Monday, June 7, 2010

A trivial prank -- and big questions about memory retrieval

It was a very improbable set of circumstances that caused me to ponder the nature of memory for much of the past 24 hours. Even knowing that there must be centuries of research and reams of scholarship dedicated to the topic of brains and memory, of what and how our minds remember, I find it’s the most trivial events that make me stop and wonder how our brains really work.

In my case, it began with a silly practical joke that someone played on me over the weekend.

My son took part in a baseball exhibition event at the baseball field complex in the town next to ours. Hundreds of kids played games of baseball and took part in skills competitions using four fields in the space of about four hours. Because of the magnitude of the event and the number of people at the field, a gourmet sandwich shop from a nearby town set up a barbeque concession stand and asked the league organizers to get some parent volunteers to help on the selling end while they ran the grill. As I understood it, there was some small fundraising component involved, so parents were encouraged to sign up for a shift.

I didn’t know until I got there that the caterers running the concession stand were the same ones I worked for a couple of summers when I was in college, but as I slipped on my plastic gloves for a turn behind the counter, I was looking forward to a chance to catch up with the owner, whom I run into at events in the area or at his own sandwich shop only about once every ten years. His name was Rick Gordon, and he’d been great fun to work for back when I was in college. He had a wife and three daughters who were still young the last time we’d chatted. I was curious to hear what was new with all of them. Coincidentally, in the late 1990s I had a co-worker named Karen Stroman whose husband Peter was close friends with Rick Gordon, so occasionally when there was a social gathering outside of work Karen’s husband Peter would give me an update on the Gordon family, but for the most part I didn’t know much about what had gone on with them over the past decade.

The thing was, as I took my place behind the counter, I wasn’t entirely sure it was Rick Gordon manning the grill. In our few past encounters, I’d been surprised by how young he continued to look; this time he definitely looked older. But it had been ten years; that made sense. We made eye contact, and I could tell he recognized a familiar face even if he didn’t know exactly who I was. “Rick Gordon?” I asked. “Yes!” he said. “I’m Nancy West. I used to work for you.” “I know that! I recognized you!” he answered.

He introduced me to his barbeque assistant, a college kid named Matt. I turned back to the counter and sold some hamburgers and hot dogs, but when the initial crowd subsided, Rick and I started chatting. I worked the concession stand for two hours; every now and then we’d get a surge of business, but we also had plenty of down time to talk. Even if I might not have recognized him, his voice was familiar, they way voices are years later, with an unforgettable twang. I asked about his three daughters. Two are in college now; one in high school. I asked about business; he said it was good. I mentioned a rumor I’d heard that he might be opening a restaurant in a vacant space near his shop; he said he’d considered it but decided against it.

I didn’t mention our mutual friends Karen and Pete Stroman, since I had nothing particular to say about them. Occasionally Rick’s assistant Matt entered the conversation too, and then I’d go back to selling and we’d drop the thread, then resume it later. At one point, Rick went to his van to get more supplies. “I’m so impressed that they’re still in this business,” I said to Matt when he was gone. “When I worked for Rick and Paula, they had just bought the shop and were just starting out. It’s such a hard business to be in and I’m so impressed that they’ve been so successful.” Matt smiled politely but looked a little bit oddly at me. Rick hadn’t mentioned his wife Paula at all; I wondered if maybe they were not still married. The restaurant business is known for being hard on family life. Matt clearly wasn’t going to go down that road. He simply concurred it’s a tough business and the Gordons had done well at it.

Two hours later we were finally getting ready to close up shop. “Nancy, I gotta tell you something,” Rick said suddenly. I wondered if it was about his wife. “I’m not Rick Gordon.” I looked at him, bewildered but silent, trying to marshal my puzzlement. “I am someone you know, though.” One more beat went by and then the jigsaw puzzle pieces in my brain clattered together. That distinctive twangy voice wasn’t Rick’s at all.

“No,” I said, and it was one of those fabled moments when the words come out exactly concurrent with the idea being formed in your mind, so you feel like you’re speaking in tongues. “You’re not Rick; you’re Peter Stroman.” Of course: the stature, the twang, even the look that seemed a little more aged than I expected of Rick: not Rick at all, but his good friend Peter, husband of my former co-worker Karen.

“I’m really sorry to fool you,” Peter said. “You thought I was Rick when you first got here, and I thought it would be funny to pretend I was. Then it started to seem like we were on a reality show. And everything I told you about the store and Rick’s girls and their summer vacation plans and everything else is true. Matt is his nephew. I was right about all of it, right, Matt?”

Poor Matt looked bewildered. “Yeah, I just didn’t really know why you were doing it.”

“Well, now we have to start all over again so you can tell me about what’s going on with you, and Karen, and your girls!” I said, because I do always love catching up with old acquaintances.

So Peter took about five minutes to catch me up on his family, and then he apologized again for the ridiculously drawn-out prank and said again that it reminded him of being on a reality show.

So okay, whatever. As I think it over two days later, I see it as kind of a dumb thing to do and a little bit mocking of me, but really I don’t care that much. It just doesn’t particularly matter.

What perplexes me isn’t about Peter; it’s about me. Somewhere in my brain, I must have known. Peter actually has a quite distinctive voice, and it is different from Rick’s. Some corner of my brain had to be remembering that voice and know it belonged to someone other than Rick Gordon; some other part of my brain had to remember it was Peter’s. And yet the thought simply wasn’t able to bubble to the surface.

At the same time, another part of me keeps asking what would have happened if it had. Suppose at some point during those two hours, a voice in my head had suddenly said, “Wait a minute, that’s not Rick. That’s Peter Stroman.” What would I have done at that point? Would I actually have looked at him and said “You’re fooling me. You’re not who you said you were.” That’s really hard to picture. This is someone twenty years older than me whom I used to work for, after all. (Or that’s who I thought it was, anyway.) We’re a little old and a little far removed from each other for pranks. Is it possible the reason my brain never kicked in to full memory retrieval gear is that it just would have been too weird to have to deal with the consequences?

I don’t know. Last year I read a memoir by Jill Price called The Woman Who Can't Forget: The Extraordinary Story of Living with the Most Remarkable Memory Known to Science, about a woman whose brain recalls every detail of every day of her life. It’s a very strange syndrome and, to hear Price describe it, not an enviable one either. The memoir is fascinating because of what it tells us about how the brain works: both in typical people, where the brain holds on to critical information and details and allows the rest to be lost in the blur of time, and in non-typical people like Price who is nearly driven to distraction by the amount of clamor in her mind from remembering everything that ever happened to her and losing nothing to the blur of time.

I’m generally someone with a good memory, which is one reason I’m so curious about why this time it didn’t compute. I’ll never know; nor will I ever really understand why Peter Stroman spent two hours playing a practical joke on me. Maybe the lesson is one about attention, though: being more attentive to details, paying closer attention to what’s going on. I’m not sure, and as I said, I don’t particularly care about being the object of the prank. It’s left me with a provocative nagging question about how memory works, a question yet to be answered.

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