Thursday, October 13, 2011

Memory Gardens

It's funny sometimes how the moment you start looking for things, there they are.  The same day I started to read Moonwalking with Einstein, the book Joshua Foer wrote about the year he spent training his memory to compete in the memory championship, a new show, Unforgettable, aired on CBS about a former cop who remembers everything that she's ever seen (except, of course, the murder of her sister). 

It seemed like an interesting twist on the crime procedural.  Instead of swabbing shoes and guns for fingerprints or poking at tufts of fabric that magically match those found at the crime scene, we see Carrie Wells walk through her memory, as if memories could be viewed like one of those 3-D exploration demos you sometimes see in museums or real estate sites that let you swivel the view 360 degrees and walk through whole rooms and houses.  She refocuses on clues that were there in her view that she hadn't thought of before as important and discovers how to solve the crime.

I had heard that some people have this kind of near photographic memory, the kind you can fast forward and rewind like a videotape.  A while back I remember seeing a woman on Good Morning America who seemingly remembered everything she'd ever seen.  She could go back through her mind's eye like a rolodex, pull up the day she wanted to revisit, and tell you what happened, what the weather was like, major and minor events, even trivial things that wouldn't necessarily make a strong emotional impact.  And before she was discovered she didn't seem to think any of this was out of the ordinary!  

I don't know if many people are able to walk through their memories as if experiencing the inside of a movie, but I do know that I had an experience that approaches that kind of visual immersion when I started to read Josh Foer's book.

The first few chapters he devotes to how he became interested in the memory championships and befriended some of the competitors who told him, much to his surprise, that they possessed no more than average memories, but employed certain memory devices to be able to memorize lists of random numbers, a poem they'd never seen before, and whole decks of shuffled cards in just minutes.  When Josh's friend and memory trainer Ed describes the device of the memory palace, he asks Josh to take a mental walk through his childhood home, a space he knows extremely well and place the random objects of the list he's trying to memorize in various rooms of the house, I could see exactly what the author saw, since I have been to his childhood house--both of them, since I was friends with his brother Jon (of Everything Is Illuminated fame).  It was a bit like crawling inside someone else's mind for a few minutes as Josh walks up to his driveway and places a giant jar of pickled garlic (the first item in the list), then a tub of cottage cheese in which a model is frolicking (it turns out anything sex-related gets remembered more easily), and on up to his living room where he places more items.  It made me think about the birthday party I went to for Jon in sixth grade when I discovered it could actually be fun to dance with girls, the time I camped out in his back yard, or the Paula Abdul poster on his wall.  Josh I remember mostly as a much-adored kid running in everyone's footsteps, so it seems strange to me too to be reading about his childhood from a grown-up perspective, since in my mind, he is still somewhere between four and six years old.

I can sympathize with Foer when he says he wishes his memory were better at times.  I used to think I had a pretty good memory.  In high school I felt like I remembered more than some people and prided myself on not writing down homework assignments or wearing a watch.  I felt as if I started to use a planner my ability to remember what was important would dull and I'd come to rely on slavishly writing down everything on a list, and it has mostly come to pass.  I found I sometimes forgot assignments, and in college found it more useful just to have it written somewhere so I didn't forget.  Now I even use my computer to make daily to do lists--thank you EverNote (I'm not quite up to the smart phone phase--and anyway whenever I take out an ipod around here, one child or another goes gaga, drools, whines, or grabs, until it's pretty much useless to do anything with it other than give it up or stow it in a pocket until a kid-free time comes around).  

So maybe all this is just to say, if you will pardon the image of a slightly gaudy cemetery, that our memories are gardens that can be tended, pruned, grow tangled, perhaps blossom and bear fruit so that when we go looking for an idea, an image that's been stashed in a drawer in the mind, hidden in an attic storage box, or even a word, what it was that was on the list, on the tip of the tongue blanked out for a moment, it will be right there, waiting to be found.

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