Saturday, November 01, 2014

Place Memory

Lady's Island, SC

We are hiding out today from bad weather.  It is blowing gale force and it has become bitterly cold.  Tomorrow night the wind will be less but the low temperature will be in the 30s.  Brrrr,  our tolerance for cold is low and our cockpit is open.  Going out to sea sounds tomorrow night sounds very unappealing.  

While we have a down day, I'll write about a cool topic: place memory.  Do you have good place memory?  If you're a sailor, chances are the answer is yes.  I define it as the ability to rapidly and accurately recognize a place you have seen before based on sparse visual cues.  I suspect it is related to the "brain's GPS" cited in this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine.   I think that place memory is a very curious and surprising human ability.

I think that all my blood relatives have good place memory, which suggests an inherited trait.  Even my sister Marylyn who is developmentally disabled, has excellent place memory.

Place memory becomes especially vivid for me as we travel the ICW.  Even though the background of water, marshes and clumps of trees seem nondescript we (both LIbby and I) have no trouble recognizing every twist and turn.   Most vivid for me are the stretches that we traversed before under sail.  Navigating the ICW under sail is rare and challenging.   When you do it, your brain operates at full speed and the memories are more intense.

Libby and I remarked several times that we can drive the back roads of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine and recognize where we are by the architecture of old fashioned homes, and villages.  That sound preposterous but it really works.

I had an uncle (not related by blood), who was notoriously bad at place memory.  It took him 20 years to work up the courage to drive from Boston, Ma to Syracuse, NY to visit my parents.  He was afraid that he might wind up in NJ, or Nova Scotia instead of New York.  GPS was not available in his day.   He did manage to drive his tank over the bridge at Remagen into Nazi Germany, but I always wondered if he wasn't assigned to attack Italy instead :-)

We are fond of telling the story about our daughter Jen.  She once overheard someone say, "Well, The Sun rises in the East."  and she turned and said, "It does?"   We and everyone else were amazed that she should ask that.  But she spent her formative years growing up in Sweden, where The Sun rises in the South mid winter, and at mid summer it rises and sets in the North.  We lived just below the arctic circle.  Just above the arctic circle at mid summer, The Sun never sets, it just goes round and round in circles.  My point is that Jen's place memory and sense of direction were affected by her childhood experience.

Place memory also works for streets, highways, buildings, supermarket aisles, and finding things in drawers.  I think it is very curious how place memory can work so much better than memory for other things.

Out at sea, place memory doesn't work, correct?  For the most part yes; being at sea is disorienting, but there are exceptions.  While the sun is up, I could steer a course +-30 degrees without a compass just by position of the sun.   At night, I might be able to follow a star.  But on a cloudy night without a compass, I would probably steer in circles.  Another exception is the color of the water.  Especially in the passage between Lake Worth, Florida down to The Keys and Marathon, Libby and I delight in recognizing the shifting color of the sea.  Our favorite is the deep deep blue of The Gulf Stream; a color that can't really be photographed or observed.

One skill I've learned from decades of sailing is sensing wind direction with my face and neck. I do it without thinking but Libby seems to not have that sense at all.

I bet you have some curious stories about place memory from your own experience.  Please feel free to post them as a comment.


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