Sunday, 7 June 2020

Now I know what this is all about

I began this process of remembering every day that passes over 3000 days ago.

I continue to pin an image to my mental calendar at the end of every day as a memory tag.

But as I've been recording here, it has become increasingly harder to refresh the images.

Several times I've thought of giving it up as an experiment that has reached its natural end.

But I haven't. During the current coronavirus pandemic lockdown, the memory tags mean I can distinguish between days with few distinguishing features and mark the passage of time. Otherwise they would just be a blur.

More importantly, I've now realised what this process is all about.

I had hoped it would induce hyperthymesia, a rare ability to access all memories as if they are fresh. That hasn't happened. It seems that I need to review the images pinned to my mental calendar once per month to be able to remember them easily next time around. It's a memory exercise. It hasn't rewired my brain to make recall effortless.

Now there are too many days to run through all the images on that timescale, even though the process I use has evolved over time. My current method is to run through a year of memories over the course of a week or more. There are now approaching 9 years to cover.

I was becoming frustrated because sometimes I'd hit blanks and either take a break for a few days or jump ahead and hope I could come back and fill in the blanks - which generally does work.

Yet, as the reviews have taken longer, the monthly target of reviewing each image has become a forlorn hope and I face the prospect of each review being harder every time and blank days appearing and joining up into voids in my memory.

Just like the years before I began this process, where the reference points are few and far between.

But it struck me as I was recalling images of my mother, now in the later stage of Alzheimer's where she no longer remember me or her husband of 62 years, that this experiment was always about remembering.

Remembering the days I have lived. The people I love. The experiences we have shared. The places we have been.

I've currently been progressing through 2016. Before my mother's illness was bad, but when there were signs of it. Those signs are more poignant now. The times of normality and happiness more precious. Revisiting the past continues to be enriching as I see it differently as my vantage point changes and its impact on the present also changes.

Going through these memory tags in the past few days, it struck me that this is no longer principally to refresh the images for my memory trick. I am going to stop worrying that it's taking far longer than a month to complete the cycle. That pressure is off.

I'll finish this year in the time it takes. Then move onto the next in the same way. But without pressure to hit some target of weeks or months covered in each period.

It is only the recent days where discipline is required to establish the images.

I am savouring remembering. Filling in most of the blanks. Sometimes resorting to looking back at pictures on my phone - which is not cheating, as I set the rule. A photograph can orientate me and suddenly unlock a whole sequence of memories.

Even as some images slip away from me, the memories of these years are far richer than the previous decades of my life. And I will continue to add my memory tag for each day.

This was always about remembering.

Monday, 20 April 2020

The Lockdown Challenge

Like half the planet I am currently on lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As I am living with someone who is in an at-risk group, I am not going out at all, other than for a walk around the grounds of our apartment block.

Days are pretty repetitive. But there's always something to single out as a memory tag.

I've been using the opportunity of knowing people will most likely be at home to call friends I haven't spoken with for years.

I've been recording some of my (bad) piano playing to share with family.

I've had Skype Sunday lunches with family in different houses.

I've been doing virtual runs - running in place/on the spot while watching a treadmill video on youtube and measuring my progress with my running watch in treadmill mode and a heart rate meter measuring my effort (so, for example, descending the Grand Canyon is a stand out day - yesterday, I started a virtual run of the New York City Marathon)

I've ordered shopping from a nearby store (not so significant, but still a landmark).

So, I can still run through the past month of lockdown and differentiate the days.

Without this process of measuring every day that passes, it would all be a blur. In fact, it would be difficult to even remember how long this has been going on.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Forgetting remembering

I'm approaching the 3000 day milestone in this process of remembering every day that passes.

It continues, but has changed significantly from the early months and years, when I could review the images pinned to my mental calendar in a short period of time. My early techniques of a moving windows, pulling up a few days from past weeks or months to refresh them have long gone.

Now I generally work my way through a whole year at a time, but it takes longer and longer to do so.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, I am recalling periods that took place up to 8 years ago now, running through them day by day. To be honest, I've moved on from a lot of these times. There is no longer the same attraction of delving into those memories. Revisiting places I once lived and activities of previous employment does not interest me to the same extent.

So, I'm less motivated to review these times. All the same they throw up surprises and insights and I would like the option of being able to remember these days when I choose.

