Archive for the ‘Memory’ Category

The brain health product

February 15, 2021

Yesterday’s Doonesbury has Mike (Doonesbury) and (his wife) Kim (Rosenthal) listening to a mock Prevagen® commercial in which the dietary supplement is openly hawked as a useless (but expensive) placebo for treating mild forgetfulness (with a digression in the 5th panel on a secret ingredient in it derived from the fabulously memorious jellyfish):


On the orientation questions

December 6, 2020

(Another posting from my time in rehab in Palo Alto, this one originally written up on 12/2. As before, it’s very much a bare-bones posting — there’s a lot about posting to my blog that is still a cognitive mystery to me, thanks to alcohol poisoning.)

In the U.S., medical staff ask patients a series of questions to discover how well the patients are oriented to their contexts — where are you? What city is that in? What state? What year is it? Who is the president of the United States? The governor of the state? And so on.

Early in this inquisition comes a question I now believe to be unreasonable and insulting and which I will now accordingly refuse to answer, even when I know the answer: what is today’s date and day of the week? (On the day on which I am writing up this WordPress posting it is Sunday December 6th. I know this because I now carry a calendar, provided to me by my speech therapist at the rehab center, in which I mark off the days one by one, so I now always know the answer.)

Here’s the problem. The questioner expects the patient to remember the date and weekday for the previous day and then update these by one day. That is, the patient is expected to calculate this information, in the absence of information about these matters: most medical institutions are informational deserts, so calculation is the only avenue available, though no normal person figures out the date and weekday by calculation; instead, this information is provided to us, from many sources.

So … My landline telephone displays the current date (and time). And as soon as I look at my computer, the date and weekday are conveniently displayed, often in several different places. Meanwhile, the daily newspaper displays both pieces of information prominently on its front page. Normal people are awash in the relevant information and would view the idea that they should somehow calculate it from shards of memory as lunatic.

Institutions should be supplying this information for their patients, in the same way that the way normal people are given it: the date and weekday should be prominently displayed in a place visible to everyone, to help orient them in their context.

Memory gaps

December 5, 2020

(Originally written up on 12/3 at the rehab center in Palo Alto.)

A striking, and very distressing, effect of my alcohol poisoning is memory gaps. Some afflicting me:

— (Gap 1) the name of the company my caregiver, Kim Darnell, works for: Wells Fargo.

— (Gap 2) The name of the company my daughter, Elizabeth Daingerfeld Zwicky, works for: Yahoo! (The company itself has a different idea about its proper name, but I’m sticking with its older label.)

— (Gap 3) The name of the native language of my neighbor when I was a patient at Stanford Hospital: Punjabi.

— (Gap 4) The name of the long-standing affliction of my joints (causing significant pain in random joints, different ones on different days); in the context of either alcohol poisoning or alcohol-withdrawal syndrome, I don’t know which, magnified to an exquisitely painful condition: osteoarthritis.

— (Gap 5) The name of the governor of California before the current one, Gavin Newsome (whose name has always been firm in my memory): Jerry Brown.

When I was first asked for this name by a doctor probing my awareness of the cultural context surrounding me, I got nothing at all.

Then the last name, Brown, came to me (apparently spontaneously, out of the blue) and was firmly fixed in my memory thereafter, but the man’s first name eluded me, and in the context of a medical institution where I had no means of searching for information, continued to elude me, until this morning, when one of my therapists provided me with Jerry.

Now, in the interim I could automatically retrieve not just the family name Brown, but also the information that this governor’s father was Pat Brown, an earlier governor of California; that the Brown I was after had himself served as governor a while back in a hippie-esque period, when he was sometimes mocked as Governor Moonbeam; that he then went on to serve as mayor of the city of Oakland; and that he then returned to the governorship in a much more serious guise.

That is, I knew a hell of a lot about this man Brown, but could not for the life of me retrieve his first name.

