Why we remember what we remember

 


So many events, images, sounds, and smells hit our minds every day, but not all of it sticks. We don’t remember much of it, yet there is so much that we do.

Events that seemed insignificant at the time stay with us for our whole lives. Moment we promise ourselves to cherish grow foggy. Random episodes in our lives replay themselves in our heads, triggered by sounds, smells, or nothing at all.

There does not seem to be any set of rules that determines what you will remember and what you will forget. There is a science behind it, I suppose, but that is not what I am interested in exploring in too much depth. However, to be fair I offer the following.

Basically, external and internal stimulus cause the activation of certain chemicals within the brain which provides for a temporary remembrance, a short-term memory. As more comes in, what’s there gets pushed out to make room in the short term memory, and the thoughts that are pushed out are filed and archived in long term memory.

There is so much that happens on the molecular and chemical level in the brain between the time we see or hear something and the time it gets stored in long term memory that it’s a wonder we remember anything.

But we do, and that begs the question: Why do we remember what we remember?

Memory relies heavily by how the mind perceives events and what values it assigns to them. Much of what we remember depends on our levels of focus. Without focus or attention, the chances of converting experience from short to long term memory declines in proportion to the level of focus.

However, focus is not a guarantee of memory. Also, a lack of focus at the moment does not mean that a memory won’t be created. Some sensations are strong enough to be pushed into long term memory, while other are not. This is why intense and extreme experiences are so memorable.

There are a number of reasons we forget and fail to remember. Sometimes memories just can’t be retrieved when we try to think of them. Have you ever felt like you know the answer, maybe that you’ve answered the question before, but just can’t bring the thought to your lips? Some things never make it past our initial experience. These events are never moved from short to long term memory.

There is also deliberate forgetting. There are some things we simply don’t care to remember. They can either be unimportant and not worth the effort, or they can be a disturbing event or image that we cast from the mind. This can be deliberate or it can be an unconscious form of repression.

Memory is a mysterious thing, but it is key to understanding our world and shaping our experiences. Understanding why we remember what we do and learning how to remember what we want and forgetting what we don’t will be the subject of other posts.

Writing in specifics

It’s not the job of the writer to rehash old ideas, and consolidate them into broad general statements, as much as it is to uncover new ideas through the general and collective knowledge that is already present in the world. Now finding that new knowledge, within the collective knowledge, is a skill that is not natural to the thought process. It takes a conscious uncovering in order to develop and nurture the traits before one can effectively find those new ideas even if they’re in plain sight.

With the dawn of the Internet the sharing of ideas has become easier and much more accessible to a larger number of individuals. This has exponentially grown the pool of collective knowledge, and exponentially increased the way that that pool can be accessed, studied, and grown.

 

I see it as my task as a writer to reach into that pool or even to dive right in, swim around, see what I find, and discover the unknown creatures that reside within. I’m not sure that this is a task that I’m up for or qualified for, but it is something I have a passion for.
Who am I to write these things? That’s what I’m trying to find out. And as I go forward, I understand that it will be a challenge to write in specifics about specific subject rather than flirt with the obscure, use vague generalities, or broad sweeping statements. I have a tendency to use the word ‘everything’ or ‘everyone’ which really don’t have any place in good specific writing.
What this is about, then, is developing the skills and disciplines to write well about something specific. This is a simple process: pick something to write about, and while you’re writing about it, don’t write about anything else. I am not good at this yet because I struggle so much with the first step.
However, I’m starting to hone in my subject matter and am finding it easier to pick a subject and complete a post on it. It is more challenging for me than I imagine it is for other writers, but that doesn’t bother me. The time and effort it takes to produce is ultimately not the important thing. Rather, the finished product is what matters. And this is only the beginning of what I hope will be a long and splendid journey.

Learning to run

Yesterday, I mentioned that I am preparing for a 5k race. I use the word preparing loosely. I have only run three times in the past several weeks. However, I have been gradually ramping up my time and intensity with each successive attempt. On my first outing, I ran 15 minutes, on the second 18, and last night I went a full 20.

The race is on October 8th so I think I’ll still be able to fit in a few more runs and work my way up to 30 minutes. I think I should be able to finish the race in that amount of time, even at the slower pace at which I train. Hopefully, with the adrenalin the competition stirs up, my ego (which will do anything to beat out my slower co-workers), and the training I’ve completed, I’ll be able to make a good showing at the race.

I don’t consider myself a runner. Since college, I haven’t chosen running as a preferred method of exercise. In high school and college I ran regularly, not for it’s own sake, but either as conditioning for a sport or in the context of a game. Actually, since the beginning of this year, exercise has not been a high priority, but to a small extent, I’m trying to change that to get in shape and maintain my good health.

Using the Internet as resource number one, I’ve been able to find an overwhelming resource of ways to get started and develop. However, this really isn’t something that I need more information on or to be educated in. Probably all the searching was really just an attempt at avoiding the real work.

Running is just something I need to do: set aside 30 minutes to workout, and then enjoy or endure the pain or the high, and, every time, the sweat. It’s really about finding out what works and doing it. Hopefully there is more pain than high, or I may become addicted.
 