But it is also getting harder. The time between reviewing the same images is now over a month. It might take me a couple of weeks to run through a year of images, several months to cover the 8 years. Some days, I might not give any time to the process of the more distant review. The recent past is of more interest and I continue to use my refresh techniques for recent weeks and months. That may take all the time I have free for reviews in a given day.

Now I find I no longer remember the last time I recalled the images. When reviews were less than a month apart I could remember remembering. There was a familiarity to the sequence of images or their places on my mental calendar. Now I'm forgetting remembering. If I come across blanks, it is harder to recover them.

All the same, there are long periods where I whizz through the images rapidly, covering a week in a matter of seconds. After struggling with 2018 and thinking this process may be reaching its natural end, I've found I've rattled through 2017.

I'm trying to cultivate the feeling of relaxing into the reviews again. They have started to become frustrating when I've hit blanks and the images have eluded me, which has put me off the whole review process. Accepting an image and expanding my memory of what happened on that particular day helps fill the other days, even some separated my months or years.

So I'm not done yet.

Monday, 14 October 2019

Brain chemicals

Remembering every day that passes continues to be part of my routine.

To stop the days for nearly eight years I've been doing this now from fading, I call up the images pinned to my mental calendar as memory tags. The techniques I used in the early months and years, as described in the "how I remember" posts can no longer cope with the volume. Instead of moving windows recalling images from a few days each week or month, I now run sequentially through the days.

Sometimes I start with 17 December 2011 and work forwards. Sometimes I'll complete the current year and then each previous year. Sometimes a year here, and a year there.

Generally at some point of the month, I'll recall the images for the same month of each year, for the perspective on my life it brings me. It's now October. It's interesting to know what I was doing for every day of each October from 2012 to the present year.

Sometimes I can rattle through a period of days or weeks in seconds. Other times, I'm stuck and may have to range ahead until I find an image to anchor me and then can try to fill in the blanks.

There are two realisations this ever growing challenge to refresh the memory tags have brought.

Firstly, it seems recalling the images about once per month is about right to maintain easy recall. I know when a retrospective of the current month in past years strikes images I've recently remembered because they come so easily to mind. However, covering the whole eight-year period takes more than a month now and I fear it will become progressively more difficult.

And the longer it takes to find the images, the less I get done in the short snatches of time when I do this, and so the longer between recalls. It's a vicious circle. Previously such challenges have led me to find new refresh techniques. But I don't seem to have anywhere else to go now. It seems inevitable blanks will appear or I'll simply give up on the recall procedure.

The second realisation is that there is something going on in my brain that determines how easy it is to recall images.

I sometimes find I am struggling to fill the blanks in a month and so put it aside and get on with something else or move on to the next period. But then I'll come back again and suddenly the images all pop into place (I can remember the point I had reached in the refresh process from the wave front of clear images).

It may be that a specific memory tag orientates me and triggers other recalls.

But other times it seems there is something else going on, as if the presence or lack of some brain chemicals makes all the difference.

It is worrying in a way that my ability to recall varies like this. My mother has Alzheimer's and I see how her ability to connect varies throughout the day and from day to day. Might there be a link? Could this be an early symptom in me?

On the other hand, it could be down to my level of tiredness or blood sugar.

It's something I will continue to explore.

Friday, 11 October 2019

On this day

Opening Facebook sometimes on my phone, I get one of those reminder messages of something I posted two, five, seven years before, or whatever.

Before scrolling down to take a look, I take a few moments to scan through my mental calendar to predict what it will be. Usually, I can figure it out.

When I can't it's generally because it's a photo from a running road race I took part in a few days before. These become available from official photographers some time later. Now I've got used to this, I check for the last race I ran when I don't have a specific event for the date that might have prompted a posting.

It's a useful test and a reminder that, but for this process, I would rarely have a clue of what would be pictured. I wonder how surprising they are to others, or can you predict?

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Playing the piano for 10,000 hours

I've not read Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers: The Story of Success", but I've come across the theory that an expert at anything is not an innate genius, but has practised for an average of 10,000 hours. This has been attacked as over-simplified or plain wrong, but it has revolutionised by attempts to learn to play the piano.

I have tried to learn the guitar, piano and even penny whistle many times over the years. I decided to try again in January 2019, but decided that this time I would practice every single day for at least an hour. That made me think of the 10,000 hour theory. I did a calculation and found that if I practised for just over an hour per day then I would reach 10,000 hours in 26 years' time.

