The Memory Game

Every time I travel for a conference — like, I don’t know, how about WWDC? — I get to experience the alpha and the omega of my brain’s memory skills.

The alpha: I have a freakishly-good memory for hotel room numbers. The desk clerk hands me my key, says “You’re in Room 2713…the elevators are down towards the bar and then to your right,” and bango: that number is locked in for the duration of my stay.

The omega: names. Stupid, stupid brain! I’ve got my hotel room number written down on a little cardboard folder! Even if I lose the little folder, I can just go down to the front desk and ask! The desk clerk’s feelings won’t be hurt. Can I say the same of someone whom I see at least twice a year at Apple-related events, of whom I can immediately recall every last detail except for a first name?

“Hey, were you able to join up with a new hockey team?” I say. “I remember that when you took the new job and moved, you were worried that you’d have to put away your goalie pads for a while.” Yes, I’m genuinely interested in this fine person’s life. I’m also hoping that this will make up for the fact that when I saw him, my brain said to me “It starts with an ‘M’. Or an ‘N’. Definitely a pointy letter, anyway. Well! Good luck! I’ll be watching what happens next with great interest.”

(Stupid, stupid brain.)

I’ve long been aware of, and puzzled by, this memory dichotomy. But I finally figured it out during my WWDC trip:

  • After I learn my hotel room number, I walk, alone, for a few minutes until I get to my room. Then I usually kick off my shoes and enjoy the first ten or fifteen minutes of Not Traveling I’ve experienced all day, before I unpack and get on with things.
  • After I learn someone’s name, I immediately get interested and involved in a conversation with them. If it’s a meeting or a briefing, we start discussing the thing I’m there to talk with them about.

It’s so obvious. Downtime is known to be essential for certain brain functions. The brain uses these stretches of low stimulation to process the information and experiences that you threw at it during a period of high activity. That’s the time when your brain turns information into learning, and experiences into actual understanding.

(This is why if you’re feeling stressed out on a project, “taking a break” should mean “Go for a walk.” Playing a game on your phone or checking Twitter might not be work-related stimulation, but they’re still stimulation. They won’t help lower your stress level or improve your problem-solving. Let your brain’s flywheel spin down. When you return to your task, you’re likely to have some fresh ideas ready to pull out of the deep-frier.)

Mystery solved!

I wish it were “problem solved,” but at least it’s something.

I did take away a new lesson, though: if I can’t remember someone’s name, not only should I just come right out and ask…but I ought to do that at the end of the conversation instead of at the start. Because I do enjoy these conversations and get involved in talking with this person. Better that I get this information right before a two-minute walk to my hotel room, as it were.