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Armchair maps for lost keys

Armchair maps for lost keys
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First Published: Thu, Nov 13 2008. 11 55 PM IST

Tornado alert: Don’t bring the house down looking for your lost keys. JUPITERIMAGES, INDIA
Tornado alert: Don’t bring the house down looking for your lost keys. JUPITERIMAGES, INDIA
Updated: Thu, Nov 13 2008. 11 55 PM IST
Recently I lost my house keys. We had just installed a new bolt lock so as household events go, it was a minor crisis. Not finding the keys meant that we might have to change the locks. Again. When I informed my husband, he made those throat-clearing noises that much-married men make when they want to state the obvious but are afraid of the wife’s reaction. But like any much-married woman, I knew exactly what he was thinking and it irritated me no end.
Tornado alert: Don’t bring the house down looking for your lost keys. JUPITERIMAGES, INDIA
For years, we’d go through this drill every time I lost something. My husband’s response was always the same: “You have to think back about where you last saw it,” he said. After a few years of listening to this, I snapped back. “If I could ‘think back’ to where I left the purse, I’d have it by now,” I said. “I don’t think the way you think. I can’t recollect details.” 
I think there are two kinds of searchers in the world. There are those like my husband, who I shall call Armchair Sleuths. When the Armchair Sleuths lose anything, which happens rarely, they simply stand still or sit down on the couch and think back. You can almost see the thoughts forming on their faces. When did I last see my BlackBerry? What was I doing then? What shirt was I wearing? Who interrupted me to cause me to keep it down? Which day of the week was it? What was my meeting calendar that day? The bad part for the other kind of searchers like me is that Armchair Sleuths can actually remember such details. 
Here is how the other group, who I shall call Frantic Tornadoes, search for things. First of all, they despair that they will even find what they have lost, especially since they just found their watch inside the refrigerator and have no clue how it got there. Next, they will descend like tornadoes on various parts of the home or office and search frantically but erratically. No method in the madness for this group. They will take apart the bookshelf and leave books lying on the floor before suddenly remembering that the keys might be in the car. So off they’ll go to the garage to look inside the car. At the end of the unsuccessful exercise, they will flop down on the bed like puppies and announce that there is no way they are going to ever recover what they’ve lost. But they do, mostly when they are searching for something else.
I am, as you might have guessed by now, a Frantic Tornado. As is my Dad, which leads me to believe that memory is genetic. My Dad and I don’t have those loving father-daughter talks about how to grow emotionally and be a strong bamboo in the face of the flying wind. We talk about inventing a device that we can encode into important articles such as spectacles, purses and keys that will beep on demand when we have misplaced them. 
I studied psychology as an undergraduate. A good portion of my research was on theories of memory, most of which I have forgotten. Recently, I went to Google Scholar to see if there was any breakthrough research with respect to forgetting—not the Freudian “Motivated Forgetting” in which we suppress unpleasant experiences from childhood. Nor was I worried about the Gestalt Theory which suggests that when thoughts and events are encoded with details missing, the mind automatically makes up the details.
The area that concerned me had to do with cognitive neuroscience—how the mind remembers. It suggests that the brain stores events and memories all over its neural circuits. The hippocampus is important, yes, but neuro imaging techniques show that the frontal lobes play a part in retrieving memories too.
These results are heartening for me. I need only to check into the nearest lab and ask the MRI technicians to poke my right anterior prefrontal cortex till I spout out the details of that fateful day when I lost my keys. It would go something like this: Entered home; placed keys on shelf; puppy ran out and began nipping; threw the keys down for puppy to play with; after a few moments, realized that the keys might be important and are not a puppy’s plaything; retrieved keys from puppy and placed them in a safe place. Where? That’s the question.
Armchair Sleuths, when faced with this vexing question, can solve it like Sherlock Holmes. They know how to ask the right question to trigger memory. In fact, if they don’t kill each other in the process, Armchair Sleuths can be of great help to the Tornadoes and walk them through the memory retrieval process.
After watching an Armchair Sleuth in action for many years, I have finally figured their secret technique: it has little to do with cognitive neuroscience and a lot to do with Zen. Armchair Sleuths, as Zen koans advise, are fully engaged in the moment. They live the Zen motto: Be here now. They aren’t preoccupied like the Frantic Tornadoes. That is why they remember and we don’t.
 
After turning the house upside down, Shoba Narayan consulted the I Ching about the location of her keys. The Oracle said that she would find them on Sunday! Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Nov 13 2008. 11 55 PM IST