Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Memory's Trains

So I had to drive up near the Canadian border, in a car, and take the train back. It was like a Hitchcock movie. Right after I got on the train, I tried to think of the last name of my wife's first boss when we first moved here, 25 years ago. I knew it began with a "B," but my memory blocked the rest. One tactic my memory used was to put the name, "Shirley Bassey," in place of the boss's name. (Shirley Bassey sang "Goldfinger.") I was angry with my memory, so I worked on the problem for about an hour, off and on.

Then I gave up, and I told myself that when my wife picked me up at the train-station, I would ask her the name, surrendering to my misbehaving memory.

I was standing outside the Amtrak station, waiting to be picked up and thinking about this and that. Then I saw my wife in the car, and I remembered that I needed to ask her the last name of her former boss. At that instant, and only at that instant, the name popped into my memory.

I believe there is something like an elaborate switching-yard in the brain, where memories are lined up like trains, but they have to wait until the track-switcher lets them through. I imagine a train-yard about a million times more complicated than the ones in L.A., Paris, London, or Vienna.

The memory-switcher stalled that name until the switcher was good and ready. I saw my wife, and the train was let through. Probably about 100 years from now, the switching-yard of the brain will have been mapped carefully, and someone will be able to explain exactly what goes on with a delayed but suddenly triggered memory. All aboard!
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