The blog of photographer Kim Ayres

External Brain

In many ways I have given up trying to store too much information in my own head, and have started using the world and other people as a kind of external hard-drive.

My personal ability to cope with processing new input has reduced considerably over the past few years with the CFS/ME. It’s not just my body that becomes tired if I start using it excessively; it’s my brain too.

Information Overload has become a real problem. Faced with too many things I have to remember or deal with, my system crashes and I cease to be able to function properly. I become very tired and emotionally fragile.

I’ve even found, when watching a documentary, science or nature programme on TV in the evening, that the more interesting and fascinating I find it, the quicker my eyes get heavy and I start drifting off.

One coping strategy I’ve been developing in more recent times has been making instant decisions on whether a new piece of information is relevant or not. And if it isn’t, quite simply I don’t attempt to store it.

You can chat to me about your new puppy’s toilet habits, your child’s exam results, or even some life-changing event you are about to embark upon, but if I decide in that instant that this is not life-changingly important to me, then I won’t dwell on it or attempt to remember. The chances are you could tell me the same thing next week, word for word, and I won’t realise.

It’s not that I don’t care – I would love to be able to store and recall the conversation for the next time we meet - it’s simply that I’m having to learn to prioritise as a survival method. Otherwise it becomes a bit like that scene in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, where the computer on the spaceship isn’t taking evasive action to avoid the missiles hurtling towards it, because it’s too busy trying to work out how to synthesize a cup of tea for the Earthman on board.

If I deem it is important, then I will write it down in a notebook I usually have in my jacket pocket. This isn’t a completely reliable method as I frequently forget to look at my notebook - when I get home and step through the front door, I will take off my jacket and hang it up, thereby rendering it and its contents no longer relevant to my thoughts.

It’s not uncommon, while waiting for someone or something, I will root out my notebook and start looking through it. Often I will find things I have no memory of writing whatsoever, or things that are now irrelevant, because the time when I should have dealt with it has long gone – a bit like finding expired money-off coupons at the back of the kitchen drawer.

But I also use other people’s brains for storage and retrieval. When in conversation with someone who asks me if I can do something for them, I tell them they will need to email me to remind me. When I am at the computer, I always check my email, so if a reminder is there on the screen in front of me, I am far more likely to deal with it.

Again, this is not the most reliable of systems. Partly this is because my inbox can fill up quite quickly and stuff not already dealt with gets pushed further down the page and forgotten about. I often need reminding more than once.

However, I’ve also come to realise that I’m not alone with this problem. It seems many people have difficulties remembering to do what they said they would - including those who promised to email me.

Businesses are developing technology all the time to make money from our inability to order our memories. These days most people carry a phone on them that is also a notebook, a directory, an appointment diary and an alarm clock. And if they lose their phone, the behave like they have lost half their brain and no longer appear to be able to function clearly.

I’m beginning to think my problem is just a slightly more acute version of something nearly everyone has. The big difference is I’m admitting to it.


Annie said...

Oh I know exactly what you mean Kim!! I sift information for relevant and non relevant stuff. But I often forget the relevant stuff. My calendar on my kitchen wall is my memory. I don't know what I'd do without it. I can't put reminders on my computer or email important stuff because as soon as I've read it I move away from the computer and forget again!! Grrrrr. I hope you're doing ok and have recovered from the Spring Fling x

neena maiya (guyana gyal) said...

So...I'm reading this and thinking, this is me, yep, that's me, and mm-hm, me, me.


And guess who I bought the brain exercising book for on Saturday?

My mother. Who's 74-plus year old memory happens to be quite all right.

Like Annie, my calendar's my memory.

Earlier on this morning, I was thinking about memory after hearing some news about a family member.

AA said...

Kim, I don't buy all this "my memory's bad" rubbish. Prove it. :-P

Kim Ayres said...

Annie - if it wasn't for the calendar, I'd miss all my appointments. I keep forgetting to look at it, but fortunately Maggie often does and reminds me.

Guyana-Gyal - I had a great book on how to improve your memory, but I kept forgetting to read it. Now I can't remember where I put it...

Adila - what I do remember from the "How to improve your memory" book, before I forgot where I put it, was that it's all about the amount of attention we give to any given input. If we are distracted, we remember things less well than if we are focused on them.

Also, if we use more than one area of the brain we are more likely to remember things. For example, if someone asks you to remember a pen, you are more likely to recall it if you are shown the pen as well as told it. And if you are stabbed with it, you will remember it even more clearly.

This is part of the problem if people are suffering from anxiety, depression, tiredness etc - they are effectively distracted by their condition and just don't take in the information to the same extent, and so have a much harder time trying to recall it (I was concentrating when I read that chapter of the book).

hope said...

The ability to remember too much can become a curse...because when you do forget, it's awful!

Yes, I'm talking about me. I have a sinus infection, started taking meds for it yesterday and just knew I'd feel better at home. Except I was suppose to stay and let a group into the Center at 6 p.m. last night and I didn't remember THAT until about 6 a.m. this morning. :)

I was so apologetic they started apologizing back. Maybe we'll start apologizing to you for trying to make you remember too much. ;)

Anonymous said...

I can relate and sympathize with much of what your saying as I'm certain many adults can. That was until the second to last paragraph. I may be close to the last person in the universe never to have had a mobile phone.

Z said...

My memory is actually a great deal better than it used to be, because I have tried very hard to improve it. I am rigorous about writing down appointments (and the phone calendar is backed up on the computer), but my to-do list is normally kept in my head. If I'm so busy that I'm in danger of forgetting something, that's when I make a list.

Both my husband and I constantly forget what we have told each other, however. This seems to me to indicate that neither of us really listens to what the other is saying. That can't be good!