Finally, I didn’t snooze ’till seven

I made it to work by 6:32 a.m. Not to the office, but to the laptop to begin writing. I’ve been trying for a few weeks now to wake up earlier in the mornings to no avail. It seems like every week night, I’m able to set my alarm for 6 a.m. with no problem, but when it comes to morning I’ll hit the snooze button repeatedly until 7 a.m., which is last call for getting up and getting ready for work.

This may not seem like any great accomplishment, but for, me, a new dad, whose decided to become a writer, it is a real milestone because it creates for me a new 30 minute block of time in the day. I’ve been developing more goals for myself in the last several weeks, more things I want to do and accomplish on a daily basis. However, to even start working on those goals, I needed to create some more time in the day, so this was a major step forward.

If I can carve out this time consistently, it won’t all be dedicated to writing. I also have a 5k run coming up, and I want to make sure I finish. Therefore, part of this newly created time will have to go towards running to get in shape and to make sure I don’t come in last. It’s a corporate race, where many of my co-workers will also be participating, so I have to be sure not to embarrass myself. That should, actually, provide great motivation to get in shape, but I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before now.

I have not reached my final target yet, but it feels great to even accomplish part of a goal. The final step for me and mornings, or at least the current plan, is to consistently get up at 6 a.m., and get to writing or working out immediately. I may be a ways away from that still, but this morning was a good first step.

For me, getting up early is still a work in progress, but I’m looking for ways to develop this habit of getting up early. Here are a few ideas:

1. Get a reason

Waking up early for its own sake is a losing proposition. I need a reason to make it happen. I already had some new goals set for myself that I didn’t feel like I was adequately addressing, so now I’ve applied these goals to me my action items in this the newly created time. For a long time getting up at 6 a.m. was a goal in and of itself.

I think now, with some clear activities that I want to engage in during that time, it will be much more realistic and manageable. These goals and plans for the mornings are best if it’s something you really want to do that you feel like you don’t have the time to do otherwise. For me that’s writing and working out, but it could be anything. Whatever the case may be, getting out of bed in the morning is easiest when there’s a reason.

2. Banish the snooze button

This, for me, is still the biggest stumbling block. I need an alarm clock to get up in the mornings (and I don’t anticipate that changing), but one of its simplest functions seems to consistently be my undoing. The damn snooze button is so easy to use: just press it and enjoy 10 more minutes of uninterrupted sleep. I haven’t found a way (but I’m sure there is one) to disable that function, but this is not a technical issue.

The 10-more-minutes mentality is what really gets in the way. During that 10-minute snooze, where I promise myself that I’ll get out of bed when it rings the next time, leaves me with too large a gap to start rationalizing all the reasons why it will be better to re-set the alarm to later in the day and sleep until deadline. I’ll be far better off if I don’t give myself the opportunity to talk myself out of getting up. The best solution here is to get up when it beeps the first time, turn the alarm off and leave the bed room. I have a long way to go in learning the self-discipline to stat doing this, but that is another issue entirely.

3. Make gradual changes

I wanted to start getting up an hour earlier, but that could have been too big of a jump. I may be better off setting my alarm for 6:30 a.m. for a few weeks to get used to this new time, to develop my reasons to get up and to wean myself from the snooze button. Once I’ve gotten the hang of 6:30 a.m., I’ll move the clock back again in gradual increments until I reach my goal.

Who knows, with baby steps I may be able to move it back even earlier. Of course if I get really good and start getting up a 5 a.m., I’ll probably have to write and run every morning. I don’t think I’m ready for that.

Unsubscribe

I’m trying to reduce and simplify my inputs. I spent a lot of time the other day unsubscribing to feeds in my Google Reader. I’m trying to get more focused. I also took steps to reduce the number of bookmarks in my browser and programs in my system tray.

This is all in the interest of making technology a less noticeable part of my life. Don’t misunderstand. I love it and am not sure that I could live without it. However, technology is a tool and should be treated as such. If I can comfortably move it to the background and not give it as prominent of a place in my daily life, I’ll be able to free my mind to engage in other pursuits: really think and not just browse, which is what I have realized that I do with a lot of what I read on the web when I’m “computering.”

My personal goal is to make it more about the writing–the words and the language–and less about the technology and the medium.

I spend far too much time in mind numbing, thoughtless activity. I hope that this project can be a powerful force for change against that negative neurological waste. I want to be different and unique–like everyone else–and, like every other blogger out there, I think my blog will be the podium and platform by which I’ll be able to assert my uniqueness.

However, I understand that in this I am not alone, and I am happy for that. Instead, I get to join my voice with all the others. Maybe it will be a harmonious chorus of ideas, or maybe it will get lost in the noise, unnoticed. Either way, I’m becoming a part of it.

Unburdened technology

Technology brings many gifts to life. But it also bring many new burdens. The next step forward will be learning how to best integrate the modern marvels of technology, but to not let it get in the way. My question is how to let technology work in the background, to be able to benefit from it fully, appreciate it, but not have to think about it or let it get in the way.

