Books: This Is Your Brain on Music

March 27, 2017

Some weeks ago, I read about BookBub and signed up. I don’t care for reading eBooks, but I thought I might see some deals that would change my mind. So far I haven’t found any that persuaded me to read them on an electronic device (either borrowing my husband’s tablet or reading on the computer monitor). But the lists of books available has made me aware of books I hadn’t heard of, that I then decided to read the old-fashioned way.

This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin explores how the brain processes music. It’s more about the brain than it is about music, but it attempts to find answers to questions many of us would not have even thought to ask. How do we tell the difference between one instrument and another playing the same note? What makes your foot tap when listening to music? Why do some kinds of music make us happy while others evoke a feeling of sadness?

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Movies: Robot and Frank

June 22, 2014

I was waiting in line to check out books at the library when I noticed Robot and Frank on a nearby rack displaying a dozen or so DVDs. I’m not sure if their placement there means they’re popular, or recommended, or what. I often recognize the titles but rarely see any I want to watch.

As this was one I hadn’t heard of and it involved a robot, I was interested enough to pick up the box and read the description on the back. If it had been a book, that would have been enough for me to take it home to read. But since a movie would be for the whole family to watch, I first wanted to read some reviews.

The reviews were all positive, but the next time I went to the library it was checked out. I suppose it must be relatively popular, because it was weeks before I managed to find it again (back in the regular movie stacks but set apart on a display shelf).

It’s hard to sum up briefly, which is probably a large part of what I like about it. It doesn’t fit the usual categories of Hollywood movies (not surprising since it was an indie film, distributed by studios after it won a prize at the Sundance festival).

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Books: Triggers

July 18, 2012

I’ve read a number of science fiction books over the years that deal with the idea of being able to read someone else’s mind. Triggers uses a different approach than the others, where one person gets to know another person’s memories rather than his thoughts. But considering that your thoughts about what you are experiencing right now will be in your memories within a very short period of time, it can amount to nearly the same thing.

This is the first book I have read by Robert Sawyer, and I don’t plan for it to be the last. In the past two weeks I’ve also read books by Jack Higgins and Orson Scott Card, and while they were moderately entertaining, I felt I would not have missed out on anything by not reading them. Sawyer’s book, on the other hand, gave me something to think about.

What would it be like to have access to someone else’s memories? If you’re one of the characters in this book, you suddenly found yourself in possession of memories that are not your own, and in most cases they turn out to belong to someone you never met before – and perhaps would not want to know. Meanwhile, someone else now has your memories (it is not a reciprocal arrangement).

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Memory problems

January 7, 2012

I can get my home computer back today – if I want to. I found out yesterday that it’s not the video that’s the problem, it’s the RAM. Now I have to decide whether to replace the RAM or the whole computer. (What’s annoying is that the RAM is fairly new, purchased late last year as an upgrade to a desktop purchased in 2005, that doesn’t do well running programs written in 2011.)

No computer is expected to last all that long, of course. We have an even older desktop in our younger son’s room. It does fine for playing games that are older than he is (mostly purchased in the mid-to-late-90’s for his older brother), but we don’t even try to connect it to our home network, let alone the internet. If you want to use the kind of programs being written today, you need the kind of computer being built today.

This post isn’t about computer technology, though. Technology is something you buy, and when it wears out or become obsolete you replace it. If you want more memory and a faster “brain” (the CPU, or central processing unit), you just have to pay for it. But I’m more interested in the brainpower inside my skull. And that can’t be upgraded or replaced.

My husband would not be at all surprised to learn that memory starts to slip as early as age 45. He tells me that I never used to forget things, when we were younger, but now it seems to happen often. If he asks me to buy something the next time I’m at the store, it will often be not the next time or even the time after that but at least the third trip before I remember – and even then only after he reminds me a couple times.

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What can you remember?

February 24, 2011

I’ve always had a very good memory. It comes in handy for getting good grades and winning Trivial Pursuit (as long as I’m lucky enough to get easy questions on sports and entertainment). It helps me have a good vocabulary and spell words correctly.

It hasn’t been so reliable lately in helping me remember what I need to buy at the store, unless I take the time to memorize the shopping list the way I would have memorized a list of facts for a test at school. It doesn’t help me find my glasses or my car keys, or remember what I wanted to look up online.

If I put some effort into it, though, it helps me find my car in our company’s very large parking lot. Today I parked in the 11th spot in the row across from truck dock 23. I used to just try to remember the row, until I read that the more detail you associate with something, the better you remember it. So today I remember that when I was eleven, my grandfather died in the hospital, and when I was 23 I worked on the housekeeping staff of a hospital. I also noted that if I write out the digits 1123, I can see three two digit numbers within the string, 11, 12, and 23, and that 11 + 12 = 23.

Lately I’ve been trying to find a way to help my son remember the Boy Scout Law. I tried to come up with a mnemonic for him, but only got as far as The Little Hamster, Feeling Cocky, Kicked Out … and decided to see what I could find that someone else had written. One I found online (once I remembered what it was I was looking for!) was Trevor Led His Friend Courtney King Off Chasing The Brown Clever Rabbit. We’ll see if that helps Al (our deadline is Sunday at the Blue and Gold Banquet when he bridges to Boy Scouts).

In the process of looking for this, I came across a page which asks the question “So what long sequences are taking up space in your brain?” The person who started it lists the 65 Montreal metro systems in geographical order. Why, I ask myself, would someone want to learn that?

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What’s that smell?

December 17, 2008

Ah, the wonderful smells this time of year. Pine, gingerbread, garlic salt…

Garlic salt? If you live in Ankeny, near Des Moines, winter has a new aroma. Eighteen thousand pounds of garlic salt that would have ended up in the landfill were donated by a local spice producer to help melt ice on Ankeny’s roads. Mixed with regular road salt, the garlic salt is working out well in its new role.

Smell and memory are closely related. Scientists are still learning why and how, but it is common experience to catch a whiff of some odor and have it suddenly bring back a flood of memories associated with that smell. Butter … popcorn … movies. Or maybe stringing popcorn for the Christmas tree (does anyone do that anymore?). Cinnamon and nutmeg … pumpkin pie … Thanksgiving with grandparents and aunts and uncles. Or hot spiced cider served at a long-ago Christmas program.

I wonder if someday, the smell of garlic in Italian food will remind some people of that winter of 2008 in Ankeny, Iowa.


Thanks for the memory

November 14, 2008

At one time I had a friend who worked as a houseparent of sorts at a group home for men with head injuries. He invited me to dinner with them one night, and I heard their stories. One I particularly remember was John, who had once had a highly technical job. Now he couldn’t even remember my name five minutes after we were introduced, let alone understand the complex formulae that he had once parsed with ease. He described his memory as a toilet, constantly flushing whatever was dropped in it.

John was a very cheerful man – perhaps pessimism requires memory of all the things that have gone wrong and could go wrong. But I loved my mind, and hated the thought of trading it even for such a sunny disposition. I don’t remember the nature of the accident that claimed John’s memory, but it probably involved automobiles. I think by then I had already gotten in the habit of wearing a seat belt (which I disdained as a teenager, seeing it as part of my mother’s paranoia about safety), but if I hadn’t, perhaps that was when I determined never to drive even across a parking lot without one.

Memory does hold a great deal that is unpleasant, as well as of happier times. But as painful as some memories are, I can’t wish not to have them. They are part of who I am, and wishing not to have those memories is like wishing a part of myself away. Fortunately I have found that time does indeed work as an anesthetic. I remember what happened, but the pain is remembered simply as a fact and not a current emotion.

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