Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Starting out

I've been asked via my Facebook page for more information about creating images to remember every day that passes. So here goes.

I'm going to go back to basics as my current process (see the links under 'about me') is handling over 1500 days.

But on 17 December 2011, I had just one image pinned to my mental calendar.

As I added images for subsequent days, I would first think of those I had already added to refresh them. Then for images older than a month, I dropped down to recalling the image for the same day of the week. By then they were entrenched in my memory and a weekly reminder proved enough to stop them fading. After 6 months, recalling the images once a month seems to be sufficient.

To show how it works, I'm going to go through the images from the past month, explaining how I chose the events to capture in the images and how the refresh process works for me.

I always say I don't know if my method will work for other people. It has changed as I've gone on and I think the process of discovering how to cope as the number of days piles up is probably an important part of the process.

But imagine you are starting out. After your first month, you might have something like my last month.

1 January 2016: New Years Day. I went with my wife to visit her sister, who had some more distant relatives staying with her. The image pinned to my calendar is arriving at my sister-in-law's apartment and saying to myself the name of two of her guests. This both reminds me of the day and their names. I have a second image that captures one moment of our evening out together, specifically looking at a Christmas tree. Thinking of these images now, opens up a lot more about the day.

The image is pinned to my mental calendar. I see the calendar as month-per-view pages, with January closest to a large 2016. I automatically know this image is on the front row, on the square for Friday.

As if I'm walking on the calendar I step to the right and I'm on...

2 January 2016: So I know it is Saturday. The image from Friday reminds me where I am. I also have two images for this day: going for a run before breakfast, in which I recall visiting a particular place for the first time (forevermore I will know the first time I went there), and sitting down for breakfast and saying to myself the name of two more of the guests, so I will remember their names and that they were there.

A key point to note is that the images I have selected are very much unique. I could have remembered sitting down for dinner with the same people on both of these days, but the images would have been difficult to distinguish - unless there was some detail I specially selected to make them unique.

3 January 2016: The image is a moving one. Leaving my sister-in-law's to catch a bus to the coach station for our next trip. This makes the link with my sister-in-law and the images of the previous days and also reminds me that on Sunday the bus does not stop at its usual stop, but we must walk past this to the correct stop. I often use images to capture useful information - and as I review the images at least once per month, I'm reminded of these facts.

4 January 2016: We are at the next destination and out with my nephew-in-law and his family, by the sea. I'm visiting my wife's country after Christmas for a month. We spend time with relatives, though I am still working over the internet. The image from the previous day will remind me that we had travelled on to our next destination. It is Monday. On my mental calendar, I have jumped from Sunday on the right of the January sheet, to Monday on the left of the sheet. This arbitrary separation of days into weeks proves as useful in this process as in organising our lives.

5 January 2016: My nephew-in-law has gone to work and I am setting up a paddling pool for his kids, who have stayed with his wife and her mother (my wife's sister). My particular image is improvising a drain plug, when one of the children, four years old, suggested the top of a soft drink bottle, which worked perfectly. If she turns into an engineer, I will reminisce about this moment!

The theme for the two previous days is water: the sea and the paddling pool. This helps me to remember my image fro the next day...

6 January 2016: My nephew-in-law is back and we go into the nearby town to visit the craft market in the afternoon. We buy some snacks and sit next to a fountain. My image is sitting next to the fountain with my relatives. I think of water (even though the fountain is actually dry).

7 January 2016: My wife and I run with my nephew-in-law's older child by the sea, before they all return home, leaving me on my own for a while. My image is us sitting with the child having a drink as he is tired from running. A second image is me running at my own pace over the same route, remembering I am now on my own.

Refreshing the images

The above seven days make up the first week of this month. As mentioned above, I review every day of the past month. To give an idea of how this works, I'll do a quick run through the above seven images as if it was the start of my review, indicating how long I think each recall would take.

So, I picture myself standing on the square for Friday, my thoughts are something like this, with the images and sometimes sounds coming up to illustrate the thoughts:

Apartment, relatives names, Christmas tree (10 seconds), step right, Saturday, 2016, 2 January, run to new place, breakfast, relatives names (10 seconds), step right, Sunday, 2016, 3 January, walking to the bus stop (10 seconds), stretch over left and back a row, Monday, 2016, 4 January, by the sea with relatives (5 seconds), step right, Tuesday, 2016, 5 January, water, paddling pool, "use the bottle top" (10 seconds), step right, water, sitting by the fountain with relatives (5 seconds), step right, water, drink by the sea, running on my own (10 seconds).

