How Twitter saved me from losing my memory

     Thomas Dixon is shown at WHYY studios. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    Thomas Dixon is shown at WHYY studios. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    Thomas Dixon can’t tell you exactly what he did on Monday. Even parts of yesterday can be difficult. He was hit by a car in 2010 and sustained a traumatic brain injury, which caused serious, ongoing episodic memory deficits. Since then he has been using Twitter to create an accessible digital memory.

    A life with episodic memory loss is a life of telling many others that it’s NOT “short-term memory loss.” I had been already working within psychology and mental health for years before I was hit by that car on Nov. 22, 2010, which had caused my episodic memory deficits, so I knew how to speak about what I was experiencing more accurately.

    This is not short-term memory

    If you, reader, feel uncertain about the difference between episodic memory and short-term memory, then I ask you to close your eyes and say out loud what this essay is about, and then open them again. Try it.

    Could you do it?

    That is your short-term memory — your ability to keep track of what is happening within the present moment, to work on the problem or issue at hand.

    That is not what my deficit has ever been in. I am fully engaged in conversations and remain aware of what the topic(s) may be.

    Now, what did you eat for breakfast yesterday?

    When did you last talk to either of your parents, and what did you talk about?

    That is your episodic memory, and that is where my own disability lies. I am no longer able — in an unmediated, solely biological, sense — to keep track of what happens within my own life as time passes. I am not able to remember as well as I could have, pre-injury.

    However … I have a “better memory” than any person I have ever met.

    The solution to this conundrum? Twitter.

    ‘Dear (digital) diary …’

    Since the end of 2010, when I was hospitalized after my severe head injury, I have been privately tweeting my episodic memory.

    So, how does my “digital memory” work? Well, I carry my cellphone as much as the typical user may, and while I’m going about my day I periodically update my Twitter feed, posting whatever it is I care to note as I’m typing it in, and sometimes also posting pictures. The only way to see my account is to be logged in as me. I have nofollowers.

    What does this allow me to do? I may easily see how many times I’ve been with any given friend over the last year and what we may have done together, by searching on his or her name typing in his/her and then seeing whenever I noted being with them.

    I know that I enjoy coffee so much more than I do tea, but just how much more? My digital memory allows me to see how many times I noted each, and to make comparisons between them, such as what times of the day I noted having had some.

    My digital memory allows me to see if I’ve been tweeting more or less over time, or more on specific days of the week, or less in a given year — or any overlaps between any of the above.

    It also allows for some humorous comparisons. Let’s see some of what I had been doing on June 1 of this year, 2013, 2012, and 2011:

    6/1/2014Reduced my unread e-mails, watched a TED talk on the history of the “Teddy Bear”. I thought I might go out to an event but I had instead nabbed some groceries.

    6/1/2013Attended a party where I had received a refrigerator magnet from Egypt. (I still have that one. It was a rather cool party-favor.)

    6/1/2012I was with a group at a restaurant named “Jose Pistola’s”, where I ate a “carnitas burrito”. Separately, I had chatted with a few folks at one of my favorite spots for noodles in Philly’s Chinatown.

    6/1/2011Hmm. I had ate a cheeseburger with chips and pickles. Attended a meeting at Moss Rehabilitation and ate a “salad lunch” there. I had picked up a new prescription of glasses that day.

    The little things

    I am fortunate in that I already know the bigger picture of my life’s events, such that all of this “makes sense.” I know off-hand, at any given time, what is happening in my life — that I’ve graduated from my educational psychology program at Temple, that I’ve been dating my girlfriend for over half a year now, that I was in the United Arab Emirates for this past New Year’s Eve. However, I cannot tell you exactly what I did on Monday of this week, and even parts of yesterday can be difficult.

    As such, the more immediate and “smaller picture” elements of my life would be easily lost if I did not use my strategies.

    Below: Thomas Dixon presents his digital memory strategy at Nerd Nite Philly at Frankford Hall on July 7, 2012.


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