Monday, 11 April 2011

Hyperthymesia involving Shatner, Heaney and Strange Things My Mother Said

I watched a rather dodgy American comedy programme called Sh*t My Father Says which is loosely based on a Twitter feed that gained a lot of followers. I am still recovering from watching William Shatner deliver I’m too Sexy for My Shirt at a kari-oke night, the man is eighty which cuts him some slack.

However I started to think about all those bizarre pieces of information or sayings my mother chose to pass on to me, sometimes at inopportune moments, sometimes with some strange twisting of vocabulary. Here is just a small sample.

Never go out with a man with thin lips.
Never wash your hair when it’s a new moon or you have a period and definitely not if both coincide.
Never carry an umbrella around nervous dogs.
You can’t buy experience you have to pay for it.
A long green dress is likely to make you look like a stick of rhubarb, specially as you blush easily.
Sitting on cold concrete will give you piles.
Your granny could read Guinness froth like the tea leaves but only saw a four leaf clover once and then the man got knocked over by a coal lorry the next day.
You’re only tall because I overdosed you on Rosehip syrup.
If they are too neat they are probably German.
Too much coffee can undo all the good a Guinness does you.(Bit of a theme here)
Robins bring a message of imminent loss ( that one was a bit of a nightmare at Christmas as cards with chirpy robins dropped onto the mat).
No red and white flowers together, unless there is ivy in the house.
All brass ornaments off window sills during thunderstorms as they attract lightening.
Over jiggled babies can become cross eyed.
Swearing in cold blood in like kissing an old uncle. ( Never fathomed that one)
Wearing a vest is essential for the health of your kidneys.
Tripe soothes the stomach.
You probably failed your driving test because the examiner looked Welsh.
Going into hospital on a Saturday is never a good idea, all the doctors are tired by then.
Your granny had more cats than money.
She ended up in Mapperley (a psychiatric hospital) because she was having celluloid delusions.
The car won’t start because there is condescension under the bonnet.
You can tell he loves her, he gets constipated when she’s in hospital.
Your granddad went to the barber’s to get his hair cut and that led to pneumonia.
Their neighbours sit naked in the conservative.
She had pantomime poisoning and just blew up.
I can remember the Battenburg disaster, it was all over the papers.

I am researching memory for my second novel. I studied psychology at University both for my first and Master’s degree and have always found it a fascinating subject. Some traumatic experiences may be blocked out for emotional reasons, others experiences may be so small as to be immediately discarded. However under hypnosis the mind can summon up minute details that we think we have forgotten. There are those that would argue that these retrieved memories can in fact be constructed after the event and like eyewitness statements can be compiled unknowingly from a mish-mash of clues or expectations and bare only a small resemblance to the actual event. There are some who believe everything we experience is stored in the brain somewhere but that good memory is the art of retrieval, some can do it more easily than others. How we store information is embedded in all the memory skill exercises that you can find in books and on the internet. Attaching information to items along an imagined walk or as you move through a house is a tried and trusted memory aid going back to Socrates, yet everyday pieces of information and experiences cannot easily be recalled in such a precise and practised manner.

I was fascinated to find a programme that examined the phenomenon of super autobiographical memory when researching. There are a handful of people (five in this programme but probably more who don’t even realise they possess it) who have perfect recall of everything that they have experienced usually from ten to twelve years old onwards. Ask them what happened on 22nd March 1991 and they can recall with perfect clarity, what day of the week it was, what they did, the weather, any important event that happened in the news etc. They were all subject to a battery of tests that verified that they could do this accurately. Everything is filed away, stored and accessible with immediate vividness. One person who has this kind of memory finds this constant torrent of memory almost intolerable whereas the others in this programme seemed to be quite pleased and comfortable with their ability. They seem to be able to put the memories in the library and only visit it when they want or need to.

