Phone amnesia and other things

English: Phone Box
English: Phone Box (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Unfortunately I wrote this but forgot to publish it. Which is ironic given the title of this post. I will publish this week’s post shortly]

I suffer from phone amnesia. At least, that’s what I call it. Here’s how it works, or rather, doesn’t work. I answer the phone and talk for any amount of time. I put the phone down and my wife asks me who was on the phone. Often I cannot recall. I literally cannot recall who I was just talking to.

If I mentioned the persons name in my conversation, my wife will ask what “person X” wanted. Very often I will not remember at all what the point of the call was. The effort I make to remember is almost painful.

English: Village Pond and phone box
English: Village Pond and phone box (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve noticed that it is often the case people don’t recall what the point of the conversation was, and on the contrary if the person who takes the call wants to tell someone about the call immediately they will have no problems.

So it seems that when we hang up the phone we also hang up our recall at the same time, sort of like filing a letter away. A few minutes later we may remember the call and what it was about. If we’ve trying to remember what it was about, it comes as a great relief!


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I appear to have a more extreme version of phone amnesia, but it seems to me that many people have this issue to some limited extent.

This all started me thinking about quizzes and recall. I like quizzes and do them all the time. What constantly surprises me is the answers that I know, in subjects which I have no interest in. I recently knew the answer to a question about women’s fashion, a topic which doesn’t interest me in the least.

Shell Quiz
Shell Quiz (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another example was the question about the date of some historical event. I’ve never been good at history. I can’t remember dates, you see. But I knew the correct answer to a history question, the answer to which was a date! Of course I can’t now recall the question or even the quiz. All I can recall is that I was astounded that I knew the answer.

Yet if another history question were put to me, I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to answer it. But I could be wrong about that just as easily.

Horn of plenty (4239161486)
Horn of plenty (4239161486) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seems that my brain is storing information about things that I have no interest in and I don’t recall even hearing, but for some reason a part of my mind decides to remember stuff.

If I try to memorise something, it means reading and re-reading and re-re-reading the information until it sort of sink in. It’s like parading the information in front of my mind until it can’t help but remember it. We sort of bore the mind into remembering the information.

English: Memories of Friday Wood I am sure the...
English: Memories of Friday Wood I am sure the pool to the right of the photo is where I drank from a spring as a child. The landscape has changed so much with the growth of secondary woodland that one can’t be sure. I remember the water bubbling up through the sand and running down the slope (behind the photographer) into a boggy bit that is still there hidden now among young trees. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And all the while the mind is remembering fleeting facts that we barely notice as they flit by. Facts that are of little real interest to us.

Of course memories are not reliable. I “remember” something that happened to one of my sisters when she was small. Her push chair rolled down a small slope and crashed into the barrier round a small flower bed in the park. Over the other side of the barrier was a pond, I was worried that she would fall into the pond.

English: Burton Agnes Ornamental Pond
English: Burton Agnes Ornamental Pond (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I visited the spot many years later I was astounded. The flower bed was there and so was the pond. The distance between the barrier and the pond was such that she could never have fallen into the pond after hitting the barrier unless she was moving at a huge speed. Also there were no paths sloping down to the flowers and pond. The paths were all definitely up the hill.

It’s likely that there were some real events which led to me having this “false memory”. It may be that my sister’s push chair did roll away some time, or maybe my parents suggested that the push chair might roll away if I didn’t hold it tight. My mind could have turned the memory of the suggested event into a memory of the event as if it really had happened.


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My mind obviously built a worst case scenario around the event and associated it with somewhere that I knew. It altered a few details, the long hill down to the barrier and the pond, the narrow distance between the barrier and the water. It’s much more exciting that way, and “exciting” seems to be more memorable.

Back to the phone amnesia. When I do remember what the phone call was about (may be hours later), I can recall most if not all of the conversation, not word for word, but in general gist. It seems that the information was stored in memory, but the links to it were missing.


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This is similar to old feeling that something is “on the tip of your tongue”. You know (or believe) that the information is there, but you can’t access it. I expect that much of the time the memory is not there, and we only remember the times when it is recalled at a later time. That “tip of your tongue feeling can be very strong though.

It appears that our minds have memories of events (or pseudo-memories of events) and also memories of memories of events. The links between the two can fade out or maybe not be created properly in the first place, so that we can remember that we have a memory of something but we can’t access that memory, and the memories of memories of events are more easily accessible. It’s like a sort of unreliable index to the rest of the book that comprises our memories.


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The rest of the memory book, the actual memories, can be fact or fiction or both (like any biography or history book), which makes life interesting in so many ways. Every couple have had conversations about events that have happened to both, and in some cases the two people might be talking about different events, so different are their memories of it.

The Phone
The Phone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Me

Grace - Mirror
Grace – Mirror (Photo credit: phil41dean)

Who is this strange person “Me”? Obviously I am “Me”, but you claim that “Me” is you. How could that be? And when you say “You”, you mean me! You are you and I am me and that’s an end of it! It is absurd for you to claim to me when, patently, you are you.

