I am an habitual user of a fountain pen. It is the only writing implement that I carry with me since I enjoy writing with a fountain pen and because I can keep track of one pen but no more than one. I have used it, and its predecessors, to make notes in a series of forty notebooks that stretch back to when I started as a research assistant forty years ago. I used to record laboratory results in my notebooks but nowadays I have a research team who perform all of the work in the laboratory. I still use my pen and notebook to record meetings, ideas and notes on papers. I find the process of writing notes by hand to be conducive to both remembering detail and connecting fragments of information into new thoughts and ideas. I am not alone in having these experiences. Researchers have found that taking notes by hand improves the performance of students in answering conceptual questions compared to students who use a laptop to take notes. When you write on a laptop, it is easy to delete words and re-start a sentence, whereas to create a coherent set of notes in a book you need to craft a sentence prior to committing pen to paper. Perhaps the latter process allows a more persistent assembly of neurons to be formed in your brain [see ‘Slow deep thoughts from a planet-sized brain‘ on March 25th, 2020]; or maybe it is just the irregular spacing between handwritten words which creates a more distinct pattern that can be more readily recalled than the repetitive single spaces in typed text. I certainly feel there is a connection between recalling the image of a page from my notebook and remembering the content even though I cannot usually read the words in my mental image.
The day after England was released from its second national lockdown we went to a concert at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. It was a socially-distanced event attended by about 400 people in a hall with a capacity of 1700. Even members of orchestra sat two metres apart and wore face coverings until they had taken their seats. Nevertheless, it was an uplifting occasion with the conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko welcoming us back at the start of the concert. We listened to three pieces Variaciones concertantes by Ginastera; Il Tramonto by Respighi; and Carmen Suite for percussion and strings by Bizet and arranged by Shchedrin. I really enjoyed the first piece by Ginastera which I had not heard before; however, while listening to Jennifer Johnston singing Il Tramonto, I realised that I had no recall of the previous piece of music. As I sit writing, I cannot reproduce any of the sounds from the concert in my head, except for a few fuzzy sequences of Carmen that I had heard many times before, whereas I can ‘see’ the layout of the orchestra with Jennifer Johnston and Vasily Petrenko stood in front of them. My inability to recall sounds might explain why I struggle to speak any foreign languages or to remember the pronouncation of unfamilar words in English. Despite the fact that I cannot recall the music, the feelings of enjoyment remain as a memory and made me smile as I wrote this post.
I have a new print in my office. It’s called ‘Small Science Fiction Self-Portrait’ and is by Maria Lassnig (1919-2014) [see: http://www.painters-table.com/link/contemporary-art-daily/maria-lassnig]. I am disappointed to admit that I had never heard of her until I went to a special exhibition at the Tate Liverpool a few weeks ago, which featured her work and that of Francis Bacon. I was expecting the works by Bacon to be the main attraction but instead I thought Lassnig ‘stole the show’. Nearly all of her paintings in the exhibition were self-portraits in which she attempts to represent on canvas her ‘body sensation’ or ‘body awareness’. This seems to echo the synaesthesia pursued by Georgia O’Keeffe when she represented her feelings from various senses in her paintings [see my post entitled ‘Engineering Synaesthesia‘ on September 21st, 2016]. Two of Lassnig’s paintings resonanted with me: one, which was on the front of the programme, called Lady with Brain was painted in 1991 and shows the head of a lady with a proportion of her brain outside of her skull – not in a damaged way but as if it had grown there. This reminded me of the ideas on our increasing use of out-of-skull memory and processing power in our mobile devices that I wrote about under the heading ‘Thinking out of Skull’ [see my post of that title on March 18th, 2015]. The second is the print in my office, painted in 1995, that shows the artist wearing a virtual reality headset that looks almost identical to those we use in our Virtual Engineering Centre. I was amazed by Lassnig’s vision.
For many students this is examination season and the temptation to study twenty-four hours a day is high. However, recently reported research has implied that an extra three to four hours of sleep over as little as two days can restore memories. This implies that a good strategy for exam preparation is to reduce revision in the 48 hours before an exam and sleep instead.
Researchers report that sleep helps the brain to reinforce connections between brain cells, which encode important memories, and to remove connections associated with useless information. Of course from an exam preparation perspective, this does imply that you need to have been studying during the course and hence have memories to reinforce. If you haven’t then stop reading this blog and carry on revising – if necessary, all night!
For the older folks amongst my readers who sometimes feel they are suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s, having an early night or a late morning lie-in might really restore memories.