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Thursday, June 7, 2012

The unexpected effects of short-term (working) memory loss

(Please forgive my laziness in posting an article before it is properly documented.) 

One might reasonably think that anyone capable of writing blog entries surely cannot be severely disabled. In fact, I question myself a lot of the time. I started seeing a counselor a couple of months ago primarily because I had difficulty believing my own limitations. I thought surely there must be something else going on. How is it that I can write a meaningful essay or research paper, but I struggle to create an outline? Why did I have no trouble doing my own taxes, but a simple cancelation form for an online service was impossible?

One answer is, much of the work I do derives from long-term memory, and my long-term memory appears unaffected. Topics I have previously considered are already outlined in my long-term memory, and essays seem to write themselves as I sit at the keyboard. It takes longer for me to document references than it takes me to write a paper. On the other hand, outlining a paper has proven nearly impossible for me, because outlining involves working with ideas in short-term memory.

Another issue with short-term memory is the affect of interruptions. When an unfamiliar form requires information I am not accustomed to reporting, lack of short-term memory can make the task impossible. Especially if other interruptions present themselves, the time it takes to find an answer can cause me to forget why I needed that answer. Since my accident, it has become common for me to locate an object such as a book or a file, only to have no clue why I needed it. Worse, if there are secondary interruptions, I may lay the file aside, and not recall that I had it. When I eventually come back to the task, needed items are not where they go, and the task has become more difficult to complete.

             One Thing! 
I have a couple of solutions for problems like these. My counselor suggested that I only create work lists with ONE THING on them. I use 3x5 cards for my one thing “list.” Additional notes have to do with those tangents that imposed themselves on me as I was completing my ONE THING. Another work-around is to encode audible memory into visual memory. Once encoded, visual memory is faster, and it can hold more information at a time than audible memory, but often the mental overhead of encoding will cause details to be lost.

Find ways to use existing symbols to reduce the overheard. Visualize fractions as slices of pie rather than keeping numbers in mind. Use the first random image that comes to mind to visually record names. The other day, during a neurological test, I was asked to keep three words in mind, “Chicago, power, and table.” I pictured a table saw with a “Chicago” album in place of a blade. Several days later, I still remember the words I was asked to recall.

Regarding outlines, I have found mind-maps to be a helpful way to pre-organize information for an outline. Mind-maps are like a brainstorm on paper. Write a main idea, then write connected ideas around those ideas, and draw lines to connect those ideas. Use pictures with your words. Mind-maps rely on visual memory along with audible memory. My short-term memory deficit is in audible memory, but my visual short-term memory seems to be fine. Your situation may be different than mine, but your individual strengths are also different than mine. Combining different kinds of memory will help you.

Simplify and declutter
I have been simplifying the way I file information. I used to maintain complex and redundant folders of information so I could have multiple ways to access information, but even with a healthy brain, the indexing of information became a nearly full-time job. Consequently, NOTHING got indexed much of the time, and my secondary method of filing everything together based on the date tended to override more meaningful methods of filing. Now I try to limit folders to three categories based on the book “The art of getting things done.” (cite)

Toss, Archive, Hold
My three categories, which I got from Life Hacker (citation) are 1) toss, 2) keep forever, and 3) hold for a while. The “hold” category has two sub-categories: the things I want to work with soon, and the things that are waiting for action by someone else (and may need follow-up).

Use Tags, not Indexes
Instead of indexing items by topic, I borrow Google’s concept of tags to categorize items for searches. Tags should broadly answer the familiar “who, what, when, why, how much” questions. They may include project names. They may include the context where the work will be done. It is good to create a few tags and use them often. It is good to limit total numbers of tags. Ideally, everything should have at least three tags, and nothing should have more than five tags. When you file documents, look for a “tags” property. Most modern software includes tags. Every photo needs a date, a place, and names of people. Every letter has a reason it was written, a recipient, and a sender, and possibly a company name. Files stored with tags can be searched in most modern operating systems. You can also use a cloud-based system such as Evernote(citation) to keep all files organized and available across multiple platforms(cite life-hacker).

Kinds of Memory
Most people have strong audible and visual memory (cite kinds of memory), and to varying degrees, use both kinds of memory all the time. Other people may find that textures and smells may be better ways of storing short-term information. Recognize your own learning style, and incorporate what you know about yourself to actively make what you learn a part of yourself. I believe there is another “learning style” that is so basic and so universal that it is often overlooked: social learning.

“Social Synapses”
I believe that our social connections are primary to thinking and memory. Discussing ideas, whether in a serious academic discussion, or in a wise-cracking informal context, can make connections between you and other people that are like having additional synapses in your own brain. Students who routinely study with a group, discussing ideas with each other, make “living” connections, and associations with the material they are learning. Our brains are wired to value other people. Social learning motivates the brain, and information is stored with a social dimension that cannot be duplicated with solitary “dead” learning (cite a social learning source). When you are struggling with memory issues, make use of other people as a resource, like a “back-up” of your own memory, but don’t ask others to remember for you. Do your own work. Instead of asking for facts, discuss shared ideas and experiences that will awaken your own mind, and your own memory.

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