One step is to figure out exactly how much technology is needed to complete a particular task. It is easy to upgrade to the latest version of a super sophisticated word processor, only to get so caught up in the new and improved features that you forget what the program was intended for in the first place.

I’ve reverted back to using notepad, a computer program that was probably less complicated to make than a pen and a pad of paper. (No offence to the programmer, but I’m sure making a pen and a pad of paper from scratch would be quite the accomplishment.) I’ve found just in this first post that I am much more focused on the words and ideas that I am writing, because I am no longer thinking about the other functions and formatting I’m sure I’d be exploring in any other situation.

A blog is a technical wonder in itself. But ideally, it can function as an effective medium to showcase the written word. This blog is rather advanced, I think. I probably bit off more than I can chew with the template, and the HTML I had to learn to work with it. However, now that it’s set up, I can forget about it and let it work itself. I know the few simple functions to make it look presentable and keep it up to date. This lets me now turn my attention to the content, where it should be.

Tools of the trade



I’m trying out a new tool for writing. Rather than using a complicated program like Word or Open Office, I’m now just using Windows Notepad. There are almost no functions or options, just a full white window with a blinking cursor.

But the software is only half the story. I’m also using an old Gateway laptop that I bough off a college buddy for $20. There’s no Internet connection or media player. Later, I plan to wipe the hard drive as well to get rid of any possible distractions. I want to have a tool that is entirely dedicated to writing.

I spent a lot of time over the weekend working on the look and feel of this blog, but now the focus has shifted. The most important item on the agenda now is filling the pages with compelling content that is worth reading. I could have the most beautifully designed blog of all time, but without that, I will not be able to attract or grow an audience.

It is likely that the first several posts on this blog will seem somewhat disconnected. This is part of my process of finding my voice. I am confident that after working for awhile that I will find that flow and rhythm that all good writers have. That, I don’t believe, are what my problem will be. Rather, as always, my problem will be thinking of what to write about, and having the confidence that my choice of subject is worthy of being read.

It turns out that my attempts to find a simpler method of writing is not without its drawbacks. In what was meant to be a distraction free environment, I’ve managed to spend more time figuring out how to get this dinosaur to recognize my jump drive and to recognize my plug in key board. The space key on the laptop is unreliable, and I’m not in the mood to back space over every few words.

However, I’m determined. I’m passionate. And nothing can stop me now that I’ve begun. The life of a writer is a difficult one, especially for a young father with a full time job that I’m dedicated to and a little family that I love, more than anything, to spend time with.

Finally, I figured out now how to both run my jump drive and my keyboard on this paleontological computer. I brought my brush and have scraped away the dirt, and now I am ready to go.

I have it set up now where I can comfortable type with my feet up, keyboard in hand, with my computer sitting comfortably at my side on the near by coffee table. This is a very comfortable way for me to write and to map out my ideas. I don’t know if it will bring me closer to being a writer or not.

But it seems like many writers have very peculiar habits, and need to have things just so to work. Maybe me too. Maybe I’ve found what I need to work effectively. I cleaned out much of the clutter, and I’ve tried to make it so my focus can be on creating something new without the constant distraction of things that are old at my fingertips.

Distractions are Good


Distractions are the undoing of any effective time management scheme, right? They are bad and should be avoided at all costs. They should be stomped out. I am about to unwind this conventional wisdom that I’ve displayed in a straw-man argument.

Distractions do not need to be bad. They don’t even need to be kept under close scrutiny. Distractions can be the source of inspiration and creativity.

I don’t feel any need to point out the fact that I am easily distracted. I easily stumble out of what I should be doing into unneeded activity that does not move me any closer towards checking off any of the items on my to-do list.

That’s not the reason I’m looking for an alternative. I didn’t just decide that maybe distractions are good since I’ve failed to successfully avoid them.

However, I think I have discovered that each distraction is really just an attempt to avoid work. Now, this work can be my day job or any other task I set myself to accomplish. But why? Why such an effort to avoid what I actually want to be doing?

The reason I get distracted is because my brain needs a break. This avoidance provides a valuable reset function in my mind. Without distractions, I feel I would tire of my tasks much more quickly than if I indulge myself on occasion.

I don’t want to learn to avoid distractions, though. I feel and un-distracted life would be one without surprises. How many great ideas, inspirations, and moments of joy have been part of a distraction. Too much focus is a bad thing to have if it prevents the enjoyment of spontaneity.

By allowing my mind to wonder freely, I’m able to live in the moment, and experience life as it reveals itself.

Do I get less done? Sometimes. Okay, yes. But the method is acceptable.

Controlled Distractions

It turns out that I’m easily distracted. I know this because after I wrote the title to this blog, I took a break to check my email and read some other postings. 
Distractions are all around us every day, trying to rob the things we should be focused on of our attention. Distractions may after all be unavoidable. However, they can be managed. 
Controlled distractions sounds like an oxymoron, and it probably is. What I’m speaking of is developing an awareness of the things that distract you and limiting their access to your attention. 
It should be that when once you have started something you should be able to focus your attention on it until the time for that mind task is finished. This does not mean everything must be completed. It just means that there should be a set amount of time spent on one project until the next one is picked up. 
I am not a practitioner of this.