The general pattern is typical of my word-finding difficulties: I am enormously knowledgeable over a wide range of facts, but there are seemingly random gaps in word-finding.

This is not a matter of personal significance to me. It’s true that Jerry Brown’s first name is of no particular importance in my life, but the identity of Kim and Elizabeth’s employers are central in my life, and my grave difficuty in retrieving these names fills me with shame and distress.

It’s as if some malefactor were firing shotgun blasts at my word-hoard, taking down some items willy-nilly.

An additional wrinkle is that some of the gaps are persistent — the items vanish again and again, even after being found. This is strikingly true for Gaps 1-4. I rehearse them thousands of times, but still they vanish.

The key to recovering them is having a mnemonic. For Gap 1, ths is the song “The Wells Fargo Wagon” (“The Wells Fargo wagon is a-comin'”) from the Broadway show and movie The Music Man. For Gap 2, it’s about what the cowboys shout when they see that wagon train a-comin’. For Gap 3, it’s “word play poke” (pun + jab). For Gap 4, it’s “bone joint” (Greek roots osteo– ‘bone’ + arthr– ‘joint (of the body)’).

Other gaps are temporary: once I have recovered or learmed te vagrant item it’s firm in my memory from then on.

Just so for Gap 5, for both parts of the name. Once I had spontaneously retrieved the family name Brown, I had it as automatically available as any familiar name, like Newsome. Then, once I had been told the personal name Jerry, it too became as automatically available as any personal name, like Gavin.


— (Gap 6) the name of the shop on Caifornia Avenue in Palo Alto that provides the closest thing to genuine New York City bagels locally: Izzy’s (full name Izzy’s Brooklyn Bagels).

In talking, with some feeling, about the world of bagels, I could recall the location of the place and remember that it was Joel Wallenberg who brought me to a full appreciation of the place, and even picture its interior, and recall that its name was an affectionate abbreviation of a specifically Jewish man’s name, but Izzy eluded me. Until a friend supplied it for me, and then it became an automatically available local food name, quite unproblematic.

Similarly, for a brief period, it took some work for me to recall the name of the college Kim’s daughter Maggie attends — Emerson (in Boston). But once I’d retrieved it, it was as automatically available to me as any school name — much like the name of the prep school my granddaghter ttends, Northfield Mount Herman (in rural western Massachusetts), NMH for short, which never presented me with any difficulty whatsoever.

A higher-level memory issue. For persistent gaps like 1-4, the menomics provide a device for getting at the problematic item, but of course, the mnemonics themselves must be memorized. They could be subject to the same effects of the malevolent shotgun-wielder as the items they’re aids to.

In my experience, this seems not to happen — presumably because the mnemoncs are ostentatiously playful and so resound rewardingly at a personal level. But the topic deserves a more thoughtful treatment than these facile remarks.


Acronymic mnemonics

October 18, 2020

Yesterday, in “One Big Happy mnemonics”, the distinction between expression mnenomics and name, or acronymic mnemonics, providing three spectacular examples of the former for spelling English words: among them, for ARITHMETIC:

 rat iTom’s house might eat Tom’s ice cream.

Now, a revisit to my 9/8/10 posting “NICE ‘n’ RICE”, with examples of the latter type.


One Big Happy mnemonics

October 17, 2020

The One Big Happy of 9/13, in which Ruthie and Joe exhibit their prowess in spelling though mnemonics:

Spectacular examples of expression mnemonics, in which

The first letter of each word is combined to form a phrase or sentence — e.g. “Richard of York gave battle in vain” for the colours of the rainbow. (Wikipedia link)

… versus name, or acronymic, mnemonics, in which

The first letter of each word is combined into a new word. For example: VIBGYOR (or ROY G BIV) for the colours of the rainbow or HOMES (Lake Huron, Lake Ontario, Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, Lake Superior) the Great Lakes. (also from Wikipedia)


Timothy and Agrimony

February 25, 2020

(Plants, but also gay male life, with the latter focus leading to talk of mansex in street language (also with some deeply carnal (but fuzzed) photos of 69ing), so not for kids or the sexually modest.)

