When I was young I had already become suspicious of subjective experience as a tool to learn about the real world, even that part of the world which includes objects known as ‘humans’. I was deeply impressed by such things as optical illusions. Only many years later, when I had become interested in how the brain works did I realize (when someone pointed it out to me) that subjective experience is an excellent source of hypotheses, or at least raw data to be explained in any adequate brain theory. Of course such explanations are free to rely on illusions, preferably with further explanations on why those illusions are adaptive.

The Imaginary Landmark

I don’t recall who told me of this mnemonic trick. For me it works as follows. I am about to drive to a place a few miles away but to a place that I seldom go. To get there I drive about half way to work and then depart from my normal route to get to the novel destination. Most people who drive or walk, are familiar with the error of passing the turning point and continuing as if going to work.

The trick is to imagine, as you start out, for 5 to 10 seconds, the intersection where the unusual turn is required. If I imagine this intently for just a few seconds then as I get to that intersection the exceptional situation will come to mind even if I am then thinking about something entirely unrelated.

It is easy to see the adaptive advantage of this, even without being rationally aware of the phenomenon; especially being unaware! It is normally good to be able to navigate familiar routes without requiring an attention span whose duration is that of the entire journey. It is good to have time to think of other things. I imagine the hunt where plans are made collectively with directions on where to go. The function seems now perfectly adapted to driving.

It is notable that I learned of this faculty by word of mouth. Most people I mention this too are unfamiliar with it. Perhaps the faculty is useful even when you are not aware of using it; you often plan ahead and select a path. The faculty has a chance to serve there. Perhaps it evolved with language as humans evolved to hunt together. But I am sure that I use it much more now than before someone brought it to my attention. That may bear on when it evolved; after language and culture.

I am impressed by whoever recently discovered the faculty and spread the meme.

This is analogous to the computer’s interrupt facility with analogous utility. This is about other aspects of switching one’s attention.

When the necessary lead time exceeds the 30 minute drive as when I realize that I need to buy perishables on the way home several hours hence, I notice that a few time in the day, when my brain is not busy with exigent tasks, I recall the upcoming task—sort of a refresh action.

My attention is directed to the novel turn about 1/2 block before the turn. This suggests that part of my head is unconsciously running ahead and thereby notices the “landmark”. This suggests a mechanism that is shared with a strategy to avoid places with traumatic long term memories. My imaginary landmarks are all gone in 24 hours. I think they vanish while I sleep.

This may be related to implementation intention.

An Eating Agent

I will pour a cup of coffee, or open a can of Coke. I put it down and get involved with something else. In a few minutes some agent of the stomach in the brain reminds me that there is a remaining unconsumed batch of stuff. I suspect it is the same agent that suggested the initial acquisition. When it is potato chips, this agent is aware whether the batch is gone and it pesters me further only if some of the batch remains or I am indeed still hungry. This observation leads to the useful plan of getting out a limited supply of potato chips and closing the bag. If I am not hungry then the agent is satisfied when the supply is gone. Otherwise, if the bag is open, the agent is unsatisfied until the bag is empty, even when I begin to feel a bit sated! This scheme is more pleasant than invoking “will-power” to stop.

Car Keys

I had a friend who would occasionally make some comment apropos of my imminent departure—and this would be before I had thought of leaving. I realized each time, however, that I was indeed eager to leave. He told me how he did this. I would take out my car keys. I would do this before I was aware that I wanted to leave. Now I often notice that I have my car keys in my hand as the first signal that I want to go.

The Illusion(?) of Repeated Dreams

When I was very young, perhaps five years old, I had a very disturbing dream. It was especially painful in that it was repeated, or at least it seemed as if the experience had had several antecedents. I remember thinking That dream again as I awoke. Shortly afterwards it occurred to me that if I had previously had the dream, I would certainly remember having remembered it, for it had upset me for a good part of a day. I could not remember having remembered it. I don’t recall resolving the problem then but now it seems to me that I probably had the dream just once and that there was some déjà vu mechanism that falsely made it feel as if it were not the first time. There may indeed be a common failure mode of the situation recognizer that gives the term déjà vu such power.

Short term number memory

When I look in a book’s index for something and see a corresponding page number I quickly close my eyes, even as I turn to the main body of the book, and transform the image of the numeral into a mental image of the English sounds that name the number. Even with my eyes closed, especially with my eyes closed, the image of the numeral is vivid. Then I open my eyes and look at page numbers within the body of the book and compare those with the sounds of the English name of the number that I found in the index. I find that decoding a printed Arabic numeral is quick, but obliterates the short term memory of the image of the numeral from the index. The memory of the sound, however, is more robust in this context and is not displaced by images of new numerals.

This observation is consonant with Julian Jaynes idea that language was adaptive because it let people remember complex ideas, sort of like a disk drive can store more stuff than RAM. In particular they could convey and remember a plan to capture an animal.


I have an electric heater in my room. It automatically turns on sometimes and when it does it begins to draw enough more power to just noticeably dim the lights. A few seconds later it begins to emit a low hum. I become consciously aware of the hum at which time I recall the slight dimming. I think the dimming alone would not have caught my attention. Each time the hum surprises me, even after very many repetitions of this pattern. I suppose that if there were unfavorable conditions associated with the hum, the dimming would also come to my attention, or at least provoke a conditioned response. This suggests an unconscious portion, or mode, of short term memory. I think that this is also the mechanism that allows me to decide to count the hourly chimes of a clock after several chimes have already occurred. I think I can retroactively count about 5 chimes. This may well be an illusion.

Recalling a Name

Just now (2016) I was forwarding some e-mail to several of my friends who had collaborated on a particular project, and some of which I had not seen recently. There was one friend, whose face and work I recalled in detail, whose name I could not recall. The friends’ known names and e-mail addresses were clearly displayed on the screen. I asked myself “What is the missing name for ‘the other guy’?”. When I vocalized one of the names that did I recall, (really moved my lips so as to produce the name out loud), the missing name popped up immediately. Seeing the known name did not suffice, I had to run the known name thru the vocal brain apparatus to stimulate recall of the missing name.

Finding Pills

I ordered some prescription pills online and they arrived in the mail on schedule. I brought them in from the mail box but had an important thing to write down with my computer and I put the bag beside me. As I wrote the bag slipped down between two pieces of furniture. I made a mental note knowing that they would be hard to find there, but what I was writing was more important. Several days later I remembered that they had arrived but could not find them. I still had a more than week to go before I exhausted the previous supply. Then several days later, still worrying, I was sitting idly in the car, far from home, thinking about nothing. The mental note I had made sprung forth. They were indeed still there.

Smiling Alone

As a teenager I was fond of Bob Hope’s humor. I heard most of his radio broadcasts in the late 40’s. One evening I was listening alone and enjoying the show as usual. I became aware that I was not laughing or even smiling. That puzzled me for I had thought that such was an integral part of such enjoyment.

Murphy’s Section

Where did I park my Car

When I park twice in one day in the same neighborhood, I recall the first place I parked and not the second when I look for my car the second time. I cannot imagine any adaptive advantage to this bug. Another report

What Time is it?

Often some agent in my head wants to know what time it is. I look at my watch and that agent is satisfied. Shortly thereafter another agent needs to know the time. I remember looking at my watch, but do not remember the time. I must look again.

Evidently the first agent either made a threshold test which satisfied it, or learned the time and omitted registering that in memory. I suspect the former.

Finding long lost Items

When I find something that I had been looking for, I usually put it ‘where it belongs’. Later when I need it again, I remember where I found it but not where I put it.