Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The persistence of memory

From about eight to about five years ago, I was pretty sick. At the time we had a phone in our kitchen, hanging on the wall near the water cooler. I've been healthy since then, and the phone (like everyone's, I'm sure) has migrated from a static land line that fastened to the wall to some form of handset that lives where you want it to live.

So today I'm home from the hospital and ready to get my prescriptions filled, and I wander into the kitchen and grope ineffectually at the wall beside the water cooler. There's nothing there. I've also done this before, regularly, every six months as I get my prescription for antibiotics to be taken prior to teeth cleaning. Walk into the kitchen, swing my hand at the wall.

See, that's where my mind has put phoning the pharmacy. I didn't phone much of anybody else in those days - hated phones, still do - and so the action of phoning The Medicine Shoppe is linked with that patch of wall. Every time I do it, I shake my head, walk back to the computer and use the handset beside the screen. Or my mobile.

Similarly, I just bought a new car. The old one, which I had for ten years, and the one before it, which I probably used for five or so years, had a garage door opener in a little compartment by my left knee. The new one has a gadget attached to the rearview mirror. You show the gadget your garage door opener, it learns to imitate it, and from then on you press a button on the mirror. There is no compartment by your left knee.

But every single day I've backed out of the garage, I've groped around the fascia by my knee, remembered and then reached up to the mirror. Every single day now for six weeks.

I've read a lot over the years about how little people really take in from the world around them. Between automatic systems designed to reduce visual and auditory input to a small enough bandwidth that we can react to it in a timely fashion, and our subsequently learned reactions to recurring events, we simplify what we use to navigate our environment almost to the point of absurdity.

Normally, it doesn't show. Occasionally someone will show us an optical illusion that works because our brains make physics-based assumptions about perspective and size that aren't true when an artist gets involved, and occasionally, we'll get sick again after five years and have to re-learn how to phone the pharmacy. Then we see it, and shake our heads a bit. I may be a little worse than the average person, but after watching STB drive my car out of the garage and scratch at the panel by his knee before remembering, I know I'm not the only one.

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