views something that is encountered repeatedly as more likely to be important to the person (or animal) in the future.

The second way events get seared permanently into memory is if they are associated with extremely strong emotional reactions, as would happen if, upon emerging from Wal-Mart with your shopping goodies, you were to find your car gone. This is because, in evolutionary terms, an organism shouldn’t risk repeating a stressful, potentially life-threatening experience to remember it.

Okay … so why do I still not have access to the multiplication tables, but know the name of the dog that played the dog on Topper? The first were repeated ad nauseam year after year in my childhood while the second may have have been noticed a couple of times as the credits rolled at the end of a TV show that went off the air when I was about 7.

Did my brain reject 14×7 as not important to this person’s future. Was I more traumatized by the ghosts of George and Marian Kirby that I realized?

In the last 15 years, neuroscientists have determined the cellular and molecular mechanisms for how these two kinds of experiences are moved from short-term memory into long-term memory. But memory researcher Richard Morris of the University of Edinburgh noticed something about memory that is not explained by these well-accepted rules and molecular mechanisms of memory. Our minds are filled with scraps of completely irrelevant information. This includes snippets of experiences that were neither repeated nor associated with a traumatic event. Indeed, they are useless and would be better forgotten, but they persist nevertheless. How these remnants of trivial memories are retained cannot be explained by the detailed molecular mechanisms that have been carefully worked out in studies of memory in laboratory animals.

Well … no shit, and isn’t that not helpful.

According to the article, a third pot of memory glue has more recently been illuminated:

The answer is found in another factor that helps the brain predict whether or not an experience should be saved in long-term memory: novelty. When our daily routine is suddenly disrupted by an experience that is truly novel, the mind “perks up.” It makes good sense to activate the long-term memory mechanism in this case, because a new experience is likely to provide important new information that will be useful to an individual in the future, and so the experience should be added to the long-term memory store. In the brain, novelty is signaled by neurons that use the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine circuits do not code sensory perceptions; instead they rev up the level of activity broadly across neural networks in the brain.

Hm. So, Bucky Beaver and the Buck (the dog who played Neil) kicked off dopamine production in my head? I doubt it, no matter how impressed rats have been in experiments on memory.

The rats, of course, are remembering where to find food, not the lyrics from the opening sequence of Mr. Ed, so do nothing to, ” … explain how “useless” scraps of information in your mind might have gotten stuck there.”

They could have been surrounded by some truly novel experience that had nothing at all to do with the memory.

Like what? What could possibly have been the truly novel experience in late-50s suburbia that leaves me with full access to the name of every dog on our block and the inability to see Nestlés Quick without thinking of Farfel?

So, I have a head full of useless crap that gives the occasional advantage when trivial knowledge is tested … I was kick-ass at Jeopardy back in the days I had access to such programming … makes me hell to argue with, being able to replay exact conversations without having taken notes, allows me to sing along with every song by the Beatles and lets me identify Paladin’s holster in less than two seconds. I remember my very first telephone number … YEllowstone 50147 … could draw (if I could draw) the dashboard of a 1955 Ford and conjure the smell of the old lady’s house next door to where I lived for about two months at the age of 10. Whoopie.

And, apparently, science has yet to give me one good reason for any of this.

On the up-side, these new studies on memory are providing a prompt for educators to look differently at how children learn:

While the ancient methods of repetition and punishment to drum information into a school kid’s mind can be effective, so too should breaking up the doldrums of a lesson with a fascinating new experience that is completely unrelated to the lesson.

A point taken further in the vid here explaining how a shift in the paradigm is a bloody good idea …


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