Pat said...

I'm admitting it too.
MTL has always maintained it is pointless to clutter one's brain with unnecessary info when one can write it down. Even that isn't totally fail safe.
I feel guilty for all the times I have asked, and been readily given, your help. I will be better.

Unknown said...

Its tough not remembering things. Its tough admitting it. The hard part is disappointing people we care about. I think you are very wise to prioritize what is important and what isn't. In the meantime I will continue to read and enjoy your posts.

neena maiya (guyana gyal) said...

Haha, that's like my aunt tying a string on to the car's steering wheel for my uncle to remember something she'd asked [ordered?] him to do. He couldn't remember what the string was for. He's always had a bad memory. Notorious for this.

ooops...bad grammar in my 1st comment...who's...whose...bad teacher!

marke said...

I find the iphone a bit useful - just make a quick note - name, place date, etc ... the beauty of it is it is the whole phone is very searchable.

Anonymous said...

Ever since I had a child I've been very similar. And I wonder how much my thyroid,arthritis has to do with my brain fog. I can push through but I often feel like I'm stumbling along and forget people's names and names of books- lets just say all nouns are up for grabs! I'm so sorry that you are so darn tired all of the time though -that must be so exhausting!

Ruby said...

this has been me for a very long time :D I would say prolonged stress is a major contributor..

The main reason I've been wanting to make google calendar my life's activity center... very flexible, no paper, and not possible to lose. Alas it does cost Money to maintain it! and I must remember to check and update it.

Jayne Martin said...

You're spot on with this one, Kim. I can so relate. The older we get, the more information we have stored in our brains, much of it like old clothes that don't fit anymore. I wish there was a way to send these "files" to the trash bin, delete them and free up more space!

Eryl said...

I have an awful memory for all the things people expect me to remember and a brilliant one for things that appear to have no relevance to getting on with things. I was going to give you an example but can't remember any.

Anonymous said...

Well since you admitted it...I'll step up behind you of course and admit it too...remembering is a thing of the past for me. I let my computer, my cell phone, my calendar on Facebook and my DIL do my remembering for me. It works pretty well most of the time. But like you've discovered if any of those things isn't functioning properly I become instantly bipolar...manic one minute depressed the next!

Mary Witzl said...

Me too -- but I'll bet you're not surprised. This week alone, I've forgotten to phone a shoe store about a pair of shoes, to write a letter of recommendation for a friend, to phone the infirmary about a prescription, and to wheel out the trash.

I've got a colleague with a class load of a hundred students, all of whom have names like Xu and Liu and Lee. He remembers all their names. I'm in AWE of him.

Kim Ayres said...

Hope - when someone figures out how to create an effective "Apology App" for iphones, they will make a fortune :)

Allen - like all technologies, once we start using them regularly, we then wonder how we ever managed without them, and can't understand how anyone else exists without them :)

Z - one of the good things about fogetting what your partner says is that conversations are always fresh and never feel repeated. Of course that only works if both of you are like that. When only one is, the frustration level for the one who does remember the conversations is rather high :)

Pat - you never have to feel guilty about asking me for help. Firstly it makes me feel useful, and secondly, I can't remember how often you have so I don't feel put upon :)

Carole - I'm glad you enjoy my posts. I'm aware they aren't as frequent as they used to be, but I do have one lined up for when I finish replying to these comments :)

Guyana-Gyal - I don't notice the grammar and spelling mistakes of most comments, so no need to worry about it :)

Marke - unfortunately they are also very expensive so I'll have to wait a few years before I can afford one

Starrlife - what's fascinating though is the strategies people can develop to cope. Are you a list writer, or one of those who calls everyone "John", or "dear"?

Ruth - I though google calendar was free, or are you paying for text notifications?

Jayne - there are huge chunks of my life I don't really remember, but I don't know whether that means that chunk of my brain has been written over, or just the access to it has been lost, but it's still taking up room on the hard drive, so to speak.

Eryl - I'll pick you for the next pub quiz then - they always seem to be wanting completely irrelvant stuff :)

Theanne & Baron - technology is one of the greatest things, until it goes wrong, then it is one of the greatest nightmares...

Mary - I've always been in awe of people who can remember names. I usually have to meet someone about 6 or 7 times before a name finally sticks

Ruby said...

oh Kim, google is free but maintaining adequate access to the internet while I live so much of my life away from home? That adds up.

Chocolatesa said...

I have horrible memory too. I'm a list-writer, but then forget to check the lists. I work in a call center and it has happened that if I'm doing two things at once I'll ask the client the same question twice in a row, and then they either get mad or laugh at me. Horribly embarrassing!

I have a magnet on my fridge that says "I know I came into this room for a reason...".

It seems like my evenings are spent going into a room for one reason, seeing something else to do in that room, doing it, then leaving to return to where I was and then a)remembering sometime later what I originally had to do and going back, or b)completely forgetting what I had to do and it doesn't get done till I'm reminded of it somehow.

There's a joke among my friends about how one day I blurted out "Oh no! I was supposed to meet my roommate an hour ago! Yesterday!"

I have alarms scheduled on my phone for breaks at work, otherwise I work right through them! It's embarrassing to explain to your boss that you have to take your break late because you forgot your phone in the pocket of your jacket...

I like to describe myself as that forgetful fish in Finding Nemo, what was her name?

One of my friends with a similarly bad memory says we have memory like a stoned goldfish lol.

Luckily my boyfriend has a great memory and reminds me of things!

Kim Ayres said...

I keep finding lists I wrote and then lost and are now no longer relevant. Leave anything long enough and it seems to become irrelevant... :)

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