Friday, 10 July 2009

Who the hell are you, my friend?

Facebook and other social networks have highlighted a troubling social phenomenon that is causing people like me a real problem – “Asymmetric Memory Retention” or AMR.

AMR is the situation where you interact with someone who has a shared experience with you, but whereas one of you has a clear recall of what happened, the other has no memory of the event or even the other person at all. I’m not talking about a vague and distant recollection. I mean no trace at all.

Whilst AMR has existed forever, in the past the likelihood of you meeting someone who you had completely and utterly forgotten was very remote. But with the advent of Facebook, twitter and all the rest it is becoming increasingly common. We’ve all had that friend-request out of the blue from someone saying “Hey, Tom, you old rogue, remember that day with the red bowtie and the halibut?” But how are you supposed to handle that situation? What are the social norms of interaction when you are a victim of AMR?

To gain some insight into this, I turned to the academic literature on AMR. This turned out not to be very fruitful because I have only just this second invented and named the concept of AMR so no-one has actually studied it yet. However, I am confident that before I finish typing this blogpost, a Professor of AMR will emerge to challenge outdated notions of AMR treatment and present their own theory, along with a best-selling book entitled “Who the hell are you, my friend?”, on how to embrace the joys of AMR for fun and profit.

The issue popped up for me recently because I came across an ancient photo album containing scenes from my distant past – nearly 40 years ago. The picture above is me back then with my great friend, Raymond (who I do remember very well of course), aged about 9 or 10 I think. Some of these pictures I look at and remember exactly, in a very deep way. I couldn’t tell you the date, perhaps, but I remember not only the event but exactly how I felt. In fact when I look at them I am not observing them from the outside, I actually feel as if I am experiencing the events again. I looked at one and tears immediately welled up in my eyes, as the painful emotions I felt at the time reappeared.

However, there were some photos that I looked at as if I was a stranger. I could see my younger self standing there looking back at me, but I had no recollection at all of being there. That’s a very odd feeling.

It is even odder when you are contacted by someone who was in the photo, who knows you really, really well but you remember nothing at all of them. The face draws a blank however hard you stare. The name doesn’t ring the tiniest bell, the events are a complete mystery. You have no idea whether they are just lying or whether your memory has been wiped clear. We call this Deep AMR. I say “we” but I mean “me” as no-one else has heard of AMR, yet.

I am wrestling with just such a Deep AMR problem. I have a message and a friend request from someone that I have absolutely no recollection of, but they clearly know me very well so we must have hung out together at some point. Mind you I was a bit distinctive in my youth – I think I was the only “dark glasses with 5 inch afro, poncho and clog wearing physicist” hippie in West Africa at the time, so perhaps more people remember me than vice versa. But what is the correct social etiquette in this Deep AMR situation?

Do I come clean and say “sorry, old bean, I appreciate that you know me well but I have zero recollection of you, so we will have to start again as if we are complete strangers” Or do I bluff saying “hey, you old dog, how’s it hanging homie? Remind me about the good old days again” and hope that some glimmer of a memory of him returns.

It’s quite unsettling really and no doubt someone will tell me it’s the beginning of the onset of altissimo (I say “altissimo” because I tried to spell that word beginning with A that means you lose your memory but I mangled it so badly that the spell checker offered me altissimo instead and I liked the sound of it). But I don’t mind it. I find it fascinating and I’m wondering if I am the only silent AMR sufferer out there or whether Facebook is inflicting this previously hidden problem on loads of us.


Tim Trent said...

That word begins with an "O" not an "A". You're thinking of "Old Timers' Disease"

The etiquette is easy. "Fred, I must have got hit on the head or something. I know I know you and I know I was there, but I'm damned if I can remember charging up the high street stark naked with a kipper on my head!"

Mind you the Afro will have been a bit messed up with the kipper, so you ought to remember it!

Nice pic of you with Raymond.

The Reader said...

Well if AMR does turn out to be a real medical condition, I'm afraid I'll also need to sign up for the experimental drug therapy.

In all seriousness, however, it happens to us all and unfortunately honesty isn't always the best policy.

At least with Facebook you can add them and later remove them or hide their posts. Just don't go bumping into them on the street!

Anonymous said...

suffering from both AMR and alzheimers as I dont remember a 5 inch afro....... you can always say the post traumatic stress from the squash ball injury has affected your recollection of 'friends'.