Thursday, 14 June 2012

Labyrinthine Minds

I am not a neurologist or psychologist or any kind of brain specialist.  I have not done any real research for this article lest I come across better than I am.  This is just trying to explain things to myself, in my own way, while allowing others to observe what creaking cogs are going round in my mind.  So if anyone is looking for definitive answers for their homework you have probably come to the wrong place.  If, on the other hand, you need to fill a dissertation with random ramblings help yourself, just do the right thing where credit is due.

The standard given for memory is a three tier model.  The first layer is an instantaneous there and gone, lasts for less than a second, unless needed for short term holding. The second is a short term memory, to deal with an immediate item, which can last for a second to a few minutes, but I am not aware of a time on this.  The third layer is long term memory, this is the one that lasts for years if not life.  The first layer takes in everything we sense, sight, sound, touch, hear, taste.  As it does this it discards what we do not need.  The second layer, short term takes selected pieces of information that mean something of  use in our lives until that moment has passed, should that be sometime in the future it will transfer the information to the long term memory for recall later.  Since I have come back from an Acquired Brain Injury (ABI), namely Encephalitis, I see things in a slightly different way to before.  When we talk of memory I get the impression we are really talking of recall.  This then presents to me an alternative picture of what I thought I knew.  

The Labyrinthine library from the film 'The name of the rose.
The alternative then is that we take in absolutely everything we experience through all our senses.  This can sound impossible but for however much we know of outer space our knowledge of inner space is quite limited.  It is a combination of what I have found as much as what I haven't that leads me to consider an entirely different picture.  The brain is acting like a three dimensional library, not the acceptable man-made building, but a labyrinthine type.  There is no neat corner of the construction that is dedicated to a stairwell, with each staircase going from floor to floor, this is more Escher-esq, or the film 'The name of the rose, floors on differing levels and stairs going all over the place. As we take in or experiences each individual piece of information, touch, taste, smell, feel sound is put on an individual card (or piece of paper).  These are then sent around this labyrinth for storage, not in a timeline, but under some unknown retrieval system, no GPS, no maps.  The more important the information, the more often we need to use it then the easier the route back to retrieve the carded info is, like doing a regular journey.  The less travelled route becomes harder to retrace as we struggle to recognise pieces on the way, and sometimes, if we do a route only once for recall we may never remember again.  yet there are times when we seek to recall something we did many years ago, we may make it, we may get lost, it all depends on whether we can find the route back.

Then one day there is a catastrophe, a fire, a collapse, a bomb, who knows but the building is damaged.  No longer can the familiar routes be relied upon. Some staircases have gone, some floors are unobtainable.  As we search for information stored within we find some right where it always was, other bits require that we take different routes around the damage to try access what we are looking for.  In taking or travelling these alternative routes I find older cards from years ago, things I had long since not required but trigger a recognition.  Sometimes I find the odd card but not the complete picture, other times several cards from different pictures are lying next to each other but you know they do not go together, it's a false memory, a confabulation.  There are two cases that tend to defeat me, I can no longer access that area of the library where the information I am certain is stored and the new information seems to fall through the destruction on its way to storage.

It is all so frustrating, especially when I try to explain to people why I cannot recall some-things I was told two minutes ago, yet can be seen talking and living a memory from three or four decades ago.


  1. I've taken this one paragraph at a time as it's required thinking! I like the Ensor analogy although my memory often resembles a Kandinsky or a Pollock. Over the years I've almost given up trying to get people to understand the depth of ABI. If they get the gist and accept that this is merest fraction of what it's like I settle for that. I use two familiar experiences.

    You're in a building with several floors beneath ground level. The lift doesn't stop at each floor any longer as the door's broken and it can't be repaired. As the lift shaft is intact you can go to a lower floor. That's tangible.

    Secondly most people have used a colander. When you use it to drain some of the contents are caught and saved and some are lost. Of the retained contents if you trip over something a proportion of these on the floor rather than plate. Well that's like my immediate memory into short term and safely into long term.

    Keep on writing you are doing a really good job. I hope it is therapeutic for you too.

  2. There are a few names in there I am not familiar with, I will check out their work when my mind allows me. That will probably means several times until I finally get a grasp of it.
    Not quite sure of the colander effect, some things that have no reason to be retained under current models, mainly because they were insignificant, are now being recalled. This is how I developed my model of everything being retained, just not retrievable because it's route is never travelled, until this disaster happened and I have to find other ways to find information and stumble upon long forgotten 'cards'.
    Similar to the 'lift' scenario, some of my staircases have gone, sometimes I can get to a given floor, sometimes I have no access. Sometimes I find bits piled on the floor like rubble but putting them together is not the easiest of tasks and it is not for the want of trying that I have to stop as my brain literally grinds to a halt over trying to work out if those bits of information are actually relevant to what I'm looking for, let alone put them in the correct sequence.