the vagaries of memory

I doubt mankind will ever figure out how our memories work.

Think about it for a second: you’re sitting in your car, listening to some radio station playing songs popular when you were a kid – a young kid. And then, lo and behold, you’re singing along with the radio – to songs you either a) haven’t heard in years, or b) have no recollection of ever having heard in your life. But there you are, singing along, belting out the lyrics at the top of your voice (unless, of course you have the windows open, in which case, you’re probably just mouthing along).

Or say you’re watching Jeopardy! and the category is 14th Century German Romance Plays. Nobody actually knows anything about these things (or that they even exist) but the answer is given, and you respond before Alex has finished reading the clue. Boom! You got it – aced the most bizarre trivia question you could ever come up with. And then you start thinking about why you knew that. Is it because you’re a scholar of 14th Century German Romance Plays? Probably not. Did you major in German literature in college? Again, the answer is likely ‘No’. For that matter, as you’re contemplating this amazing moment in your life, you realize you’ve never seen anything written in German other than ‘Adolf Hitler’.

Then Final Jeopardy! comes on, and the clue is “This actress was the youngest to ever win an Academy Award.” Oh no! You’re an entertainment awards fanatic. You even know who won for Best Gaffer in 1983 – even though nobody else on the planet knows there are gaffers on movie sets, let alone what they do. You scan through your expansive collection of mental entertainment facts, and this one escapes you. (It’s Shirley Temple, by the way.)

My real question, though relates to how we should use our intelligence. Is it better to focus on knowing scads of unrelated, trivial matters, or is it better to know where to find unrelated, trivial information? If you are a machinist, is it better to know how to reverse-thread the inside of a titanium pipe end-cap, or to go look up what kind of tooling and lathe settings you will need when you get around to making that part? I suppose that if all you ever do in life is mill reverse-threaded titanium pipe end-caps, you should probably commit that piece of information to memory. But when you need to make two of these things. Ever. In your entire life. In the entire history of every company you ever work for. Well, then I would say it’s better to go look up that particular datum when you need it. And then promptly forget it.

I imagine that most people have a multi-stage memory, at least in some ways similar to my own. I have the immediate-recall memory for simple things like phone numbers that are read to me over the phone that I must then dial right away since I can’t write it down at that moment. There’s a short-term memory where I’ll recall some things for as long as I need them, and no longer – such as piddling things about contrapositive proofs that, God-willing, I’ll never need again, so I forgot about them after Discrete Math was over. Then there’s that intermediate memory where stuff I use regularly sits – stuff that is too complicated (or private) to write down (like passwords) where you start off with the information written down, but after a little bit of time (and a lot of constant use) you memorize it.

Right now, I can probably accurately claim that I know about 50 different passwords – all of them current, and that I use on a least a semi-frequent basis. But, as time goes on, and passwords are changed, or I no longer need to know them, they’ll fade from memory.

The next stage is that long-term memory that holds stuff you use all the time, and have used for a long time, and will use for the foreseeable future: family and friends’ names, birthdays, your address, cell phone number, social security number, how to get to work, how to get to some friends’ houses, etc. These are things you don’t even realize you remember because you use them all the time.

The next-to-last stage of memory is what I’ll call ‘fond recollections’. Events that stand out in your mind because either a) they were important to you, or b) something else important happened then, so associated events are also remembered. I won’t say that these ‘fond’ memories are necessarily ‘good’, but they’re isolated events that you recall – maybe a birthday when you were little, making cookies for Thanksgiving, putting tinsel on the Christmas tree, that sit-on fire-truck you rode around on when you were three. It might also include some not-so-nice things: crashing your first car, your house burning down, a close friend or family member’s death. But since these are isolated events also, I’m going to classify them here.

Lastly comes that queer, long-term memory that shows up when playing Trivial Pursuit or watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire? – random stuff you never knew you knew that comes flying back into your head just before the timer runs out on Final Jeopardy!

That last category is certainly the most interesting to me. I love playing Trivial Pursuit or pub trivia and watching quiz shows. And if I know the answer to the question, it will come flying back in time to answer about 95% of the time. And if I don’t know – well, then I don’t know.

But getting back to my question from earlier – is it better to know stuff or know how to find what you need to know? I’d say it’s a balance. No, I’m giving a cop-out, I’m going to explain myself.

Knowing where to find the answer is far more practical in everyday life than just knowing the answer, but only on topics that are not entirely in your knowledge domain. For example, I don’t use the PHP function mysql_fetch_array very often – so when I do I go to and look up the exact usage in the manual. I would wager that most machinists don’t reverse-thread titanium pipe end-caps often, so if and when they need to, they’ll just look it up – but they know where to look.

Knowing how to find what you’re looking for is an important skill for other reasons, too. If you’re interested in a topic but don’t know much about it, you might be inclined to go to your local bookstore to see what titles they have available. By knowing how to find information, you can evaluate – by title, book size, and a quick skim of the contents and chapter layouts – which book(s) will be of the most help to you in your quest.

I run into this frequently when searching for stuff online – lots of times I don’t know much about what I’m looking for, but I have learned (through lots of practice) how to filter my searches to return likely candidates to my queries. I also have learned how to find people who are both able and willing to help me in areas I am not very knowledgeable. For example, when something’s wrong with my car, I take it to a mechanic I have already proven to be knowledgeable, and ask him questions. I know enough about the basics of automobile design, implementation, and maintenance that if they tell me my hemofligger needs to be replaced and the muffler deck should be tightened to 500 pound-inches of torque to reduce rattling – they’re pulling my chain. On the other hand, if I’m seeing a problem with my car overheating and they tell me the pressure cap and thermostat should be replaced, then I know those are components of the coolant system, so the response sounds reasonable.

I think the answer to my question, then, is that you need to know a little bit about what you’re trying to find if you don’t use is very often so that you can get the information you need quickly. I know there is a function in PHP’s GD library interface that will convert an image from GIF to PNG formats. I don’t recall what it is, but I know where to look. I know there is a remote desktop utility in Windows, and it’s called mstsc (Microsoft Terminal Services). But I haven’t memorized the command-line options to KDE’s rdesktop tool because I don’t use it very frequently (that’s what man pages are for).

So, know the stuff you use constantly, and remember where to find those nuggets you only need on the blue moon.