Over the past couple weeks I’ve been reading Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman, a physicist famous for his work on the Manhattan Project.  The book is really just a series of Feynman’s memoirs that span the course of his entire life (starting well before his work on the atomic bomb).  However, what makes the book so interesting is that Feynman analyzed everything.  No matter what the subject matter (something novel, well understood, trivial, or deeply important), he would always put his own critical lens on it.  He was a deeply curious and interesting man and overall the book is excellent.

For me, one of the most interesting memoirs so far has been one from his childhood where he started studying his dreams.  He found that he could influence his dreams if he concentrated hard enough.  Also, in the hazy moments before he fell asleep at night he found that he could think two thoughts at once.

This got me thinking about the topic of memory.

Last week I wrote about a memory from my middle school Spanish class.  I really don’t remember much from the class*, but I do vividly remember one lesson about travel.  In linear time, the lesson took about five minutes and then it was over.

The weird thing is: I don’t just remember the content of the lesson or the words of the teacher.  I remember all of the other information that I absorbed during those five minutes as well.  I remember what the desks looked like – a flat grey surface on polished steel legs with a little groove at the front designed to hold a pencil.  I remember what the feet looked like on the small blue plastic chairs used by the students – the legs connected to the feet of the chair in a ball joint that allowed each foot to freely rotate and adjust to any angle.  I remember the blue carpet on the floors of the classroom; I remember the teacher’s large wooden desk (which was rather unusual for a teacher to have inside a classroom in my school).  I remember that behind his desk he had a series of JV basketball trophies, which I believe he coached.  I remember the musty smell of the air that came out of the metal A/C vent just under the window.  I remember exactly where I was sitting in the classroom that day and I remember the brick that sat on the floor near the door that was occasionally used as a doorstop.

All of these rich detailed memories aren’t from the course itself, they’re all from that one five minute lesson.  They started when the teacher jumped up from his desk to give the lesson and ended just as abruptly when he finished.  A perfect scene frozen in time.  If I concentrate hard enough, it almost feels like I can hop back into the room and watch the lesson unfold as a ghostly observer.

The curious thing for me is that I actually don’t remember much else from the class.  I really only remember that one lesson, but my memory captured all of the sensory detail from it and stored it all together.  Even the irrelevant stuff – like the color of the carpet and the way the chair legs connected to the foot – has all been captured.  It’s as though the lesson was flagged in my brain as important – but the flag wasn’t specific enough to indicate that it was the words of the lesson that were important.  So to be safe, my memory just stored everything – and I can retrieve it all in perfect fidelity even after 17 years.

I think that’s truly fascinating.



* Footnote: although I’ve written for two weeks in a row about not remembering very much from my middle school Spanish class – I’d like to note that that my lack of memory is not meant to be a comment on the quality of the class.  The class was excellent and I loved the teacher.

Memory and Feynman
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  • If you want to have a morbid moment, reflect on the fact that most of the details you remember are probably invented.

    Memory is a read-save system, so every time you recall a memory you actually modify that memory. It’s why eyewitness testimony is so unreliable – because the more you’re asked to remember something the more distorted from reality it becomes.

    Crazy stuff.

    It’s more likely that the emotional valence you attach to the memory makes all details recalled from that lens feel more real / accurate, but that illusion stems from the fact that a feeling of truth has nothing to do with truth itself.

    That said, there’s research to suggest that certain memories can be “stamped” into people, usually during times of high stress (well – most of the research comes from studying PTSD). But the theories around that don’t apply in low-stress situations, i.e. people become hyper sensitive to everything around them because in high-stress, high-adrenaline situations they’re looking for a way out and anything could be significant. The ordinary filtering systems are disabled, leaving to hyper-sensitivity.

    So, it’s certainly possible. But, I think, more likely that as you ruminated on the memory you started attaching specific details to increase the feeling of verisimilitude, based on your general memory of high school and that class in particular. Thus, most of the details are “invented” (but may in fact map pretty closely to reality, since it’s unlikely your class or high school changed that much week over week. An observation made months earlier is probably just as valid as when that memory occurred).

  • Simon Dexter


    I really enjoyed ‘Surely You’re Joking’. Especially the passage about competition Feynman had with Japanese ‘abacus’ man and how Feynman realized that his opponent did not really know numbers.

    Favorite quote: “…You see, I get so much fun out of thinking that I don’t want to destroy this most pleasant machine that makes life such a big kick…”

    Gleick’s ‘Genius’ also covers some aspects of Feynman’s time at Manhattan project which are not explored in this masterpiece.

    Great post!

  • Very well put and great points.

  • Bren Eifler

    Very interesting Andrew! Thanks for sharing. I have a few of those memories myself. …Slightly off topic, Feynman had a speed learning technique I have been using with great success: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrNqSLPaZLc (and http://www.scotthyoung.com/learnonsteroids/grab/TranscriptFeynman.pdf)

    If speed learning is of interest, here are a few more links:

    Oh, Michael: Here’s your $10 for the use of verisimilitude. ;)
    But I have to ask – why did you find it important enough to remember it? Perhaps due to a high stress situation… How do you know that it isn’t a word your mind invented? J/K ;)

    However, that does bring up an interesting thought – if one verifies their memories, and indeed, all the details are correct, than the accuracy of a memory can be proved. It is possible that Andrew remembers every detail of the classroom accurately.

  • Nice! thanks for sharing – i’ll have to check out the speed learning stuff, looks interesting.

  • Oh cool – I haven’t gotten to that part yet. I’ll also check out Gleick. Thanks!