Making the Most of Your Mental Warehouse

Considering how huge and packed with stuff the warehouse is, it’s kind of amazing that anything at all can be produced immediately on request.

Plugging away at my worklist last week, I received an alert-chime for an incoming email. Turned out to be from my Editor for this column, an FYI/housekeeping notification. I had a quick look, saw nothing objectionable, responded “looks good to me,” and went on with my daily grind.

Fast-forward 15 hours or so: I’m freshly awake. My sleep-fogged brain, otherwise taxed to its limit with getting some clothing on my body so I can venture downstairs to brew some coffee, fairly shrieks at me about an incorrect detail from that email that my prior, fully-awake self had blown by.

This is a common thing for me, and I suspect I’m far from alone. While often being Johnny-on-the-spot, my mind can turn up details or insights well after they would have been immediately relevant. Hours, days, sometimes even years after the fact.

When it happens, I’m reminded of the late/great Douglas Adams, of Hitchhiker’s Guide fame. He once likened an after-storm distant rumble of thunder to someone “saying ‘and another thing…’ twenty minutes after admitting he’d lost the argument.”

The phrase was humorously used as title for a follow-up to Adams’ books after his death, nearly 20 years afterwards. In it, the new author (with approval from Adams’ publisher and estate) wrote an amusing bit about the phenomenon of memory coughing up things that the conscious mind might or might not want at the time.

It meshes nicely with my imagination: I envision the conscious mind as routinely visiting the entrance of its memory, a warehouse which grows increasingly massive as one ages, learns, and experiences. In addition to constantly dropping stuff off for storage within, the conscious regularly requisitions memories to be brought out of storage: Computer passwords, old conversations, lyrics to songs from yesteryear, you name it.

Considering how huge and packed with stuff the warehouse is, it’s kind of amazing that anything at all can be produced immediately on request. Or even with a few minutes of attempted scouring.

The “and another thing” phenom happens when my conscious mind gives up those efforts and moves on without the recollection. That doesn’t mean the workers in the warehouse give up too, though. No, my request was received, and once that engine starts chugging along, it can keep going in the background with surprising persistence…even though I’m consciously unaware of it. When results turn up, they can be a complete “where the heck did that come from” surprise.

Some might consider such delayed payoff of little use, even annoying. I try not to look at it that way. Rather, I find that it’s of adaptive value to take satisfaction, even pleasure, in the effectiveness of this apparatus. Discounting it just because it didn’t happen on my preferred timetable is focusing on the wrong thing, like condemning a runner because he completed a marathon but failed to come in under the 4-hour mark.

I have no objective evidence to offer, but I’ve come to believe the metaphorical warehouse-workers know how their efforts are being received…and react accordingly. Prizing that an unearthed tidbit from the memory was retrieved at all gets them working that much better, even if they turned up their loot later than I might have found useful. I find I can practically train them to be more productive.

And more of it is useful than might be apparent at first blush. For instance, the common recognition of something clever one could have said in an argument last week. That exchange is over. No way to use that zinger now (George Costanza tried once, regarding some shrimp and a “jerk store”), so it’s pointless, right?

Well, maybe for that particular skirmish…but if you learned anything from the incident, you’re that much better armed for similar situations in your future. So what if the warehouse handed you an obsolete gizmo? Don’t just toss it aside; give it its due. Mentally dissect it. Think about why it would have been a good retort (or if it could have gone wrong in some other way).

This goes for bigger things than verbal spats. Rehashing interactions with other rads, referrers, techs, administrative types can yield all sorts of “I’ll do it better next time” or “I did well with that; need to remember to use that approach again” insights for future use.

And sometimes, it’s not too late to take action. More than once in a blue moon, I’ll be in the middle of reading a case when I suddenly remember something I said (or failed to say) in a report earlier that day, even that week. I should have said this instead, shouldn’t have dictated that, or meant to make some other comment too.

At the very least, recognizing such would’ve/should’ves incrementally makes me less likely to make such errors in the future…but, courtesy of most RIS-platforms I’ve seen in recent years, I can still remedy them by going back in my “completed jobs” list and digging up the case to make an addendum.

Of course, I’m not going to remember the patient’s name to specifically hunt…but I’ll remember the body-part and modality. Sifting back through the list and clicking on relevant contenders can get me the case pretty quickly if I read it earlier that day, even that week. And most software I’ve worked with can go back even further than that.