Mr. Spock Can’t Forget the Theme to Gilligan’s Island Either

album-cover-mr-spock-presents-music-from-outer-space1In Newsweek magazine’s recent ‘cover package’ on the new Star Trek movie, one of the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation named Leonard Mlodinow leads his article titled “Vulcans, Never Ever Smile” with a startling confession.

There he was at a chi-chi Hollywood party filled with actors and models and an attorney whose “outfit would have been a fair trade for my car,” Mlodinow writes.

The attorney and a model… both Trekkies, as it turns out… begin to talk about various Star Trek arcana. For a long time he feels out of his depth as the attorney tries to impress the model with his knowledge of Vulcan ‘history’ when like a shot he realizes the attorney is quoting lines from a script Mlodinow himself had written!

“The situation felt surreal,” Mlodinow writes. “Not just because I’d forgotten my own dialogue—you’d be surprised how easy it is to blank on entire scenes—but that they had remembered it and in such detail.”

Mlodinow, let me be clear, wasn’t just another professional Hollywood scribe. He was, in fact, a physics professor at Caltech when he got the call to join the writing staff at Star Trek: The Next Generation and he came aboard thinking that he was there to inject some real science into the show.

What do you make of someone who can write something so unforgettable that another man commits it to memory while the writer himself can only just recall it?

I chalk it up to the ‘Gilligan’s Island Effect.’

You know what I mean. Along with a whole generation of my peers I can remember both versions of the theme to Gilligan’s Island. But for many years every April I’d have to look up my mother’s birthday to ensure I got a card to her on time. I knew her birthday was in April, I just couldn’t remember the exact date.

That is to say, part of the answer is repetition. Unless Mlodinow is a narcissist, I’d bet that he’s seen the episode in question many fewer times than the attorney. And while I’d certainly heard the Gilligan’s Island them hundreds of times, I had only celebrated 30 of my mother’s birthdays.

But part of it has to do with what learning you take pleasure in. There are adults who can recall sports statistics for the athlete-idols of their youth with perfect clarity decades after they committed them to memory. And yet if asked to memorize something they found joyless… the thread-count of the sheets their spouse preferred, say… they would tell you that they were incapable of keeping numbers in their head.

Human memory is so friable. Unless you work at it by keeping a learner’s journal and frequently reviewing it, or using a repetition spacing software like SuperMemo, it crumbles like dust.

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