A sentence that may be difficult to understand:
I use my excellent procedural memory to hide wild variation in the reliability of my declarative memory.
Procedural memory, or implicit memory, is how you just know how to do things. Especially physically — the classic example is riding a bicycle — but other ways as well. Procedural memory is not only rarely a problem for me, but often a strength. It’s why I’m such a good touch-typist, among other things.
Declarative memory, sometimes called explicit memory, is the kind of memory you’re generally aware of when you remember something. You remember facts, and events, and words and concepts associated with them, and those sorts of things. That’s declarative memory.
Sometimes I gloss over the intricacies involved here and just say I have memory problems. But that’s not entirely the case, even though it basically functions as memory problems And it’s not a consistent thing even when it does exist. And it’s not like I just, across the board, have trouble with memory. Nor do I have trouble with memory along the lines most people know about to divide memory up into different types.
As mentioned, my procedural memory has been excellent for as long as I know. So much so that I almost overuse it to compensate for fluctuations in declarative memory. So much so that I use it as a gateway to declarative memory in certain ways.
This is important: This is the way cognitive abilities shape themselves around patterns of ability and difficulty that are unusual. Just like physically disabled children may learn to walk in a way that’s completely out of line with how most medical professionals define how walking development should happen, cognitively disabled children learn to think in ways that are completely out of line with how most medical professionals believe cognitive development should happen. Then if they notice at all, they frame it entirely in terms of what we can’t do, what delays we have. They never look at it as another variation on what humans can do. I love seeing physically disabled children who are too young to be self-conscious about the unique ways they get around.
Anyway, back to memory.
So, my memory issues are probably in several areas, but the biggest one is simply a voluntary retrieval issue. In other words, it’s more about my general inertia than about actual problems with memory.
Inertia, for me, is all about volition. Which is the ability to do things, directly, on purpose. It’s not about the want to do things. It’s not about the ability to do the things if the ability is triggered properly. It’s about getting from want to do. Most people have very little idea that there can even be a gap there. For some people, that gap is so wide that we get various medical labels: catatonia, Parkinson’s, apraxia. For some people, the gap is wide enough to cause trouble but it goes unrecognized,
Anyway, one very under-recognized thing about inertia is that it doesn’t stop at the connection between thought and action. It’s not just the inability to stand up and move when you want to, or the inability to carry out a complex plan.
There’s a handy chart that I always pull out at these times. It was developed by Martha Leary and Anne Donnellan. They developed it eons ago to quickly explain movement difficulties — where movement is understood to involve a lot more than just physical movement:
Anyway, you’ll notice memories at the end of that list. Like thoughts, perceptions, and emotions, those are not what people normally think of as actions. But they are actions. My inertia is across the board, affecting all of the things on the right-hand side of that chart in different, extreme ways. And memory is far from unaffected.
So I have what seems to be an inconsistency to my memory: I can’t recall things on purpose, and at any given time I can’t recall most things. When people see this, and they see it often, they say I have a terrible memory and leave it at that. And I test badly on most formal tests of memory.
If something happens to jog that exact same memory I couldn’t recall to save my life before, I will not only recall it, but recall it with more precision and accuracy than average.
Since memory is imperfect and fallible for literally everyone, I haven’t just gone by what it feels like. I have looked for instances where my memory of things can be corroborated by documentation that existed at the time, and compared my memory of events to the memories of other people I’ve known. Generally — not always — when I have access to a memory, my memory is extremely good. Including my memory for extremely distant events, earlier in my life than I’m supposed to remember anything.
Good doesn’t mean perfect. It just means good. My memory is as fallible and malleable as anyone else’s. Anyone who thinks theirs isn’t is fooling themselves. But I often remember details others don’t, and I remember things more accurately on average, when I do remember.
I cover for the lack of access to most of my memories in a variety of ways. One is by relying on procedural memory for more than most people rely on it for. This gives the impression of more competence. I also can often memorize a vague description of something even if I don’t actually remember a thing about it at all. And I rely on what I can remember — if you can remember something, people assume you can remember everything. And people don’t expect people to have the massive memory gaps I often have, even people with memory issues. I also find ways to trigger retrieval of memories indirectly, but I can’t always do that.
So there’s a problem of access to memory that has to do with inertia. And inertia is all about the difference between a voluntary thing and an involuntary or triggered thing.
But there’s more to it.
Sometimes my memory of the world shrinks so extremely that I can’t remember or perceive anything outside of what I am perceiving in the moment.
Often, events and sensory input that are too much for my brain to process, crowd out memory and mess up something about my ability to remember recent events (past few weeks or months at least) clearly. After a time (days, weeks, months), those recent events come back into memory.
When I’m delirious, I’ve lost memories . Sometimes even after I’m not delirious anymore they never come back. I’m lucky I can remember the period around my father’s death, because several months later I lost it all while delirious. When I got better I got back that period, but lost a couple months in between, never returned.
But at any rate, with all this going on, it is not unusual for the whole world to be new to me, my only guides for how to behave not consciously available to me, some pattern laid down by decades of repetition of this process so that I can normally function. But where the entirety of time besides now is blank, and the entirety of the world outside here is blank, and I am starting anew, all over again, until memory comes back.
And it does come back.
But the world is a very weird, scary place when most of is blank.
Especially when I can perceive something is supposed to be there, out in the blankness, but all I can find is white nothingness.
I have recently begun telling people about this because my friends have told me to hide less from them. But it’s frightening. I am concerned if people knew the extent to which this happened, they’d see me as incapable of making decisions. And that’s dangerous. There are reasons i cover for it.
But understand that I am always covering for it. This never goes away. It’s never not been there. There are additional issues over the years what with delirium, but this happens all the time. It happened to me pretty extremely this week because of an overly long, tense medical appointment.
And I’ve given you the simplistic version. There’s a lot more to it than this. Sorry for all the technical language, but it’s more precise than the language most people use for memory, and I needed that. And I need to be more open about how my mind actually works. There’s a lot of things I have trouble doing, or do very differently than usual, that I am always covering for out of fear. I’m tired of covering for thm.