Thursday, March 31, 2005

Say that again

In my first real job, an office job in NZ that I started when I was 15 (yes, you could leave school at 15 then, and I did) there was an insurance agency sharing premises and facilities with my company. It wasn't our business to explain insurance questions to the clients of that agency, but sometimes when the agents were out we would try to help.

One day a very charming man came in and said he had a couple of questions for an insurance agent. I told him the insurance agents were out, but if I could help I would. But he should get my answers confirmed by the agents, later.

He was happy with that, and launched into his first question. It was a question I could answer, so I answered it. Then he asked his second question. That was a question I could answer, too, so I was happy to oblige.

Then he asked the first question again, almost verbatim.

I stared at him. Was he winding me up? He'd just ASKED that. But he was a client, and I knew that you always should be polite to clients, so I answered it again. I felt stupid repeating myself, and perhaps it showed, because the guy, who was watching me closely, suddenly interrupted and asked,

"Have I asked you that one already?"

"Er... yes," I said, a little nervously.

"Oh. Sorry," he said. "I have no short-term memory. It's because I fell off a ladder a few years ago and landed on my head."

"Oh!" I said, and peered closely at his face to see if there was any hint of teasing. He looked back at me, smiling guilelessly. "Um, I see," I said. "Would you like me to write down the answers to your questions?"

His face lit up. "What a good idea!" he exclaimed, and I wondered why he hadn't thought of it himself. But then I thought maybe he HAD, and had forgotten. Then I got confused trying to think about it. How did he even remember he was suffering from short-term memory loss?

But I wrote down the answers, and all went well. When he started to ask the first question again I pointed at the paper I'd written the answers on and he said, "Oh, THANK YOU, ha ha," and then asked the second question, and I pointed at that, and he stared, read it, and said he thought that was all. Then he left.

I talked to one of the insurance agents about this episode when he came back to the office. He knew the guy.

"It's a sad case," he said. "He was an exceptionally intelligent bloke before the accident. Now ... well, I suppose he's still intelligent, but he can't remember anything that happened in the last five minutes. Tsk tsk."

He shook his head sadly. (Roger was the only person I've ever met who actually said, 'Tsk tsk,')

I thought and thought and THOUGHT about this problem at the time. I've thought about it since then, too, and I still find it puzzling.

How did he remember what questions he wanted to ask?


Der Tommissar said...

Lord knows I'm not an expert on this stuff, but I'll hazard a guess.

This guy had probably been thinking about his concerns for several days. By that I mean, the questions he had had probably been bouncing around his head for quite a while. Since he'd been contemplating them for such a period, it became burned into his long term memory.

Remembering if he'd asked a question, however, is not something we repeatedly consider, so it was in his short term memory.

It's like the difference between liking ice cream and eating ice cream. We all know if we like ice cream, that would be long term memory. Trying to remember each time we ate ice cream...that would be short term.

Ms Mac said...

At first I thought that was an April Fools joke!

But now I can't help thinking about it too! Have you seen the movie Memento with Guy Pearce? I think it's about short term memory loss, supposed to be really good, too!

ps. The creme egg- is it still there? Did you find it or had someone pinched it?

Aurura said...

..yeah, that's amazing. You handled the situation well.

I had never been introduced to the concept of short-term memory loss until I actually saw movies with characters representing it. One was "Finding Nemo" and the other, well, I can't remember the title, but it had Drew Barimore and an actor who also was in "The Wedding Singer" and so on.

Paula said...

I forgot what I was going to say.

melinama said...

I agree that they guy was voicing his worries (questions) which were throbbing in his head with unquenchable anxiety. The anxiety renewed itself again and again because the answer (probably technical) did not respond to the anxiety with enought power. YOu should indeed see Memento. Twice in a row.