Which adds up to about one minute. Quite often, I am that quick or quicker, skimming over the days in the calender (in fact, I just did a test while taking a break to go to the shops, by going through a month from 2013 - it took me four minutes).

I do often stop to explore some days in a bit more depth, from a few extra seconds to some minutes.

Occassionally, I have a problem remembering an image. When that happens, I usually find carrying on will trigger another association that reminds me. Failing that, I'll come back to it later. I've not lost a day yet.

The daily grind

Going places, meeting people, doing things, all help when it comes to selecting unique memory tags.

But I aim to make tags unique during the most routine of times.

For the following days in this example month, I was basically only eating, working and running. Not only that, it has been a feature of the previous three years that I've spent some of January in the same place when we visit my wife's country. The memories could easily collapse into one generic pseudo memory, but following this process, I remember them all distinctly.

Here's how.

8 January 2016: I have my hair cut, and make a point of remembering the name of the barber in my memory tag. I have a second image of running along the seafront, which feels different now as I am on my own for a few days.

9 January 2016: I'm standing on Saturday again. I wake up and spend the whole day working, forcing myself to leave the apartment before the sun sets to go and look at the sea. That's my memory tag.

10 January 2016: I run for 13 km, covering my usual route twice. This is the furthest I've run since my first marathon back on October. That's my memory tag.

11 January 2016: Long stretch to the left to reach Monday on my mental calendar. My phone beeps to tell me there is a news alert. David Bowie has died. I pre-ordered his new album just three days before. This moment is my memory tag. Plus going for a run on the sand, soaking in the beautiful day and being glad to be alive.

12 January 2016: I have a works meeting on Skype. The I work solidly until I realise I need to buy food. I run to the supermarket as I think it closes at 10 pm. I arrive just before, but find it is open till midnight. My memory tag is running to the supermarket after a long day working. This means I will always now remember the supermarket stays open till midnight.

13 January 2016: My wife comes back from the city and we meet for lunch, then go into town. I decide to buy some fruit after we arrive back, but think the grocer closes at 8 pm, which has already passed. At least I know I can go to the not-so-good supermarket if it's closed, but it is open. My memory tags are lunch with my wife and arriving at the grocer, which closes at 9 pm.

14 January 2016: I interrupt my run along the seafront to stop for a drink with my wife. A nice relaxing moment of calm amongst my deadlines. Worth holding on to.

15 January 2016: Back to Friday again. Two weeks since I visited by sister-in-law on New Year's Day. The image is two steps forwards on my mental calendar. On this day, I went running and it started to rain as I returned. I didn't realise, but my wife and two of her sisters, who had just arrived for the weekend, were sheltering in a café I passed. Running past that café with them inside is my memory tag. It reminds me this was when they arrived and that it was the start of a period of rainstorms.

16 January 2016: My memory tag is walking into town in the afternoon with my wife and taking a road we don't usually take, which brought us out exactly where we wanted to be in the town centre. Useful to remember.

If I think about this particular day, I could probably work out what we did for breakfast, whether I was working on a Saturday again or did other things. It wasn't a particularly memorable day. I'll know my relatives were there and it was probably raining at some point. But this process doesn't unlock a photographic memory or run a movie of what happened.

I capture what I choose to hold onto and, perhaps more importantly, what I refresh during the review process. If I only every think of the road, that is most likely all that will remain of a day like this one.

17 January 2016: Sunday. Another long run. 16 km. Then I met my wife and her sisters for lunch. My memory tag is arriving at the restaurant, capturing the fact I was back from the run and being together for the meal.

18 January 2016: My memory tag is having breakfast at a café with my wife. I was up too late to have breakfast with her sisters as I was tired with running and work, though I saw them before they left for the city.

19 January 2016: I'm on the phone, having paused my run. This one image shows the power of this method for me. I'm on the phone to someone at work about an important event. I remember the conversation and the event. That I had squeezed in a run to have a break from work. The call delayed me on my run, which I was going to interrupt to meet my wife at a café. It made me late. In a review, the image would only take a few seconds to refresh, but if I dwell on it, I remember all the things I attached to it for posterity.

