It’s easy to discuss communication as though it were an external
service, provided by tools and channels outside ourselves. But
most communication successes and failures depend on memory,
self-control, rhetorical skill, confidence… all traits which, though they
project through different media with different fidelities, begin with the mind.
For now, let me take a stab at memory. Those of you with perfect or near-perfect recall,
pitch, or face-name association, help me out when I falter.
Memory acts in bizarre ways. It is wholly unreliable at times,
yet we depend on it for safety, continuity, and sanity.
(Well, sometimes I am certain that we depend on the combination of memory with some
external feedback loop with the rest of the world.) At times it
is not there on demand, and at other times it comes to you unbidden.
When I was a toddler, my parents once asked me what I wanted to drink,
and I replied “a martini“. This amused them for months. They rarely drank, hated martinis, and couldn’t imagine where I
had heard the word. I can’t imagine either, but I bet I
heard it exactly once (while my father was communing over his daily
crossword puzzle, perhaps?) and part of my mind happened to think of it
then. What I am pretty sure of, is that the word popped naturally to mind. And I’d also bet I had hundreds of opportunities to answer similar questions, before such a question and
such a random memory came together.
Tonight, while minding my own business in the kitchen, that same part
of my mind said, butting into a quiet train of thought about what to do
with my noodles, “parenchyma“.
Hmm, I thought, what a funny thought to have. But there it was,
lingering in my mind’s rear-view mirror; fifteen seconds later I could
remember the syllables distinctly. “parenchyma“.
I couldn’t exactly remember what it meant, though it sounded medical in
nature. Random thoughts like
that — a snippet of melody, a name, a face (or, more often, one
particular feature) — often push their way into my thoughts, but usually I can
rationalize some association between that memory and some recent trigger.
I felt quite sure I knew its spelling and pronunciation
(despite having forgotten its meaning), but couldn’t recall ever having
seen or used the word… Did I learn it when competing in my last
spelling bee, in 5th grade,
where I was knocked out early on at the city level for misspelling
“obedience”? [oh, the shame] Or when preparing vocabulary
lists in high school English class? I let it go.
Looking it up now, I realize
I learned it in high school biology under Ida Medlen, one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever known. I can recall a lot about that class and each grueling lab practicum, including the feel of the squid beak from my first complex dissection, but nothing remotely like the sights and smells of my kitchen.
What else does our mind tell us, or hide from us? And to what
degree is our control over our minds limited by the depth of the tools
we have to supplement it? Thoughts of the mental gymnast who
built a room-sized kaleidoscope to help his memories, and the CBC?
guide begun as an aging Physics laureate’s struggle with gradually
slowing faculties, are left for another day. Now it is lightening in
the east, turning every quadrant of sky magnificent hues, reminding me
to get on with my work here on our ball of mud.
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