Friday, November 11, 2011

Remember What?

Even if we didn't see it, many of us by now have heard about the U.S. politician who during a debate this week found he simply couldn't remember the name of the third governmental agency he would abolish as president. If you watch the video, it's an "Oops!" moment with which many of us can identify. When it happens to someone over the age of fifty, it's often referred to as a "senior moment". And age does sometimes have something to do with it, but (according to the article I read), this "brain freeze" is more accurately described as a "retrieval failure". This common problem is aggravated by stressful situations.

Memory is a fascinating phenomenon, isn't it? I have a really hard time remembering people's names. Faces, yes. Names, no. I've tried all of those tricks. For example, when introduced to "Steven Fury", repeat his name and then create a memory jogger – an image of a furious Steven with flames coming out of his ears. Easy when you're remembering a guy with a last name like "Fury", but what about a name that isn't so helpfully evocative of a cartoon in your head?

As mystery writers we often call on our characters to remember. I was reminded of this recently by a query from my editor. In a scene, my police detectives were interviewing the sister of a murder victim. The woman told them about an incident that had happened nine years earlier. This was an incident that she only remembered after prompting by my detectives and she had considered it unimportant at the time. But in recounting the incident, she recalled the name of a person that she only heard someone else mention. My editor asked, "Why does she remember that name all those years later?" Of course, she wouldn't have. But I did need my detectives to have that first name so that they would have another lead to follow.

Oddly enough, about fifty or so pages later, another character is asked about something from that same time period. But she explains – without being asked – that she still remembers because that memory is linked to something that mattered to her. Obviously, that character had realized – as I had subconsciously – that some feats of information retrieval require an explanation. My editor's comment: "Maybe something like this would work for the name."

As writers – note to self – we should keep in mind how fallible the human memory really is. We should remember all our own "tip of the tongue" moments when we know what we're trying to remember but can't get to it. Those times in a conversation with other people, when we all know the title of that movie and are nodding our heads but no one can retrieve the information without a communal effort. Or what about waking up in the middle of the night because what you "blanked on" during a conversation suddenly "pops into" your head?

Or what about the numbers that you remember by touch? The ATM access code or the code for retrieving your voice mail at the office? Fine if you let your fingers do their job, but for goodness sake don't think about what you're doing because you're sure to find your fingers pausing as you wonder if that's right. Or, on the other hand, what about those numbers that come easily? I have no trouble at all remembering my social security number. It could be because I had to memorize it when I was (briefly) an Army food inspector. But I think I remember that number because it's a "snappy" sequence that my brain enjoys retrieving and my mouth enjoys saying.

That could explain why I can still recite portions of Shakespearean monologues that I learned in college, but can't remember the details of an office memo that I read yesterday. Memory is selective. And we are sometimes like the precocious little girl in an Alfred Hitchcock movie who informs her father that she doesn't remember a telephone message because she didn't have a pencil to write it down and she have entirely too many other more important things to remember to clutter up her brain with something so unimportant.

If it's boring and/or annoying and I can look it up later, I see no reason to even try to remember. Which can be a problem if I don't "remember to remember" to look it up later and it really was something that I needed to do.

Then there's the matter of witness testimony. Many of us know how unreliable real-life "eyewitness" testimony tends to be. We know that experiment beloved of college professors in which someone runs into a classroom, does something, and runs out again. The varied descriptions of the intruder and the incident by the startled students is intended to demonstrate what happens in the real world when people observe an incident that they are later asked to recall. This type of recall is particularly problematic if the witnesses were frightened. And then there are the variations among witnesses with regard to alertness, eye sight, and the other factors that affect accuracy of recall.

Having been reminded of what I knew about memory, I intend to make more use of this with my characters. Unless I should forget again.


Donis Casey said...

I'm no fan of Rick Perry, but his memory lapse did not bother me in the least. Mainly because I often can't remember what I walked into a room for. Tricky memory is a great device to work with when plotting a mystery. What if that character's memory is faulty, or she misremembers (i.e. is sure she's right but is proven to be very wrong)?

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

I like that idea of a character with a faulty memory. Umm. . .

I'm not a huge Perry fan either, but I felt his pain.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Some days lines of poetry I once "had" to memorize buzz around in my brain and it replaces the static electricity of my everyday life. It's a good thing! Wish I had memorized more.