Mike handed me his jumper cables and explained carefully how to use them, including telling me how the electricity goes from one car to the other because, he said, if he understands how a thing works – how or why – he is more likely to remember directions.
But that's not how my brain works. I remember how to use the jumper cables by visualizing the scene – RAV4 on the right, Yaris on the left. Attach red to the dead battery (on the right), then red to the good battery (on the left), then black on the good battery (the left one), then black on the dead battery (on the right). I see it all as I repeat it: red to dead, red to good; black to good, back with black. How and why it works is no help at all. I don't even remember it. I visualize what to do, so I can do it. Words help, too.
The difference in the way our brains work came up again when we played a game of "dictionary." We found some fabulous words: wittering (a token or hint), twire (to peep out), opsimath (a late learner), ponty-pool (relating to japanned metalware, not, as Mike would have it, the pool of water around the pilings of a bridge, or, as I would have it, the biggest stakes in a gambling game). Later when we tried to recall as many of those words as we could, thinking we might want to keep them in our vocabularies for future use, I was running through the words as they appeared in my mind, visualizing them in the column I had made of them, on paper, after the game.
Mike said he didn't see written words in his mind. He just remembered them by remembering them.
But I do. I see the column of words I wrote down. I see where on a page I was when I stopped reading. I see the written word when I want to know how to spell it. I see the jumper cables being put first on one car, then on the other, accompanied by the jingle. It isn't a photographic memory. It's just a visual memory, and it works best with words.
I asked Mike what he saw when, for instance, there was a December 2016 date and an April 2016 date. How did he know which date came first?
Okay, that was a dumb question.
He knew which date came first because April comes before December. Yes, I know that, but I made a mistake recently, when the question was asked me (in circumstances that made it not such a dumb question as it sounds), thinking that December came before April because I see the calendar as a circle in my head: December (spelled out) at the top, April on the extreme right, July on the bottom, and October on the extreme left, the other months filling in the quarters. The year revolves clockwise around that circle. That seasonal calendar ignores the years, only referencing the months according to seasons. Therefore, when the question came up of whether December 2016 came before April of the same year, well, yes, in that calendar in my mind, which shows the months but not the years, December, being on top, does come before April. It's very rational.
Curiously, this kind of visualization doesn't work with maps. I don't visualize the land as on a map, and I often get east and west mixed up. My internal compass doesn't orient me easily in the landscape, and I get confused. I asked Mike how he knew what was where, and he said he had a map in his head. If my brain can see words on a page, why can't it see formations on a map?
This way of "thinking" isn't something I consciously decide to do because I think it would be helpful, for instance, to see the calendar as a circle of months or remember words by visualizing them. In fact, it's probably not a good idea, as the December-April example proves, and I see that although I have a rational explanation of why I made a certain mistake, other people can't know the rationale, and I look kind of dumb. Oh, well. I know that the thinking was perfectly rational, and whether it's a good way for the brain to work or not doesn't matter. It's just the way my brain works.