Monday, January 21, 2013

Day 19: Would I Really Want This Superpower?

In my last post I talked about creating (and promised to post some tips on remembering) secure passwords, and in previous posts I've discussed my desire to have a better memory. So, I think in light of today's assigned topic, "Superpowers," I will confess that if I were to be given a "superpower," it would be the power of a perfect memory.

I've heard about people who have so-called "Photographic memories." When I was a kid I attended a Baptist church in West Los Angeles, and the pastor there could remember with seeming ease the names and details of every person he had ever met ... and he had met thousands. This makes me very jealous!

Recently I thought, okay, I'm going to try and do something about my poor memory. So I started listening to an audiobook by Dominic O'Brien titled, "How to Develop a Perfect Memory." O'Brien is considered the world champion in competitive memorization events. He can, for instance, recall perfectly the sequence of cards randomly shuffled from 36 consecutive decks of cards.

O'Brien teaches mnemonic memory techniques that have their roots in techniques practiced and taught by ancient philosophers, related to how oral history was communicated from one generation to the next. Basically he combines three key skills: association, location, and imagination.

I've been putting what I learn into practice. Here is an example of how it works: I enjoy the teaching of my friend and the pastor of our church, Martin Schlomer, and frequently wish I were better at recalling key points of his teaching, long after the sermon is over; but I always struggle to remember what I hear. (I seem better at remembering things that I type ... I think this is called "tactile memory" ... so when I really want to remember something I type it out, but I don't always have the opportunity to do this.)

So Sunday I decided to put into practice what I have been learning. Pastor Martin preached about the tragic failure of God's anointed King, Saul, as recorded in 1 Samuel 16:14ff (see? I remember that! Not bad, eh?) Verse 16 says that the Spirit of God departed from Saul, after Saul long resisted what God was trying to do through him. (In biblical terminology, this is called "grieving the Spirit.") As good preachers do, Pastor Martin laid out three key points of unfortunate things that happened in Saul's life, as a result: First, he was abandoned by God. Next, he was oppressed by evil spirits sent from God. Finally, he was clueless as to what was happening to him. (Verse 17 records that even his servants saw what he did not.)

So the key words in the outline I wished to remember were: abandoned, oppressed, and clueless. Using association, location, and imagination, I proceeded to build a little story in my brain, in order to illustrate vividly and remember these three words.

For association, I decided to associate each of these three words with a fruit or a vegetable which started with the same first letter. I associated "abandon" with "apple," "oppressed" with "orange," and "clueless" with "cauliflower."

For location, I picked the location I was looking at whilst listening to the sermon -- the stage of our church. The important thing about location is to be able to assign places in a sequence, as if you are going from point A to point B to point C ... so, moving from left to right, I picked the far left side of the stage (beneath a potted plant) as the location for the apple, and the center of the stage (in front of the podium) for the orange; and the right side of the stage, in front of the piano, for the cauliflower.

Next, imagination. I built a story in my head, using these three objects of association, and their location on the stage. In my head, I imagined a man bringing an apple up to the stage, and abandoning it under the plant, running away furtively. Another man places the orange in front of the podium, then proceeds to smash it (oppress it) with his fist. And finally, I see that the cauliflower has been placed in front of the piano; but in my mind's eye I can't see who has placed it there ... I'm clueless!

So, as this story unfolds in my brain, it becomes easy to recall the three key words in the sermon: abandoned, oppressed, and clueless!

But I receive another challenge toward the end of the sermon, when Pastor Martin announces that next week he is going to discuss the three-step process for reconnecting with God: repentance, surrender, and redemption. I think: Can I weave these three key words into my existing story, using the same location, the same objects (but a slightly different association) ... and a little more imagination? And I discovered that I could. Here's how I augmented the story:

At World Vision we have what we call "major donor reps," or representatives. One of these is a friend of mine, Cory Trenda, whom I happened to chat on the phone with on Friday. So I envisioned Cory as the man who abandoned the apple. He was a rep. The association: repentance. (I also envisioned Cory as looking very sorry for what he had done in abandoning that poor apple!)

Next, I envisioned a knight clad in armor ... Sir Galahad ... as the one who was smashing the orange with the broad side of his sword. "Sir" sounds a lot like my second association: "Surrender." (And while he was whacking it, Sir Galahad was shouting at the orange:  "Surrender!")

Finally, the third one was hard, because I knew that clueless me never actually saw who left the cauliflower in front of the piano. But I did now imagine that I saw a flash of red, disappearing behind the piano. Whoever abandoned it was wearing bright red! The association: Redemption. And redemption means "to buy back," so I then envisioned myself walking up to the stage, taking the cauliflower, and leaving a dollar bill in its place.

