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Friday, November 28, 2008

Sorting it All Out

Here’s a thought experiment in random access musings, purposely chaotic as an object lesson, and because it fits my frame of mind at the moment, plus it’s fun ruling your own blog. I’m not always like this — but I play one on TV.

Have you ever wondered how much RAM you have in your brain? Well, it’s probably a good thing that we don’t have more, because that could make things rather confusing. One of the key components of computer systems is how much short-term memory they have, so they can juggle tasks and borrow resources temporarily.

Perhaps you’ve considered just how your brain decides to sort important information — such as the day and time a TV show comes on — from trivial details such as, say, your name. It’s more than repetition, because a lot of things stay with you after even one occurrence. What would it be like if your short-term memory stayed with you for several days instead of just a few seconds or minutes? First of all, it would be very difficult to relax. You’d have hundreds of different details stuck in your brain. You’re at the grocery store making a purchase, and the clerk says, “That will be $28.47.” You go to enter your PIN number, and the amount gets jumbled in your short-term memory with all the other details, and you accidentally punch in your home address, and your number gets rejected. You’re embarrassed, and everyone’s looking at you saying, “Should’ve gotten the upgrade.”

So many details flying around would be confusing as heck. Do you know how sometimes you'll ask yourself, "Have I done that yet, or was I only thinking about doing it?" Isn’t that a fun feeling? You'll try to remember if you took something out of the freezer to thaw — oh, like maybe that shoe that you wanted to wear later (it could happen). But then you get sidetracked with the little ones asking their legendary answerless questions, and so your brain takes an unexpected detour.

We're told that the brain mercifully shuts out about 98% of the input it receives (give or take 3% — I don’t recall), however this can quickly be reduced to an ability to shut out only about 10% when a 2-year-old is tugging on your sleeve, followed up quickly by whatever they can grab on your person, and then as they're pelting you with and endless barrage of inquiries that come in layers, you brain does amazing things. First, in order to avoid instant senility, it hollers out to the cerebral cortex, "Information overload! Stop transmission immediately!" You’ve processed too much at once.

You’re now watching a 2-year-old in slow motion with the sound turned off — and unfortunately no subtitles. You nod a lot to humor them, meanwhile they think you’re crazy for suddenly not being able to comprehend your shared language. You know… the one you taught them? We wonder why kids get confused at their parents, though you can’t fault the poor parent for employing basic survival techniques.

So then good luck to whatever it was you were trying to postulate prior to that. Your brain shut down the plant so that there wouldn't be a meltdown, and took all the firing synapses with it. You’ve lost your train of thought before, yes? Well, this one left the station and derailed in outer Mongolia, never to be seen again. This is why it's not ideal to try to make life-changing decisions while in the presence of toddlers. If you look closely at their clothes, you'll see the warning label.

But... at the other end of the spectrum, if you did retain your short-term memory for a few days, you'd have multitudinous thoughts competing for your attention all at once, and maybe interchangeably. That would get old pretty fast. Can you imagine trying to have a conversation with someone like that? If you’ve talked to young children before, you might have some idea of it. Teachers of youth know what I’m talking about…

Adult: “We are kind to one another because that makes everyone happy.”
(child raises hand)
Adult: “Yes, James?”
Child A: “My brother fell off his bike.”
Adult: “That’s nice. So, who can tell me what it means to be kind?”
Child B: “I just burped. It smells like lemons.”
Adult: “Thank you for that. Is ‘kind’ being nice or being mean?”
Child C: “You’ve got hair in your nose.”
Adult: “Well, that was educational for all of us, wasn’t it?”

This is the alternate reality provided to us by varying age groups within our species. They remind us that communication is not something to be taken for granted. We’re processing our own form of 0’s and 1’s between us, and it’s a miracle that it can all transfer from one person to the next without breaking down. Brains are pretty complex things, and it's fortuitous they are able to process so many things in a relatively simplified manner.

Didn’t this article have a point? Honestly, I don’t remember...

(Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, some of this post was written under the influence of a child talking in my left ear, and incredibly I answered most of their questions at least semi-coherently, though now I'm curious why they're taking money out of my wallet.)


Anonymous said...

Ray -

My wife teases me because I am such a poor multi-tasker (and short-term rememberer), but the recent studies I've read all conclude that multi-tasking is a poor substitute to solely doing one project, then turning your attention to the next - your brain can really only focus on one thing at a time, thus, you lose time changing back and forth from one subject to another while multi-tasking, not to mention that your propensity for errors increases as well.

I think our brain is like the best search engine known to man - it knows how to filter out the unimportant - and focus on the essential instead. We weren't meant to do several things at once or remember everything. It's not healthy.

I believe this also helps us forget many negative experiences and highlight the positive ones. This allows us to be relatively optimistic in a world that can be overwhelmingly harsh and mean at times. I think the happiest people have learned to master this skill.

Rusty Southwick said...

Nice thoughts, Ray. I wish you were my boss at work. I get more done when I can focus on one specific task at a time. At home, all bets are off though. I guess sometimes we may not have a choice, and with a small window of opportunity we try to fit in whatever we can.

Anonymous said...

That is EXACTLY what my CTR 6 class is like. Then there's me saying, "Sit still!... Put your hands in your lap... Sit on your BUM... Does that have to do with the lesson? Yes? Okay then. ...That did not have to do with the lesson after all. Remember that next time."


I just let Daisy eat chips, a croissant, a cracker and "cheese" snack thing with the red spreader stick, and cookies for lunch because I was on the phone and not paying the best of attention.

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