Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Words or pictures? 

Having a visually-oriented memory has its bonuses, but can have some weird side-effects. My motorcycle journey to and from work mostly flows well – no real hold-ups except for one patch, where I take a detour through side streets to avoid a horrendous bottleneck. But it’s a long detour and the side streets have speed bumps to discourage people from doing what I do. So I tried an alternative coming home tonight which bypassed that section altogether. Google maps with the overlaid satellite images makes a wonderful tool for planning this - for this part of London the images are extraordinarily detailed; for example, even though the view was obviously from directly above, I could see the shadow cast by traffic lights which confirmed that at a particular right turn I wouldn’t have to fight a way across a stream of crossing traffic.

But I digress. Having printed out a map and highlighted the route in fluorescent pink highlighter to form a strong visual image, it was easy to commit that image to memory and then follow it. Not that it did me a lot of use – the new route was no better than the old. Worse in fact; there was much more traffic.

But the reason for mentioning all this wasn’t to talk solely about my commute. Part way home, at a point in the journey where part of my mind was left free to wander (but only part, I assure you – at a rough guess I’d say 30% of it is dealing in a fairly automatic way with riding the bike, 60% is monitoring what the traffic is up to, and there’s just 10% capacity left to for other random mental activity), I had one of those thoughts that comes suddenly from nowhere; an idea fully formed that must have been gestating somewhere in the recesses of my mind without my knowing it. For a moment, I could see this thought as a blog post – but then a part of my mind I’d forgotten about in the listing above intervened – the part that monitors what all the other parts are doing and allocates processing capacity accordingly. And this part said Whoa, that 10% is suddenly growing to 25%, 30%… hold it right there boy, before you go riding slap into something.

The bizarre thing is, I have a crystal clear mental image of the road and the traffic at that precise moment – yet I haven’t the foggiest idea what the subject for the blog post was. That came in words, not pictures, and my memory for words is crap. If I’d had time, I might have translated them into a picture, but they went as suddenly as they came, leaving just this puff of smoke in their wake.

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