It’s a poor sort of memory

and does, indeed, only work backwards – though I suspect that any other form would be worse.  Still, it’s always a joy to quote the Red Queen: a woman of rare insight.

I have been thinking about memory of late, which does rather bring the god Odin to mind.  He kept quite the menagerie (rather more than à trois): in addition to two wolves and an eight-legged horse (surely a riding accident waiting to happen) he also kept two ravens named Huginn and Muninn (and mayhap other creatures as well).  The ravens’ names are normally translated into English as Thought and Memory, and I sometimes imagine myself as little more than a pair of corvids trapped in a box – with Muninn probably in the ascendant.

I have always (so far as I can recall – ha ha) had a pretty decent memory.  I am often asked how I remember so much (useless) stuff to which I have no real answer other than “how do you not?”  I certainly do not sit (or stand or lie) around trying to memorise useless facts, somehow it just happens when I’m busy doing other things.

It can be quite a useful skill as, all too often, a good memory can be mistaken for intelligence.  It also saves a lot of mental arithmetic if you can just remember what the answer was last time: one of the many beauties of mathematics is the consistency of arithmetic over time.  It has also served me quite well in both examinations and pub quizes (other quiz venues are available, but rather less fun).  However, it’s not all good news – I do frighten myself at times, for example, when I instantly know an answer with no understanding as to why.  It can also lead people to believe me when I say something about the past, even if I have (literally) just made it up – a power that can be used for both good and evil (mostly the latter).

Whilst my memory is pretty good, it is far from perfect.  I think part of the problem is the sheer volume of junk stored means that memories can become somewhat muddled – for example, when seeing people my brain tends to perform some sort of internal identikit operation enabling me to confidently ‘recognise’ complete strangers (well, he had A’s nose, B’s hair, C’s chin etc).  Repeated actions are also poorly recalled: I can remember locking the front door, but is the memory I’m accessing from today or November 2009?

I believe my visual memory is particularly poor, it seems that my brain stores visual information in a very compressed manner – like a rather extreme form of JPEG.  This can cause trouble: I nearly missed my stop travelling on the bus in Edinburgh as the bus shelter on the opposite side of the road had been changed and this was enough to confuse me.  Yes, of all the permanent landmarks around the stop that I could have chosen – stone buildings, geomorphology etc – the key one I relied upon was a temporary structure. I really need to let Huginn out of his box a little more often.

However, the real tragedy of my poor visual memory is that it impoverishes my recall of great visual art.  Storing it in a highly compressed conceptual form really does not capture the essence of great art.  Strong affect is supposed to improve memory – an important defence mechanism from our evolutionary past – but somehow this doesn’t work for me in a gallery: I just start aching.

Whilst in Edinburgh, I went to the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art: Two – quite a hike on my swollen foot, so I didn’t go the few extra yards to One (I’ll save that for another time). I went there to see an exhibition of photography by Hiroshi Sugimoto which came in two parts: Lightening Fields and Photogenic Drawings.  The first were photographs of electrical discharges (400kV) and were truly extraordinary – I have never seen their like. The second were re-prints of negatives created by William Henry Fox Talbot in the very early years of Victoria’s reign – some of which were truly haunting.  I think it may have been the finest art exhibition I have ever visited – and as a member of the Art Fund, really quite cheap.  As a bonus, they also had some wonderful woodcuts by Ian Cheyne – perhaps trying to keep the Japanese vibe going?

The tragedy is that with my lousy memory for pictures, my recall of the exhibition is already fading and there were no postcards for sale and an original is likely to be beyond my budget.  But, there is some good news: in researching this blog I have found that Google images comes (slightly) to my rescue with a few actual JPEGs of both the photographs and the woodcuts.  Whilst no match for the real thing, they are significantly more faithful to the originals than my ageing neurons.

Surely, there must be a way to train your memory to be better with pictures?  Or perhaps not, as normally you are taught to remember ‘boring’ facts using pictures – a method I find utterly useless.  I can only remember the picture by first remembering the original facts, and then using them to try and re-construct the picture by adding in some recollection of how I might have converted the facts into a visual form.  This does both rather defeat the purpose and make me wonder if I am entirely normal.  Yes, I know you’ve wondered this for some time – or more likely, gone beyond wondering and drawn some pretty firm conclusions (and not just in pencil, but have mentally inked them in).

I have no great desire to be normal – always strikes me as over-rated – but I would like to remember the visual with greater fidelity.  Then again, perhaps a photographic memory is only a desirable thing if it comes with the ability to Photoshop the contents?

Feel free to continue the lunacy...

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