Thursday, May 18, 2006

Anatomy of memory

Spent the day mostly sieving 2,200 words about children down to more like just 770. Am now able to define "harm" and "condition" like a pro. Can't think why I'd possibly want to.

Thence to the pub to play honourary boy to the Dr and her chums. One chum was down in the Smoke to lecture some medical folks about memory. It seems that such classic works of phrenology as A Chump at Oxford are wrong - you can't get your memory back by a second bump on the head.

I tend to forget things once I start drinking, even if I don't get all drunk. This may mean the following's not quite as right as it should be. (It's also why I've usually a notebook, so as not to lose important stuff like "Write that!" or "Want lunch?").

Bumps on the head don't tend to make you lose your memory - though there are a few examples of that. Instead, you tend to lose the ability to retain information; you stop making new memories.

This can be short-term, so you might forget the whole week in which you had that nasty car crash, but then everything else is fine. Sometimes it isn't, and there's one bloke who thinks he's still in his mid-twenties and can't recognise his wife. (The medical term for this is a "mid-life crisis".)

Rather luridly, I remember being told by another person medical that nobody's quite sure how anaesthetic actually works. Had leafed through a facsimile of John Snow's 1848 pageturner, "On Narcotism by the Inhalation of Vapours" (which runs broadly: "We tried this, the patient died."; "We tried that, the patient died."; "We tried something else, the patient died." And then, after quite a few patients, "We tried my new mixture and the patient didn't die... immediately.")

"We assume," said the person medical, "that the modified Snow's mixture we use nowadays stops you from feeling the pain."

I recall nodding warily, knowing how persons medical love to confound any comforting sureties.

"But," he went on, "there's no way to prove that. Which is what science is all about. So we do tests, and we're able to prove two things. One: anaesthesia paralyses you. Two: it affects the short-term memory. So while you're lying there being operated on..."

There's something seriously wrong about doctors.

Anyway. There's also a difference between implicit and explicit memory - so you forget the directions to Brighton, while still able to drive a car.

Now I've knocked my head about over the years. As well as the just-being-tall headbanging, on my 18th birthday I ran head-first into a tree. That was six months after I'd been beaten up in the street, waking next morning with no clue what had happened, wondering how I'd wing the bruises with the parents. Yet my memory for explicit detail has always been a bit hot.

I could always remember phone numbers until I got a mobile. I'm still good with people's names so long as I see them written down. And my entire neurological system seems wired solely to glean oddments of fact. Hopeless at everything else. You may have noticed.

I vividly recall being told about John Snow, and can index that up against other otherwise unrelated morsels when it comes to writing some story. I will likely not forget that this evening's chat also included discourse on the weasels and spuds of Scotland, and the suicide of cats.

Yet I've entirely forgotten to post a letter two days in a row.

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