Thinking of it now, I have proof of this power. I cannot tell you for sure what I did for breakfast or dinner that day. What was on the news. Whether it rained at any point. But I can remember very clearly all of the things I just said that image captured.

20 January 2016: Another key date due to something that happened with work. That is my image. On the phone again. This time in the same café where I went on to meet my wife the day before.

As I said above, we tend to spend some of January in this town by the sea, even though I will generally be working remotely. I find it interesting that sometimes I will be reviewing memories of this place when I am far away, sometimes when I am back again. I can sit in this café and think of the memory tags showing me in the same seat, or one of the others, remembering the exact date and the surrounding context. I don't remember EVERY time I was in the café. In fact, I will have forgotten more visits than those I choose to remember.

21 January 2016: Thursday and we visit a neighbouring town as we do whenever we stay for any extended length of time. More by fortune than planning, those past visits pegged to my mental calendar have also been on Thursdays. But we also visited the same town in the years before I began this process and I am hard pressed to say what years, let alone the date or what we did. I will remember this date, arriving for breakfast, where we had lunch, the weather.

22 January 2016: Today I upped my long run to 20 km. It was our last day, so we went to a favourite place to eat in the evening. Two images.

23 January 2016: We decided to stay another day, so went down to the sea and then to the café, which serves soup in the afternoon. Two images.

Recent days are hardest

I've commented elsewhere on this blog that the most recent days give me most problems to remember using this technique. That's because there is so much that is fresh and it may be a while before something really stands out as the best memory tag.

With the above two days, it was a while before I automatically knew the long run was the Friday and the walk to the sea was the Saturday. When I had that clear, those became settled as the images for those days.

24 January 2016: My image is arriving back in the city.

25 January 2016: Onto the last row of the calendar for January, staying with other relatives. This was another period of near identical days, where I didn't even leave the house. My tag for Monday is watching a television programme, the second week of a new series. So it sets the start of series in time. The programme is on most days, but I don't put each episode onto my mental calendar.

26 January 2016: With the theme of television, my tag for this day is a foreign series I discovered on the internet while at the coast. Again, it fixes it in time. I remember watching the specific episode as I caught my wife up with what had happened.

27 January 2016: I have have four years of full calendars now. The link under 'about me' to my refresh technique tells you how I keep those refreshed. Just to say, this morning I reviewed the image for 27 January 2013 and it includes news of a local tragedy. The third anniversary is reported in the local media today. That's my image.

One of the benefits of this process is I remember exactly where and when I heard this news. When other people say they cannot believe it is so long ago, I can travel over every day between then and now. 

28 January 2016: Another change of scene. Travelling to one of the sisters we were with on the coast. The image of being on the journey is enough for me to remember our departure and arrival.

29 January 2016: Orientating myself, Friday has come round again. Three steps forward on my calendar to come to New Year's Day. This day was a birthday party. I remember the fact and the names and faces of three people I was introduced to so I will know them again and whenever that might be I can say, "We met at the party on 29 January 2016". Sometimes I find this ability freaks people out a little!

30 January 2016: I go with my nephew-in-law to a sports shop, preparing for tomorrow.

31 January 2016: I run a 10 km race. I remember who was there that I knew and my finish time.

Thinking of that race - and some of the other events here - gives me pleasure to know the day is not lost into the mists of time. There are some days when I think, "This is one of the happiest days of my life". That feeling is something I try to include in the image as well.

That's a month. Today being 1 February, I was due to review all of those images, then add a new one for today.

Tomorrow, I will start the full month review on 2 January.

It you are thinking of starting a similar experiment, you may find it encouraging that I find the oldest days are easier to remember. I've recalled the images so many times. The landscape of my mental calendar for 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 is now very familiar. Once I have found the square I am looking for, I'm away.

If you go to the oldest posts on this blog, you can read through how things changed as the number of days has grown. You will also find out about some of the benefits I find being able to remember brings me.

One thing that has not happened is developing hyperthymesia.

Hyperthymesia is the ability to recall all details clearly. My process is a discipline of memory. At the moment, I feel comfortable that it is sustainable for a few more years yet. Beyond that, I expect I'll need to develop new methods so the time spent on refreshing images does not distract from living.

But I do sometimes feel I can drop through an image on my mental calendar and be back in the moment, then explore the rest of the day, relying on what I might call my more conventional memory.

If you do decide to give this a go yourself, please do leave comments or contact me on Facebook or Twitter to let me know how you get on.

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