That brings home how much practice is involved.

I was not put off, however, reasoning that after even a few hundred hours, I'd be able to knock out a tune as a party piece without becoming flustered.

I investigated apps promoted for forming good habits and downloaded one where I have set my target of 10,000 hours and enter my daily total of actual hours to eat into this. I already use a pomadoro timer on my phone to time 30-minute chunks of time for work activities and added the category of "music" to log the time spent on this.

And away I went, working through the exercises in a piano tuition book I had downloaded on a previous attempt to learn the piano.

This time, I did not get so disillusioned with apparent lack of progress, or the fact that my progress showed me still far off being half-competent at playing "London Bridge is falling down". I checked my app and I had only done, say, 30 hours, so what could I expect? That's less than a week of full-time study.

One of the criticisms of the 10,000 hour theory is that it is not just the time spent practising, but the type of practice, which has to build up the fundamental skills. This led to two thoughts. Firstly, it doesn't matter if my playing is plodding or error strewn, as long as I am building up a particular skill.

I once taught myself - and then many friends - to juggle. In that, my approach was to focus on one thing at a time. Throwing from your right hand towards your left, for example. Throw it in a nice arc and catch it. Once you've seen you can do that, take a second ball in your left hand and drop it before catching the first. Don't worry where it goes, just get rid of it. Once that is mastered, think about throwing the second ball in a reverse arc in the direction of your right hand. The throwing and catching of the first ball goes to hell. Just remind yourself you have already cracked doing that - and remind yourself a few times, so that you do it out with a corner of your mind - then go back to the task in focus. Before too long, you can do arcs from both hands, then introduce the third ball. Soon you are juggling, without having to focus overly on any single task, although you can zoom in on any aspect to perfect it.

So I focus on my left hand playing the piano. Then the right. Then matching the rhythm perfectly to the metronome. Then thinking about the chord changes. And so on. Once I've mastered a song – or I'm tripping myself up by over-thinking it – I'll increase the speed, or play it with my eyes closed, or change the instrument. When I return to it again, usually better than before, I'll focus in on different aspects, looking for patterns, rhythms, muscle memory, coherence of notes, expression and the pleasure of playing. Moving on to the next piece, I can see that a new element has been introduced to develop another aspect of skill.

The second thought arising from the need to focus on skills was to have some lessons. So I booked a trial lesson, where some answers to my questions made an immediate difference to my abilities. I had tried guitar lessons a couple of times previously, but a combination of the tutor's approach and my lack of time investment meant I didn't progress – or, at least, didn't notice the progress.

Three months' later, I'm on 110 hours practice. Which, if this was a full-time endeavour, would be about three weeks' study – nothing at all if you think about how long you spent studying at school or college. Yet, even in this short time, I have pieces of the jigsaw coming into focus, if not yet coming into place, and feel that I am getting somewhere.

Just 9,890 hours to go.

Monday, 8 April 2019

So many days, so many years

I'm now over seven years into this process of remembering every day that passes, having started on 17 December 2011.

I've had to adapt the refresh process to review the images pinned to my mental calendar, but I still aim to revisit each day once per month.

Sometimes an image evades me now. But, even so, I do not accept they are fully lost, because on a subsequent run-through, I've had them come back to me with a flash of endorphins and relief that pins them more firmly to the calendar for next time.

This process has changed my concept of time. Many of these years are so long ago that, save for this process, the whole year would be largely lost to me. If I choose a year before I began – let's say 2009 – I can work out where I was and what I was doing in that year and, if I think about it, maybe remember some specific events, some of them vividly. But the images are sparse. What did I do on my birthday that year? My wife's? My mother's? I have no idea and, if I do scratch up a memory, then I'd have no certainty it was for that year.

I can answer that question for every year since I began this process. Of course, I only easily remember the images pinned to my mental calendar. Sometimes these will open a door to much more regarding both the event represented and the rest of the day, but often, they are all I have left. After all, as I write this, there are 2,669 days stretching behind me.

The most curious – and even disturbing – aspect of having these memories and revisiting them as I do, is the shock at how long ago these years are. I will recall an event at, say, the Olympics in 2016 and it seems staggering that was almost three years' ago.

As I have carried these days and years with me, like no others, there is a freshness to them that makes it hard sometimes to separate one year from another. In the normal scheme of things, the fading of our memories perhaps gives us a sense of how long ago a time was.