"Okay," I can hear you objecting, "I can see how you now remember your six key words. But that sounds like a lot of effort ... figuring out the association, visualizing the location, and imagining such an elaborate and crazy story." I admit it was. My brain feels a little tired out by the effort, even now!

So, I'm sure that perfect memory doesn't come without a lot of work and practice. O'Brien says he does NOT have a photographic memory, so he works a very specific mnemonic system/technique (using association, location, and imagination) to achieve his feats of memory. And that as you exercise your brain (just like exercising a muscle), the more you practice, the easier it becomes.

On the other hand, some people, very few people, are born with the "superpower" of a perfect, photographic memory. But interestingly enough, I've read that for many such people this is actually considered a curse. In a "Science Blog" titled "Hell is a Perfect Memory," blogger Jonah Lehrer quotes an article by Samiha Shafy in the German magazine Spiegel Online about a woman named Jill Price who inexplicably developed the superpower of a perfect memory at a specific moment on a specific day in 1985 when she was eating dinner at a restaurant with her father, and suddenly began to remember with absolute clarity everything that has ever happened to her since that moment. Says she:
“People say to me: Oh, how fascinating, it must be a treat to have a perfect memory." Her lips twist into a thin smile. “But it’s also agonizing.”
In addition to good memories, every angry word, every mistake, every disappointment, every shock and every moment of pain goes unforgotten. Time heals no wounds for Price. “I don’t look back at the past with any distance. It’s more like experiencing everything over and over again, and those memories trigger exactly the same emotions in me. It’s like an endless, chaotic film that can completely overpower me. And there’s no stop button.”
She’s constantly bombarded with fragments of memories, exposed to an automatic and uncontrollable process that behaves like an infinite loop in a computer. Sometimes there are external triggers, like a certain smell, song or word. But often her memories return by themselves. Beautiful, horrific, important or banal scenes rush across her wildly chaotic “internal monitor,” sometimes displacing the present. “All of this is incredibly exhausting,” says Price.

We know as a result of advances in neurological sciences that whether or not we have what we consider a "good memory," everything that we experience is stored somewhere in our gray cells. It's just not (normally) readily available for recall, at least by normal means; but using tools like hypnosis, we can usually get at these memories.

So, why is so much of what we experience hidden from our conscious minds? I think people like Jill Price give us a clue to the answer: Our brains actually organize and store away memories, the way they do, for our protection. In 2006 I had a serious cycling accident, which I don't remember hardly any details of. The back of my helmet was crushed and I experienced a severe concussion. People say, "That must have been awful!" I'm sure it was; I just don't remember any of it@ I suspect the memories are irretrievably lost as a result of the brain bruising, I'm not sure. But, while the experience of one or two other very painful bike accidents leads me to believe I probably did experience some pain, I don't remember any of it.

I think for our mortal and fallible brains, to remember everything might indeed be a hell of sorts.

In his blog, Lehrer goes on to quote another case of perfect memory, and its tragic result:
In the masterful The Mind of A Mnemonist, the Soviet neurologist A.R. Luria documented the story of a Russian newspaper reporter, D.C. Shereshevskii, who was incapable of forgetting. For example, D.C. would be bound by his brain to memorize the entire Divine Comedy of Dante after a single reading. Audiences would scream out random numbers 100 digits long and he would effortlessly recount them. The only requirement of this man’s insatiable memory was that he be given 3 or 4 seconds to visualize each item during the learning process. These images came to D.C. automatically.
Eventually, D.C.’s memory overwhelmed him. He. struggled with mental tasks normal people find easy. When he read a novel, he would instantly memorize every word by heart, but miss the entire plot. Metaphors and poetry – though they clung to his brain like Velcro – were incomprehensible. He couldn’t even use the phone because he found it hard to recognize a person’s voice “when it changes its intonation … and it does that 20 or 30 times a day."
So perhaps I should be thankful for my imperfect memory. (As I am thankful for the tools to help me remember things I really want to remember!)

One more thought before I close: What about God? God's memory is surely perfect, isn't it?

And ... the surprising and interesting answer to this question, according to Jeremiah 31:34, is "No, it is not" ...
No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

When it comes to my sins, my memory is better than God's! Scripture says my sins were nailed to the Cross when Jesus died -- buried in the deepest sea. "As far as the east is from the west," says the psalmist in 103:12, "so far has he removed our transgressions from us."

I am thankful that, in ages to come, God's selective memory will be mine, and that I will be able to rejoice forever with a joy everlasting for what He has done for me!

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