Thursday, February 21, 2013

Another clue


My job is to remember three words. In a few minutes Debbie will ask for them back. It's my second chance. The first attempt was 0-for-3; given 25 minutes, I can misplace anything.

Attention issues are invisible. Which is good because no one has to know. Except the insurance company gets to keep all its coins. And a certain percentage of every day goes to chasing my own tail, circling back to pick up what got misplaced, dropped, forgotten outright. Discouraging. Not efficient.

Last week I asked Debbie if attention can get better. Does it help, to work on this? Yes, she says. Yes.

Now she's pressing for a strategy, a way to tie the words together. A sort of mental key to unlock a memory. Doesn't matter what it is, just that it works.

I close my eyes. There's a picture of a boy, dirty and neglected. Standing barefoot next to a shallow river. It's muddy and not ideal for bathing but way, way better than the squalor he has just escaped. With huge empty eyes he gazes into the camera. Shame and desperation lingering on his face. Poverty, lack of self-determination. They need washing away.

Somehow this image has significance, like a dream. It grabs on and won't let go. And like a dream the feelings it evokes are real. Empathy, compassion for another human being. Outrage at his suffering. Hope for something better. dignitywashcucumber. The words stick.

And a tissue box scoots across the desk. Perhaps it would help to stop debasing myself with neuropsych exams and 200ks.

It is not my favorite sort of experience, sobbing in front of a stranger in a generic office to remember three words. But here's the thing: emotion plays an important role in attention. It helps a lot with encoding. We track and remember stuff that seems deeply, personally significant. The image of the boy linked to a memory, we all work like that.

I used to be different. I had a detailed, cataloging memory others found amazing and frightening. No tools or tricks required. It meant survival in a large engineering organization. Sorting through a daily torrent of words in email and slide decks, big meetings and one-on-ones. In the flood of irrelevant details, locating one key piece of information. Nothing had to mean anything. On any given day it was irrelevant how anyone felt or who they were, and on some level that was a relief. It was a refuge from emotion.

Now only big things that are meaningful get stored. Not passwords, chaotic project details, the Context of the Moment. Ideas, strategies, people, connections. Emotion seems to be the key. Without emotion it is far too easy to be a spectator, disengaged, adrift. It's both a conundrum and a clue.

No idea what to do with it.

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