Wednesday, August 31, 2011

the absent mind

Recently I watched Memento again. I've never owned it but I can watch it via Netflix. No later viewing of it compares to the first, because surprise is gone. Nevertheless the progression of scenes in reverse chronological order is appropriately disorienting as ever.

This time, though, I reacted in a new way. Like an untrained reader who self-diagnoses every disease in the book, I identified with the main character. In my case, the similarity has nothing to do with the inability to form new memories. My memory isn't problematic; based on academic accomplishment, it's above average. No, the similarity is the need to leave reminders for myself. As I watched the movie, I distinctly recall thinking, "Doesn't everyone do that, but on a smaller scale?"

Age can't be the cause. I've been "forgetful" in this way since childhood. The usual driver seems to be having an "absent mind". Some people mock the truism, "Wherever you go, there you are." Those must be the people for whom it isn't a challenge. My thoughts are noisy. Emptying my mind is difficult because sometimes it churns and overflows without prodding. It's as if I'm walking through dreamlike surroundings that are far more engrossing than my real environment. External occurrences can't be guaranteed to leave a lot of impact, during a deep swim in the brainwaves. Of all activities done to excess, theorizing has to be one of the most unobtrusive to onlookers. On occasion, when the train of thought jumps tracks, I'm shocked by the time that's passed. The questions "Where am I?" and "What is the time and date?" are generally unimportant. Depending on which ideas are consuming you, the location of your body and the continual ticking of seconds are totally irrelevant.

Calling it attention deficit disorder would be inaccurate. It's closer to having too much focus or fixation than having too little. And it's also not autism. I tend to have trouble interacting naturally in casual conversation, yet the obstacle is distraction rather than disinterest (I make eye contact although some have commented that I appear to be looking "through" the speaker). My sense is that the low severity of absent mind doesn't qualify at all as a disability. It's a disposition, a personality quirk. As a child, it manifested in toothbrushes left behind after a sleepover or gloves left behind after winter travel from one building's interior into another. The tips for coping aren't too complicated:
  • If something needs to be remembered, but at some point after the immediate moment, make a reminder soon. Otherwise there's the possibility that an intriguing stream of thought will resurface before too long and flood everything else. Don't presume to remember to make a reminder...
  • Reminders don't need to be lengthy, detailed, or time-consuming. Unlike Memento's main character, the hang-up isn't that the memory is completely missing but the high probability that the intact memory won't return to mind at the proper time. All that's necessary is an unambiguous trigger. For instance, the infamous trick of tying a string around a finger is too uninformative, while a note consisting of one significant word could work. One mustn't then misplace or ignore the note, of course. It should be located within normal view.
  • Memento emphasizes routine and the ease of learning repeated subconscious reactions. That fits with my experience. Habits demand less concentration, which is a perpetually scarce resource. Breaking habit is healthy and invigorating, but special effort is called for. To succeed, novel actions require greater levels of deliberation and care. More present, less absent.
  • As in all things, simple strategies shouldn't be overlooked. Startling sensations sharply disrupt introspection. Increased alertness to the world is an automatic side effect of fresh perceptions. Simply keeping your eyes moving might be adequate. Administering pinches is a second tactic, as long as it isn't overdone.
  • Reminders work well for single tasks. Habits work well for routine or periodic tasks. A large list of irregular tasks, perhaps to be completed in the upcoming week, is better attacked by outlining a comprehensive schedule. Without explicit scheduling, there's considerable risk that awareness of the tasks will weaken, only to finally revitalize at an inopportune time. Or that one prominent task will monopolize available energy and mask the rest. Either way, an all-encompassing arrangement of what to do and when is, strangely enough, less of a chore than trying to repeatedly rein in a stampeding brain and urge it toward item by item. I compose the whole schedule, as a draft in progress. Then I think of it whenever I'm pondering or visualizing the time periods in the schedule. Writing or typing it is purely optional (memory isn't the problem, engulfment by my own reflections is the problem). As for an event more than two weeks away, those of us with absent minds act like everyone else. We enter it on calendars.
  • As illustrated by Memento, anticipation is a highly sophisticated approach. Self-knowledge enables self-manipulation. Small adjustments, like temporarily moving objects to atypical positions, can prompt corresponding adjustments in behavior. "Why is that there?...oh, to ensure I don't leave it behind." Unsubtle clues either illuminate the desired path or erect a barrier for the inadvisable path. I in the future am likely to be all right with or without the hints, but the prevention would help in the eventuality of unforeseen internal distractions (e.g. trying to recollect the name of the hidden Elvish kingdom in The Silmarillion, which was one of the last to fall to Morgoth). 
  • Selected undertakings force full engagement, regardless of contemplation's pull. With practice, it's easier to adapt. For example, I've gradually developed my skills at driving and athletics. At work, I'm more conscientious about not drifting off during meetings, and I ensure that all my assignments are written down.
I don't want to produce the wrong impression. I'm not overly burdened by this. A bent toward abstract preoccupation is part of who I am. I realize it's not comparable to serious conditions like dementia, which I wouldn't dare to minimize.

I also recognize that a sound albeit absent mind comes in varying degrees. I've only forgotten my keys when leaving the house once. A while back someone notified me that I was wearing two unmatched shoes. I have a desk drawer that contains a stack of papers with the cryptic markings that result from pursuing a particular flash of inspiration over a few days. It could be worse. Apparently, others have been known to go out in public in partial undress, and their mysterious notes fill filing cabinets...

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