Sunday, 27 January 2008

On perception and memory

For the human eye to perceive it requires difference; it needs something to change. A colour or the quality of light, a tone or texture. An event. If two items of identical colour and light- reflecting qualities are set next to each other, the mind can’t see them unless there is a gap or a shadow. Stare long enough at a large, flat area of colour and it will disappear.

But to perceive a difference, it seems to me, we need to be familiar with what was first there.

We all (that is to say, we adults) know that that life speeds by in the years where little changes; when we have followed our routine, week in week out. If we’re asked to look back and pin a date on an event, we fail. At times I have walked along city streets and found myself wondering if it was nearly Easter or coming up to Christmas. I literally couldn’t remember what season of the year we were in.

In contrast, in periods when much happens – a new job, new school, a fine holiday, visits with family and friends – we invariably end up saying, “I can’t believe it’s only a year ago that …” Life seems so long-lasting because we have witnessed so many changes. Childhood appears long and rich because it is packed full of new-ness.

So we assumed that this year would be intensely memorable for us, witnessing the evolving scenery, the changing weather. Strangely, the opposite occurs. Casting back only a few days to where we had slept or eaten, we find we struggle to picture the place, to set it apart from all the others. Churches merge into a single, soaring block of worked stone and the route devolves to three types: a long line of mud between trees; tarmac bordered by hedges; beach.

I think maybe we have skipped over the familiarity stage. Forever passing by, we don’t get as far as knowing a place before it changes. Thus we don’t perceive change. Maybe our perception and memory will operate on a grander scale. We recognise, now, the architecture and agriculture of the Calvados region. In a few days, when we pass into Seine Maritime, will we then start the mark the difference?

In the meantime we’re applying the theory of learning I heard about when training as a tutor: revise a thing after an hour, after a day, after a week and after a month, and it will make its way into long-term memory. So we’ve added a regular mantra to our days “And then we stayed at Clifton Terrace with the enormous bath; last Thursday it was the Manoir de la Marjolaine with the huge, old-style French bedroom. Last Saturday in Bitterne Park the B and B served a wonderful breakfast and greeted us with sweets …”

The visual images conjured up daily are sealing our experiences deep into our minds.

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