Working with my Memory – Part 2

During my first week as a college student at Loyola Marymount University back in 1992, one professor opened his class by calling out:

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
“Ah, isn’t that a lovely sentiment?” he continued, then paused to let his words sink in.
“But what about ‘out of sight, out of mind?’”


The speaker above was  Professor Shanahan, and his class was titled “Philosophy of Human Nature” — part of ‘core curriculum’ of classes required by all freshmen whose majors fell under the broad College of Liberal Arts.
This professor was no doubt trying to point out very different ways of approaching any single situation.
I remembered it very well because of how the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” described the state of my short-term memory – the part of my brain that had sustained permanent damage from my surgery in 1988.

On a previous blog post, I’d started to describe how I store new information into my long-term memory.

Here, I address dealing with the much more complicated portion of my working mind: my short-term memory, along with how I compensate for its permanent damages.

“Short-term memory, also known as primary or active memory, is the information we are currently aware of, or thinking about.

In Freudian psychology, this memory would be referred to as the conscious mind.

Most of the information kept in short-term memory will be stored for approximately 20 to 30 seconds, but it can easily be less than that if rehearsal or active maintenance of the information is prevented.”


Has someone ever spewed at you a stream of words in a language that’s completely foreign to your ears?

How many syllables did you catch?

Can you repeat what you’ve heard five seconds later?

Five minutes later?

What about five days later?

That’s your short-term memory at work, when you don’t have a context in your long-term memory into which you can make sense of, and store, this new information right away.

After undergoing brain surgery at age 14, my short-term memory capacity was whittled down to not 20-30, but 3-5 seconds – at best. This not just involves foreign languages, but all new incoming information. All the time.

Furthermore, if two, three, or four distinct pieces of new information arrive in rapid succession, I’d count myself lucky to capture just one or two of them. Hence: “Out of sight, out of mind” suitably describes my short-term memory.

While many of our short-term memories are quickly forgotten, attending to this information allows it to continue on the next stage: long-term memory.


memory 1Hence the compensation techniques that I need to constantly practice:

a. find some way to make sense of incoming bits of information by constantly forming words in my mind to describe them, and grouping similar pieces together before they disappear

b. after each short span of time (within minutes):
capture these words in writing, so that I can view them visually, and review them when needed

c. take time to organize and link worthwhile bits of this information into a structure that’s already inside my long-term memory.

It helps for me to be aware of what I can count on inside this long-term memory:
* the structure of fiction, where causes and effects are always balanced out — formed by my voracious reading of novels throughout my childhood
* the gathering new information through the written word
* the structure of classical music, through many years of playing the piano and the violin

Now, two insights gathered immediately after college, during the late 1990s:

1. The graduate coursework that I’d taken toward obtaining a teaching credential presented the idea of TOP DOWN vs. BOTTOM UP ways of learning:
The first concept focuses on providing students with an overall concept or idea, immersing them in the big picture, before working down to the finer details of that concept or idea. A “bottom-up” approach, on the other hand, presents small chunks within a topic, piecing them together, then builds up to the larger picture.

So if you wanted to teach the English language to someone who is first learning it, a “top-down” approach would be to place him or her into an environment where only English is used to communicate. After he or she becomes a bit familiar with his surroundings, then introduce the elements of grammar, mechanics, usage, and the like.


In contrast, a bottom-up approach would start by presenting a student with key vocabulary words and phrases, building up to sentences and paragraphs. Some rules of grammar, usage, and verb agreement will be worked in along the way, eventually arriving at how the language works overall.

If you were teaching fundamentals of music to a class, a top-down approach would have students listen to sample pieces to familiarize them with major compositions, before presenting the genres the fall into (symphonies, concertos, sonatas, etc.) and details within how they were put together (notes, intervals, tempos, types of chords, rhythmic meters…)

A bottom-up approach would start with elements such as scales, key signatures & key relationships, notes & rhythms, then building melodic lines, harmonies, chords and chord progressions, etc., before fitting everything together to present major works of music.

TODAY, to make my memory work:

Individual elements simply do not stay in my short-term memory; I must first locate a context within my long-term memory to hold new information right away.

Two contexts already secure inside my long-term memory are the two examples I’d just given – both of which were very familiar to me as a child:

THE WRITTEN FORM OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, the structure of FICTION in particular, in which causes & effects could be clearly traced

CLASSICAL MUSIC from piano and violin lessons, workshops, evaluations, performances, etc.

Ever since, I am able to retain information that fall under these two categories without much effort – even after my brain surgery had inflicted its damages.

2. To receive all other information successfully:


In other words, I need to to anticipate as accurately as possible, before each interaction / undertaking / new experience takes place, what to expect.
Otherwise, everything becomes a mess in my mind, and I retain nothing.

Then I rehearse words to describe the possible topics I may want to express, and any responses that may come in handy.  In my mind, I try out these words, expand them into phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. I brainstorm likely scenarios that I may encounter, come up with more words, and place them into a coherent order – much as if I were writing scenes for a story.  Only after this preparation can I be fairly confident in making a fair impression on others.

Immediately after each new experience, I take time to reorganize everything into writing – and in the process find words to describe what just took place, unearth the causes behind each part of the experience, balance them with their effects, and place these words and sentences into a coherent order.

All of this to liken the new experience to the structure of fiction inside my long-term memory.

Only then can I accurately retain the incident, at the same time keeping any associated emotions under control .

So: the next time you see me silently distancing myself from others while they chatter away, you’ll know what’s going on inside my mind. The same if you see me taking a long, solitary walk in the neighborhood.  Or putting together a meal in the kitchen by myself, then doing the dishes while family members watch TV or talk on the phone.

Quiet times such as these play an essential part of my ability to function.  So does keeping all personal interactions brief.

Organize 1

When I feel the urge to express something important, I condense that information into a few relevant pieces, recording a few words to describe each on paper or on the computer.  I wait a while as new insights, often in bits & pieces, surface.  On paper, I experiment with putting them into a coherent order – with all of the previous reading & writing experiences from my long-term memory to draw upon.  (At this point, consulting a thesaurus and the Internet becomes helpful to locate the words and phrases that convey my desired impressions most effectively.)

Then I leave behind what I’d written for a short time, returning to review and tinker with it multiple times.  (Each time I will notice something new that I hadn’t caught before.)  This process also serves to drive the new words I’d constructed into my long-term memory.  Only when I am fairly satisfied do I send it out for others to view.

As you may have already inferred from what I’d described above, interacting directly with other people is NOT something I can draw from my long-term memory to rely on.  The closer I allow others to approach, the more havoc they tend to wreak on this entire compensation process that I’ve developed. I will further explore the experiences in this last category, along with how music works with my short- and long-term memories, in my next post.

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