Memory – its two elements

Filename: SciamReMemoryOct15
Date: 21 Oct 15
By: Frank Gue, B.Sc., MBA, P.Eng.,
Burlington, ON Canada
For: Editors, Scientific American
Re: “Sleep on it!”, Oct. edition

Dear Editors:

There is a little-reported phenomenon closely related to sleep and memory.

My companion issues a rapid, continuous string of words. I comprehend each one instantly. My brain multitasks as I contextualize them and fit them into my response as he speaks.

I respond. I need a familiar, much-used word. What is that darn word? It’s on the tip of my tongue. It’s been in my vocabulary for decades. Embarrassing pause. Or I use an awkward substitute.

Any time from a minute later to a week later, often upon waking, that word springs unbidden and no longer usefully to mind.

Clearly: (a) there are two retrieval methods my brain uses, input much better than than output; (b) my brain accepts an assignment to find the inaccessible word; (c) my brain works subconsciously over time to develop a new access method to replace the one that failed. Further, this all happens much more frequently as I age (I am 90) or if I am bone-tired.

I speculate that this is an evolutionary survival phenom: Input is a rustle in the grass. It may be a snake – jump back instantly. If it wasn’t a snake, no harm done, but if it was a snake I may have saved my life. Speed means survival. There is a name for this, isn’t there? Action of least risk, or something. Notably, good debaters have less trouble finding their words quickly than the rest of us.

Is anyone studying this, with a view to improving the situation?




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