The neuroscientist involved in the study presumed he would find nothing special in their MRI scans of their brains and was surprised to find they had significantly bigger temporal lobes (the place where memory usually happens) and large caudate nucleus, a site deep in the brain associated with higher order motor control and sometimes with those suffering from OCD. It could be that some people can develop an obsession with memory to the point where nearly everything gets stored and recalled yet this does not seem to become dysfunctional. There may be others who exist with this kind of super memory yet have not been identified, some younger people may not even be aware that we do not all have this ability and others may hide the ability in case they may be seen as some kind of freak. We may be in X men territory here, powers that some may hide or channel into acceptable channels. The concept of photographic or eidetic memory has been dismissed by many scientists but those with this super autobiographic memory (Hyperthymesia) have something that comes pretty close, this ability coupled with high intelligence to channel it may be as good.

The constant accurate recall of past events may be a blessing or a curse, to the poet or the writer it certainly makes autobiography easier but all those poems about their own past would probably be no different, no matter how vividly something in conjured up or rerun like a DVD, complete with emotion and smell; the art is always in the way we see it and the way we tell it. The poem does not rely on accuracy, the truth of a poem never lies on perfect recall, it is not important if Seamus Heaney ever really watched his father digging, or Wordsworth happened on a lot of daffodils.

When I was giving out The selected Works of Seamus Heaney for World Book Night, I was distributing some in a sheltered housing accommodation complex. I came across a very elderly man, who turned out to be Irish, digging in his tiny garden (a strange coincidence). He asked me to read one of the poems from the book, so I chose

The Old Smoothing Iron

Often I watched her lift it
from where its compact wedge
rode the back of the stove
like a tug at the anchor.

To test its heat she’d stare
and spit in its iron face
or hold it up next her cheek
to divine the stored danger.

Soft thumps on the ironing board.
Her dimpled angled elbow
and intent stoop
as she aimed the smoothing iron

like a plane into linen,
like the resentment of women.
To work, her dumb lunge says,
is to move a certain mass

through a certain distance,
is to pull your weight and feel
exact and equal to it.
Feel dragged upon. And buoyant.

After I finished reading it, his eyes filled with tears and he told me about watching his mother do exactly the same thing when he was a boy. Then he said how touched he was that someone could use such a simple thing and simple words to make something so beautiful and real. So the right words in the right place and the memory is more than just a finely detailed description of a past event and yet it is also that. The tension between what the moment was and what the moment still is creates something dynamic and universal.


A J Stubbs said...

Thank you for this. I am also interested in memory, and would like to add that I think memory changes as our knowledge and experience of the world changes - so that an even may be locked away as it happened, but it becomes linked in some sort of way to other thought events as we accumulate understanding through ageing. For example, I worked for a while in a large cheesefactory, and so when In read Heaney's fine poem Churning Day, as well as it calling up the ideas of Heaney and his mother making butter, their relationship, and some sexual imagery contained in the poem, for me it also calls up the particular 'off' smells of the dairy, curds travelling up automated 'blockformers' to a pressing and forming tower, and - strangely, the getting in an out of various sets of protective clothing in order to go from one part of the factory to another. So I would say that, for me, this feature of memory is the most interesting, as it is so very individual.

Could I please add that I am a poet and have a newly set up blog and would be delighted if you would please include a link to it on yours. Many Thanks. It's at

Writearound said...

I agree the associative nature of some things with a particular individual memory can be very strong. Even individual words have their own iconography built from past experience and the way we formed our memory of that experience. The word cheese for instance is closely associated with an incident involving a cheese and potato pie that my mother made that was so bad we fed it to the dog , who wolfed it down and then proceeded to lie down for 48 hours as if the offendin pie had set like concrete inside her. So the word cheese alone has associations with my mother's cooking, the famiy dog, a family story that has been passed down to my child and my nephews. if this can happen with so many words alone how must a poem conjure up all kinds of associative memories that may or may not be part of that poem's narrative.
happy to put link to your blog up, always good to support fellow poets in their attempt to reach out into the ether.

A J Stubbs said...

Read this again today, after thinking of the Heaney poem 'Bone Dreams' which speaks of the memory inherent in a culture and its associative language. Its a very fine poem, thanks for reminding me.