My morning names for 2/15: timothy and agrimony. A familiar crop grass (for grazing and hay) and a yellow-flowered bitter-tasting medicinal herb. Then these personified as two queer types: Timothy — called Timmy — the twink, a cute country boy, a hayseed, sometimes found with a stalk of grass between his teeth; and Agrimony — called Agro — the bitter old queen, jaded, sharp-tongued, largely disaffected with the queer community and feeling alienated from those in it.

The two men are of course unlikely to hook up, or even have anything to do with one another socially, but they share one bit of their sexual makeup: they both adore 69, find the exchange deeply satisfying. But characteristically, they prefer different positions for the act.


While you’re up

February 22, 2020

The Wayno/Piraro Bizarro from yesterday, on running evolutionary errands:

(#1) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 4 in this strip — see this Page.)

Venture Fish crawls out onto land, no doubt to return after foraging there, then will venture onto land again, and in time its descendants will have become amphibians, and then, well, you know the story.

But why does Venture Fish go on land? It insists on doing this for some reason — the primary reason for the act —  that is inscrutable to its aquatic companion, but Home Fish asks that Venture Fish meanwhile run an errand: fetch some things on the trip, thus supplying an additional, secondary reason for the act.  Home Fish uses the format BACKGROUND CONDITION + REQUEST:

BACKGROUND CONDITION: If you’re going out / Since you’re already up / As long as you’re up / While you’re up / …

+ REQUEST: (could you / would you / why don’t you / please /…) VP-BSE

— made famous in the slogan for an early 1960s ad campaign:

as long as you’re up get me a Grant’s


The university quilt

December 10, 2019

#2 in a set of 4, the first having been my 7/30/17 posting “The queer quilt”. To come: the linguistics quilt and the images quilt. Each one, a 12-panel composition (roughly 6 x 3 ft) made of old t-shirts of mine, assembled into a quilt by Janet Salsman, with the collaboration of Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky and Kim Darnell.

#1 re-used old queer t-shirts, some political, some playful, some artistic. #2 is university t-shirts (from roughly 20 to 40 years ago), from institutions where I’ve talked, either teaching a class there, speaking at a conference there, or giving an invited talk there.

(#1) names, abbreviated names, nicknames, logos, and seals: Northwestern Univ., Univ. of New Mexico, Brigham Young Univ.; Georgetown Univ., Univ. of Kentucky, American Univ.; Harvard Univ., banana slugs (the mascot of the Univ. of Calif. at Santa Cruz (UCSC)), Univ. of Pennsylvania; Univ. of Calif. at Davis, UCSC, Univ. of North Dakota

Still to come: a linguistics quilt, with lx-related t-shirts; and an image quilt, with amusing or arresting images of several kinds.

A rich internal life

October 8, 2019

(The beginning of this posting is about the complexities of conscious experience — attentional foci and internal lives — but midway through it veers into sexual matters, eventually into a raw account of steamy mansex, entirely unsuitable for kids or the sexually modest.)

The Zits strip from 10/5, about Sara and Jeremy’s fugitive thoughts:

(#1) Sara’s conscious attention is on her homework, but anxieties about her academic life and about current events intrude; meanwhile, Jeremy is consciously focused on listening to Sara’s lament, but finds thoughts of food intervening

What’s involved is a division between two parts of the stream of consciousness: an attentional focus, the central concern in what you are doing at the moment; and any number of peripheral concerns, matters that crowd your consciousness without being chosen for attention, these peripheral concerns together constituting what I’ll call your internal life at the moment.


Where are you going with that?

April 30, 2019

The One Big Happy from 4/3, recently in my comics feed: the tough neighborhood kid James and his sledgehammer:


What I hear in the first panel is an echo of a quotation with an ax, not a sledgehammer:

‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

One of the great first lines in English literature, just grips you right off, does E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.