08 May 2009

Memory and cognitive easter eggs

Last week, my friend Laura and I were talking about riding a bike. Mostly, the type of balance that it requires, and what our neighborhoods were like, growing-up (conducive to bike riding, too dangerous, close to school, etc.). All of a sudden, I remembered learning how to ride a bike.

Blue states win

I don't remember how old I was, but it was in Germany. I was visiting my grandparents for a couple of weeks, and someone lent me a kid's bike. The street that my Oma and Opa's house was on sloped upward, and ended at a little market. My father would walk to the end of the street with me, and I would glide down, all the way to the house. I did this dozens of times, slowly inching the training wheels up little by little. Eventually, I pedaled all the way down. I had a huge grin on my face, and I think my dad was laughing (which he does when he's really excited about something). It was a beautiful day, the sun reflected off of the green and yellow fence, there were bees on the cherries that had fallen from the trees. It's such a vivid memory, and I hadn't thought about it... probably since it happened.

It reminded me of something I read in WIRED a month or two ago. There is this article about a woman with a seemingly photographic memory that explains how our brains store memories vs. computers. The short of it: computers have a very organized way of storing information, and it's instantly accessible at all times. It looks something like this:

And the brain is really messy about this whole process, which resembles something like this:

Here is the article text:
On a computer, every single bit of information is stored at a specific location, from which it can always be retrieved. Human recall is hit or miss. Neuroscientific research tells us that our brains don't use a fixed-address system, and memories tend to overlap, combine, and disappear for reasons no one yet understands.

The one thing we do know is rather vague: Memories live in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. After that, the entire question of how memory works is up for grabs. For example, where precisely in the hippocampus (or prefrontal cortex) is my memory of reading Kurt Vonnegut for the first time? If I try to summon that experience, I am likely to wind up with a blur—a half dozen indistinct recollections. And no brain-scan technology will help me bring it into better focus.
This makes human memory sound potentially a pain in the neck, but it's really kind of awesome. Yeah, I wish there were a way to bring up perfect memories that I haven't thought about in a while. But with this "imperfect" way of storing, the brain actually becomes an enabler of cognitive easter eggs. Throughout life, there are little land mines that will trigger pleasant memories without warning that for years had been tucked away somewhere unreachable. Can't wait for my next one.

On our way to Newport

What are some of your recently triggered memories that you had forgotten about for a long time? What triggered them?
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