Different Brains - Virtual Memory Deficit (VMD)

In my life I’ve sometimes been able to put things together in a way that made (certain easily-impressed) people think I was pretty smart but I now know that whatever brainpower I might seem to have can be attributed to years of some serious compensation for other things I don’t.

When I was a child, I couldn’t figure out why my brother would skim his homework and get ‘A’s while I’d stare at a page for hours and arrive at school the next day a total virgin, as though I’d never cracked a book and not remembering a thing. The result of this became evident early on when I was 5 and I flunked out of the first grade. From then on I fought a losing battle at school until I finally just stopped fighting.

My days, even from that age, were a bewildering inundation of academic underachievement. Until well into my teens, after a depressingly unsuccessful day in public school, I’d be picked up and shuttled off to Hebrew school for a few hours to study the Talmud, Jewish history and the Hebrew language (being spoken in the new Israeli state) until dark. Also on Saturday and part of Sunday it would be praying in the synagogue and Sunday school. Although I remember the people, the faces, the humiliation, it’s incredible how little I remember of what I was actually taught in class. Nothing stuck.

Not really understanding what was happening to me but in a desperate defense, I learned to unconsciously compensate for my seeming retentive blindness by relying on another process that worked much better for me, auditory learning. Even with my head on my desk, almost asleep in class, in a half-awake state I could absorb some of what was being said out loud in the room. Caught phrases combined with obvious logic eventually became enough to coast me to the occasional passing grade. I spent 5 years playing the violin in elementary school and never learned to read a single note of music. But I listened and learned the parts by ear.

Today they call this condition VMD, Visual Memory Deficit. It’s a disorder of the brain where an individual processes visual sensory input differently than other people. In this case, this little synaptic detour results in an inability to commit anything to memory through reading it – no lists, no historical details, no mathematical formulas. No matter how often someone with VMD exposes themselves to information in this fashion, it simply doesn’t imprint and move to memory. To be clear, I don’t have amnesia. I can remember things, I just can’t memorize them.

For all of my youth, I and everyone else around me was sure I should be able to overcome this with just more study but no matter how much I tried, nothing changed. In the 50s, when I was growing up, this was an unknown phenomenon and almost no one in the teaching community was yet interested in non-standard learning practices. At that time a teacher’s life was so much less complicated than today. If a child didn’t do well in school, they were either stupid or lazy.   In my case, no one, including myself, was really sure which I was.  Either one of these, however, was an acceptable excuse to flunk me.

Additionally, if the recalcitrant student compounded his situation by being inadequately deferential, seemingly inattentive or truant, school staff could hit him with a board. My teachers favored the 2×4 with holes drilled in it for aerodynamics. In Junior High School, we would be paddled in the Vice Principal’s office for any of the above offenses with the whole school sitting at their desks, listening in silence as it echoed through the halls. I’m proud to say I never once yelled out or cried. It was a good feeling to walk back into class with the whole school knowing I hadn’t broken. So, VMD combined with a bad attitude made my scholastic life pretty uncomfortable.

Today the response to VMD is a bit less sanguinary.  Educators and scientists who study the brain now know that common survival tactics for those of us with VMD are to develop greater analytical, conceptualization and creative skills. Studies suggest these can include:

• Artistic skill
• Musical ability
• 3-D visual-spatial skills
• Mechanical ability
• Vivid imagination
• Athletic ability
• Math conceptualization skills
• Creative, global thinking
• Curiosity and tenacity
• Intuition

With the exception of athletics, this is the story of my life.

As a life-long musician, I have hundreds of songs in my musical repertoire, some of which I have sung all my life, but I still can’t remember the words to a single verse or chorus, even the ones I’ve written myself! I still don’t know my times-tables. On the other hand, during one 18 month period in the ‘80s I designed and built the largest 2-way business radio system in the State of Oregon and a telephone company for a small city. Order, analysis, creative solutions, these are easy.

At one point in my life I wanted to get a ham radio license that required me to learn Morse code.  I began by studying a printed page with the alphabet and each letter’s equivalent dot-dash code.  There are only 26 letters in the alphabet but after 3 months of studying and hour every day, I still hadn’t got past the letter ‘C’ and that was only possible if I got a running start from ‘A’ each time.  A friend who is a national Morse code champion and coincidentally a math teacher came to help me and quickly identified VMD.  Still, at 50 years old, I had been accepting that I just wasn’t smart enough to achieve this task.  Later I was able to learn code by listening to audio tapes.

Having such a complete dearth of internal database, while it precluded me from ever excelling in school, made me a great candidate to take advantage of the Internet as it evolved. The World Wide Web, the boundless info-archive in the sky, has become my memory. Now I don’t have to actually know anything, I just have to know where to find it.