Have you (yes, YOU! I know that I have!) ever read science fiction? An SF story might revolve around a device, maybe invented by Professor MacGuffin, which allow the actors in the drama to move instantly from one place to another. The ‘transporter’ may be a simple tool to place the actors in a situation from which they have to extract themselves (as in the Startrek TV series and movies), or a device central to the plot, such as the machine in movie “The Fly” (‘Help me! Help me!)

Cover of "The Fly [Blu-ray]"
Cover of The Fly [Blu-ray]
Sometimes, for plot reasons, the device may malfunction and instead of transporting the person from A to B, it essentially copies the person so that he exists at both A and B. (Both you and I agree that he is ‘he’ or she is ‘she’, don’t we? I’m glad that that is sorted out, at least).

Transporter (Star Trek)
Transporter (Star Trek) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So if I walk into the transporter at A, I walk out of it at B, don’t I? But the person at A claims to be me and to have walked into the transporter at A and walked out of it at A, thinking that it hadn’t worked. He, (obviously “he”, since he isn’t me and he isn’t you), also claims that my car, my dog, my wife, are all his, and they are because he was me when he walked into the transporter. Obviously “his”, since they aren’t yours and they aren’t mine. Hang on a minute! They ARE all mine! This is getting tricky.

So which of us is me, and which isn’t? Which is ‘him’? Which of us gets my things? Do we get half each? It’s a puzzle.

Even when we exclude transporters as ‘impossible’ (but who would be so bold as to rule them out entirely), even then, there are other ‘mes’ to consider. There’s the ‘me’ from five minutes ago. The ‘me’ who had yet to write this sentence, who didn’t even have this sentence in mind, in fact. There’s the ‘me’ of five minutes in the future, who know what the next sentence brings. (I can’t even guess what it will bring). Are they the same ‘me’? Well the future me knows things that I don’t, and I know things that the past me doesn’t (yet) know.

Memories
Memories (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It gets worse as you consider moments further from the ‘now’. When I was at school, I was not the same person as I am now – I have years of experiences that the schoolboy had not yet had. I’ve no idea what will happen in the future, but the future me does. So are the future ‘me’ and the past ‘me’ really me? They are different from me in terms of their memories and experiences. They have different bodies, maybe sporting scars that I don’t have or vice versa.

Ages of Man, late 16th century
Ages of Man, late 16th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most people would think that they are ‘me’, in spite of these differences. There is a continuity of memory, a thread of remembrance, that joins all these ‘mes’ in a continuous thread of experience. But if you take two widely time separated ‘mes’ they in fact have little in common. The schoolboy ‘me’ has not learned things that the future ‘me’ knows and the future ‘me’ may have forgotten much of what they schoolboy has experienced.

From some points of view they are very much not the same person. It reminds me of the saying by Heraclitus “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”. While it may seem to me that the memories I have connect me to the school boy that I was, as I can work backwards down the stream of memories and say ‘I was that school boy’, that same stream of memories makes me different from him. Even in my own mind I think of the school boy as ‘him’ and refer to him as ‘myself, X years ago’.

English: Fast flowing. The fast flowing river ...
English: Fast flowing. The fast flowing river from the Coedty reservoir flowing into the River Conwy at Dolgarrog (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not uncommon for people to say things like “If I hadn’t done so-and-so, something else would have happened”. “If I hadn’t read that book in school, I wouldn’t have chosen to study history at university…” There is a probabilistic component to personality. If things had been otherwise I would be a different person, probably living in a different country, and certainly with different memories and desires. “I’m glad I went to the moon, even though it meant giving up that opportunity to live and work in Antarctica”. Well, something like that!

So this mysterious ‘me’ lives only in the present, and is different to all other ‘mes’ through time. Yet this ‘me’ is singular, for I am the only ‘me’, and your claim to be ‘me’ is patently false. This ‘me’ is not any of the possible ‘mes’ that could have been, had things been different. This ‘me’ is not the same as the ‘mes’ that have been and the ‘mes’ that will be, even considering the chain of memory that connects us. The ‘me’ that goes through a transporter device is not the ‘me’ that stepped into it, as the new ‘me’ is composed of different atoms (presumably, ducking a few questions), even though the transported ‘me’ feels otherwise. But then again neither is the ‘me’ who stayed since time separates him from the ‘me’ that entered the transporter, even if it is only seconds.

“A Vision of the Future. An aërial motor-car”
“A Vision of the Future. An aërial motor-car” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The more that I consider ‘me’, the stranger ‘me’ (or ‘I’) appears to be. Each ‘me’ exists only in the now, but is linked in more ways than one to future and past ‘mes’, just as the river exists today, and is different to the river yesterday, though they are connected by the flow of time.

Flowing Waters of Time
Flowing Waters of Time (Photo credit: MaugiArt)