Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Lifelong senility.

Lately, perhaps because of stress, my poor memory is getting worse than ever.

It's incredibly frustrating to go through my files, like I did today, and look at hundreds, maybe a thousand papers I've already read. And forgotten.

They've all got my handwritten notes on them, so I know I read them. But for many of them, even the titles don't look familiar.

Oddly, I recognize some of the names of the authors, even though I've never met them. But that's about it.

I'm trying to tell myself it has a silver lining, that I usually have new ideas when I re-read stuff. My perspective always changes so I notice different things. And even only reading something once makes some kind of impression and changes the way I think.


I have a book sitting at home that I keep meaning to read, on how to improve your memory. It has exercises and other tools that supposedly help.

I can't remember the name of the authors.

Anyway I made it through the first chapter, and it's a bit ridiculous.

Their first and apparently most versatile and fundamental tool is to imagine everything as huge, cartoonish, and yes, ridiculous, and then to link them together. I don't remember the name for the cartoony tool, but the second one is called Link. That I can recall.

So I tried this trick and it works, sort of, but only temporarily. For example, right now I can't remember the list of objects they promised we'd be able to remember forever if we used their foolproof methods.


Meanwhile, I have a giant stack of papers I need to re-read, on top of the ones I was planning to read for the first time.

Fuck, now I can't remember what I was going to say next. Oh yeah. I usually like to read several related papers at the same time, so I can make connections between them and compare them, etc. before I forget what I read. But a really big pile is kind of intimidating, even to yours truly (who loves to read, particularly when the weather is crappy and cold).

I haven't gotten to the chapter in the memory book (or whatever it's called) on how to remember everything you read. I have to admit I'm not too enthused about bothering.

But it only adds to my stress, this constant feeling like I'm doing something stupid and should know better because I've probably done this before and then forgot. You know that stomach-dropping-out feeling when you realize you locked yourself out of your house or your car? I get those a lot.

Needless to say, my biggest fear is that someone told me, at some point in time, EXACTLY how to get a faculty position, and I forgot what they said.

I'm kidding of course, but in theory it's possible.

Couple that with an almost constant sense of deja vu, and you have some idea how bad I am about this. I've either been reincarnated, A LOT, or I'm stuck in some kind of Groundhog Day loop.

So I have a pretty elaborate system of note-taking and calendars and reminders that mostly gets me through daily life, but sometimes I feel like the main character in Memento. I might wake up one day and find a maze of tattoos on my body telling me things I knew I would forget. Right now I know I have a list of things to get from the grocery store after work. I just have to remember where I put it.

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At 5:40 PM, Blogger Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I've had similar memory issues -- especially while in grad school, it seems like I could have read everything over and over again and not remember that I'd read it.

I started a new method recently. I write margin notes while I'm reading and then I write a 1-2 page summary of the main argument in the paper. I also use post-it notes on the front for the possible connections to my current work, so I can read the paper for different reasons at different times and not get as distracted. As far as I can tell, this has worked. I keep the summaries separate from the paper so I can use them kind of like an index to the ideas...

of course, these are philosophy papers -- your experience may vary.

At 8:58 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

I do write stuff at the top on the front to remind myself what the major insight was or what to follow up on. That works fine, except that the most useful/salient points change every 5 years or so. Does that happen in philosophy, too?

re: the summaries, I do this too, sometimes. Unfortunately it doesn't always work, or at least for this particular pile I never did it. I can't remember whether I did or not, but since I can't find any evidence that I did, I'm guessing probably not.

I would be more inspired to do this if I thought I would ever get to write a review on topics that interest me. Unfortunately in my field, papers unaccompanied by data figures are published by invitation only (no unsolicited manuscripts allowed!). Too bad nobody cares what I think!

At 10:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I use binders to chronologically order each relevant article to say a protein of interest or general topic. It has helped a lot, because seeing everything in the context of the time it was published also keeps me from over-interpreting (is that a word?) their work.

I think it's necessary to re-read some papers, too. Often, I skim the paper to get an idea of it or even when I read it more thoroughly, later on I will catch something interesting in the data that I, or even the authors, didn't really know how to interpret earlier.

The thing I *hate* is when I have this really cool idea, get fired up about it, and then figure out that, although the topic isn't really discussed anymore, there were a slew of articles on it published back in the 1950's that no one bothered to tell you about (and probably, they didn't know about those article, either). And, to make matters worse, those articles are lost in a musty, cob-webby, rodent-infested archive somewhere on the other side of the country and almost impossible to get my hands on. The topper, though - working on my thesis only to discover those articles near the end of the project. NOBODY - not my advisor or committee members - knew about the old, already published work.

At 3:24 AM, Anonymous sarah said...

I have exactly the same problem with papers and have come to the conclusion that the vast majority of papers don't say very much and are very badly written. When I do find a paper that is well written and gives solid conclusions, it sticks.

It's not us, it's them :-)

At 10:09 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


thanks, I'm sure that's part of it, and your comment made me laugh, so that's even better.


I like the binder idea in principle, except that (as I may have posted here sometime in the past year) many of the things I work on are cross-discipline, and then I don't know which binder to put them in. And I can't afford that many binders. And I kind of hate binders, since I keep my lab notes in them already, that's all I can stand, what with the holes getting ripped apart all the time... I need some alternative way to putting papers into a binder-like holder that maintains them in a chronology but also lets me add new ones in between quickly and easily...

aside: Somebody please invent this and make it affordable! Thank you!

re: your cool idea and the 1950s, ummmmm, that wasn't that long ago. I sometimes need papers that are so old they were publishing only in German in those days in my field.

On the one hand, your thesis topic being such a cool idea, probably benefited from being revisited. That's the whole point of publishing! Even if it languishes for decades in a library, somebody will eventually dig it up if it's worth thinking about again.

But your advisor, committee, and most journal editors disgust me. There are trends in some fields of repeating history because apparently nobody reads. YOU, I don't blame, since you're new to this game, and now you know so you'll be likely to keep up the good habit and pass it on.

It's not unusual to see papers in High Impact Journals that are essentially color versions of experiments that were done a hundred years ago. Disgusting that they don't have any ideas of their own, in addition to their lack of literacy.


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