bear attack

One of my group of friends sent us all a picture of a bear attack we experienced together a few years ago.

That's me on the far right of the picture, in the background. I say "a few years ago" because I don’t remember how many years it was. Somewhere around three, I think. I don’t remember this moment at all, actually. This is a good demonstration of how my memory works, or rather doesn’t. This was clearly a memorable moment, but I don’t remember it. I’m sure it was fun. I imagine someone (maybe even me) saw this giant bear statue, and somehow we arrived at the idea to pose for a picture of the bear attacking us.

Are there bears in North Dakota? Maybe we talked about that at the time. I feel like we talked about some other kind of attack in North Dakota. Maybe scorpions?

I remember a lot of the context around this photo. This was at our friends’ wedding in North Dakota, just before the ceremony. Or just before something with a set time anyway. Maybe between the ceremony and the reception? We had some time to kill before that set time, and we were at a resort with mini golf, so we played mini golf. Toward the end of the mini golf, we realized we had to hurry up, so we started playing collaboratively rather than competitively. We all worked together hitting all the balls toward the next hold, calling it "communist mini golf." Was the beat at the end or in the middle? We probably didn’t have time for a photo at the end.

It’s possible I only remember the communist mini golf part because Jessica mentions it pretty much every time we play mini golf. I also remember the reception was at a building a short walk from the mini golf. There were swings in between. And basketball. I think we played basketball at some point, maybe some other game as well. Four square? Where did we get a ball? The reception had an upstairs patio where people could smoke. People did smoke, and I joined them to talk. I don’t remember which people smoked. Either the night before or the night of the bear attack in this photo, I was outside, it was dark, and I was talking to someone. About something.

My implicit memory is great. I can do things I've done before, with skills I don’t remember learning. Much of life is like riding a bike for me, where you never really forget how. But my episodic memory is awful. I frequently start watching a new movie only to realize after five or ten minutes that I’ve actually seen it before. So maybe it’s like riding a bike, but I’m unsure if it’s my bike or I maybe borrowed it.

In many ways, as you might imagine, this is a bad way to go through life. I can’t reminisce with my friends about the bear attack; without memory, I effectively wasn’t there. But there I am, in the photo. Clearly I was there. It’s easy for people to assume from my lack of memory that I didn’t enjoy such shared moments. I’m pretty sure I did here. I look happy, of course, but beyond that, this is the kind of experience I would enjoy. Or at least I would now. Was I different then? Surely I enjoyed it.

In other ways, bad episodic memory is a gift. Unlike all my friends, I can look at this photo and experience it anew. While they can only remember their actual experience, I can construct new experiences among the wide gaps in my memory. It’s almost as if I get to relive my life, with only a few boundaries that I must repeat, in the memories I retain. Everyone looks happy in photos, so there’s a good chance my reconstructed past is actually happier than it was the first time around.

I’ve never met anyone with memory like mine. I’m pretty sure my memory wasn’t always like this, and I didn’t realize it had changed until years later, when I couldn’t very much remember years before. I’m sure there are other people with similar memories. Similar memory capacities, I mean. I doubt there are other people who remember the bear attack like I do. I can’t tell you how much fun we had.


I believe my hippocampus was damaged at some point within the past ten years. Most people who know me say I have bad memory, but I found out today I don’t. I only have bad episodic memory. My semantic memory is just fine, perhaps even exceptionally good. According to some scientists referenced on Wikipedia, the hippocampus is a section of the brain that handles episodic memory, and does not handle semantic memory.

My hippocampus also handles my sense direction. I don’re remember having better episodic memory ten years ago, but I do remember having a better sense of direction. And I also don’t remember my bad memory being a defining trait ten years ago, so I’m assuming it was okay at some point and then it went bad. Damage to my hippocampus would explain this.

Episodic memory is the kind of memory your friends notice you not having. You forget that time you went on that trip together, or what they told you yesterday, or some other episode that defines your friendship. You’re still a nice guy, just kind of insensitive. This is me. Except I’m not insensitive (I swear!); these things just don’t stick in my brain.

I think semantic memory, on the other hand, is commonly misunderstood as intelligence. People who know me tend to think I’m “smart,” but I really just have good semantic memory. I pick up programming concepts or games quickly because they are inherently semantic. Every part has a defined meaning. But I don’t remember the episode of learning the concepts. They just become part of my mental model of the world, my semantic memory.

So assuming I’m correct that my hippocampus was damaged, what might have caused that? Other scientists referenced on Wikipedia say it might have something to do with autism and/or maybe Alzheimer’s. You’ll recall I once diagnosed myself as having Asperger’s, a mild form of autism. And Alzheimer’s increasingly seems to be a kind of diabeties in the brain, interesting here because I am diabetic.

For a less scientific-sounding explanation, there was that one time I jumped into a doorway and hit my head so hard I had to be taken to the emergency room. I don’t actual remember that episode, but the story of that episode is essentially the meaning of the scar on my forehead. (See the distinction there?) That happened within the timeframe I suspect my hippocampus was damaged. But the location of the hippocampus (near the center of the brain) makes that seem less plausible.

Or maybe my hippocampus wasn’t damaged at all. Maybe I always had bad episodic memory and just don’t remember it when I was younger. That would, of course, make sense. In any case, it’s nice to have an explanation for why I remember some things and not others. I can now stop telling people I have bad memory only to have them later discover I remember some things very well. Now I can say, more correctly I think, that I have semantic memory.


Flickr's new mapping feature is very cool. I’ve only eaten gellato once in my life, and it was bought from the same shop as the cone this boy is eating, and eaten while looking out the same window:

Photo by robbed on Flickr

It’s something I never would have found without the mapping feature, and I’m amazed at how much it makes me miss places I’ve been before. That gellato was really good.


Oh, the absurdity of it all: putting all that effort into making memories they won't remember of good times they never had.

Life in Suburbia by Aaron Swartz.


A few people have suggested that I should make a memory-style game based on flickr images. As I have told these people, this game was already made a long time ago. It's called Flick-a-Pair. As chance would have it, the person who made this game, Shelley Powers, was also the first to play fastr (from outside my house).

I don't have any plans to make another version of Flick-a-Pair, nor any other flickr-based game. It's fun to be famous on the internet for a day or two, but it just doesn't pay well enough to be worth all the time involved. I'm willing to waste my time on fastr, because I'd just be otherwise wasting my time playing some other game (most likely at Kurnik). But fastr is just not the business opportunity many have mistaken it for. It's just a fun little game.