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Returning from Vacation & State Dependent Memory (no, not New York versus Massachusetts!) - The Motive Center
September 3rd, 2005
10:40 pm

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Returning from Vacation & State Dependent Memory (no, not New York versus Massachusetts!)
We've been back from our vacation trip to New York for a week now. I spent zero (0) time thinking about the story I'm writing, quite deliberately. Before I left, I decided to stick with my basic principle of writing every day, but I knew I wouldn't be able to do that on vacation, so I took a vacation from writing, too. Rather than set a failing goal, I decided to take a formal break.

We returned on Sunday afternoon the 28th. I sat down after a full week of no writing, and...wrote over a thousand words! (Well above my average.) I've written every night since, for around 4,300 words total over the past six nights (I haven't written my bit tonight). So in fact I am back into the rhythm of writing with no problem at all, at roughly the same speed.

You might wonder why this is true. Why could I write every day for weeks without fail, then drop it completely for a week, and then start up again? I took advantage of a phenomenon known as state-dependent memory. Or, why people who study stoned do better on tests when stoned. More after the cut...


A memory is not a photograph, it is an algorithm. When you recall something, it is not a fixed "thing" buried in your brain. Instead, your brain re-creates it from stored elements, and then when you are done with it the memory has to be stored away properly. In fact, the very latest research (I heard a talk from a researcher doing it now) indicates that you can interrupt the process of re-storage and lose the memory! (They're looking at this to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.)

Furthermore, your memory is not stored in neat boxes; it connects with other memories. The brain makes connections and patterns--that's what it may be best at, in fact--and as a result memory is not chronological or linear, it is associational. By that I mean that your whole brain is hyperlinked across rather than neatly organized. So you see a map of Italy, and you think of a boot, and that leads you to think of Doc Martens, which leads you to wonder who Doc Martens is, and was he a podiatrist?

This can be fun--it is how writers come up with ideas--but it has other effects too. Back when I was in high school in the 1970s, there were people who boasted that they took the SATs stoned and did better than they would have straight. Studies have indicated that (besides reducing anxiety) this may be because they studied stoned as well. I'm not recommending marijuana here, or indeed any brain-altering drug. What happened is that they were in a particular mental state, and because of the associational nature of the brain, anything stored by studying was also stored in relation to that state of mind.

In other words, everything gets jumbled into the same box. I know a guy who had quit smoking for ten years, but the first time he got on a plane in that time (they allowed smoking then), he promptly restarted, because he associated cigarettes with flying and to soothe his anxiety about flying. He even told me he always smoked on planes, so he smoked on this one, even though he had to borrow a cigarette to do it.

I took advantage of this, however. I decided not to try writing in all locations. I wrote my last segment before my vacation at my Mac, and so when I returned, it felt like no time had passed. My memory of leaving off segued with my memory of return, and New York was so different it was as if it didn't matter.

Had we stayed longer, it might have been different, but after only a week, I even remembered plot points I had considered before the trip and did not write down.

There are other ways to use this phenomenon. One traditional way to break writer's block is to only sit down at your desk chair when you feel like writing, and standing up immediately when you don't. After a while, you can work it in reverse: when you sit down, you will feel like writing.

So that's what I didn't do on my summer vacation, and why it might have been a good thing!

Current Music: Thick As A Brick (Side 1)

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