Mental Shelf

Someone just referred to his “mental shelf”, his ability to retrieve quickly information stored in his memory. The speed with which he provided the requested information stunned me, and made me examine my own mental faculties.

To be fair, this guy is a PhD, and actively studies neuroscience. I suspect he reads a lot of books and talks to super smart people all day, so retrieval, even of trivial material, may be easier for someone who uses his brain like a well-trained athlete. Maybe I shouldn’t compare myself to someone so far ahead of me intellectually, but it still started me thinking. What is a mental shelf? What would mine look like? What do I store conveniently, for ease of retrieval?

The answer, unfortunately, is “not much.” A few new recipes, directions to my libraries, a calendar of upcoming Friends of Trees events. But for significant memories, right now, I have more of a mental storage locker.

This is NOT my storage locker.
This is NOT my storage locker.

I’ve been on vacation from the need to retrieve memories, a break from regular mental exercise. All my stuff is packed into boxes, stacked carefully, and locked behind a steel door. It started when I started packing up the house to move out here, and has continued through the last year. I don’t think I realized how mentally exhausted I was from the whole process of the move until I started having mini breakdowns over insignifcant things. That’s just not me. I’m the one who rolls with punches, takes things in stride, handles difficult situations with aplomb. You should see me splint a fracture–like a BOSS!

So I started seeing a therapist (oh my GOSH everyone should see a therapist…seriously…and if you have a negative reaction to me saying I’m in therapy, just stop reading this and go away. Go on, git.) and am beginning to unpack some of the stuff I have in storage in my brain.

There’s much more in there than I remembered. All those years of moving from one big life event to another, the speed at which life moves with kids in the house, the constant pressure to keep going, the crises and emergencies and surgeries and…well, life. It really did slow down when the kids “left”, or when we left the kids, I guess, and now the weight of all that history sits waiting to be sorted and organized and understood.

Right now, retrieval isn’t easy, but remember how it is when you start unpacking after a move; you don’t know where anything is. I know I saw the spatula go *into* the box, but where is that box now? Wait, did I pack that box to move out here? Or did I take it to Goodwill?

And then I went and added to my pile. Now I have Portland stuff on top of my pre-Portland stuff. Frankly, if I could just chuck all the pre-Portland stuff and start fresh out here, without any recollection of anything (aside from my kids) that happened before September 8, 2013, I would. It would be so much easier to organize thoughts and retrieve ideas that aren’t packed away tightly in a muddled storage locker. But that’s not how it works, I know that.

My task is rearranging what came before, figuring out what old stuff still fits for me and what I can eliminate, and finding a way to put the disparate pieces together. It’s a new organizational system. A new schema.

When somebody says “what are your top five favorite movies?” my brain is literally blank. For about 30 minutes, I don’t even remember watching a single movie. Then I remember seeing some festering turd of a flick I sat through one Saturday while I was nursing a head cold, and suddenly that becomes the only movie I’ve ever seen.

That’s how my brain is these days. Now, where is that damned spatula?



One thought on “Mental Shelf

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  1. I do the same, when put on the spot to list my favorite whatevers . . . everything in the genre of “what is your favorite…” just disappears from my memory. As a musician, this is especially bad when I’m asked “who is my favorite composer” or “what is my favorite song” or “what’s my favorite piece of music” and I have to answer Nelson’s and/or Nelson’s “Love and Affection” for all of the above.

    The only “mental shelf” I seem to have is tying memories to books . . . if I read a book, while on vacation, I can bring back SPECIFIC memories of that vacation, easily, by thinking of the book.

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