The wobbly donkey bridge

Wobbly Bridge 500x200 (002)

A friend of mine had read somewhere that our brain can react to a traumatic incident by wiping it out of our memory. The matter is thrown into the dustbin of total oblivion in order to let us continue our lives without constantly being forced to revisit that excruciating moment. This probably happened to me a few years ago. I will not pretend it was a life-threatening episode, but it was bad enough in the embarrassment department.

I can remember all kinds of things about the people I meet, but I struggle memorising names. I have no problem admitting this, but if you have met a person many times and they remember your name, you feel bad for not doing the same. It somehow seems disrespectful. How difficult can it be? You can always create a mnemonic device to help you.

A mnemonic is a learning technique developed to retain information in your memory. The human mind more easily remembers concrete, physical or spatial information than abstract facts. Humorous acronyms or memorable phrases often meet the purpose.

In German and Dutch, a mnemonic device is called ‘Eselsbrücke’ and ‘ezelsbruggetje’, literally a donkey bridge. Apparently, donkeys are so afraid of water that they will doggedly refuse to cross the most shallow ford. If you want to get your donkey to the other side without carrying it on your back, you need to build a bridge. It can be improvised, and it can look rather silly, as long as the donkey feels safe crossing it. So a donkey bridge is a special effort which in the end will allow you to reach your goal more quickly and securely, or to reach it at all, just like a mnemonic device.

I had this colleague in Germany I used to meet at a yearly event. We would always have a nice chat after a long day of meetings. I kept forgetting her name. I did not know her well enough to be on first-name terms, and the German language does not allow you to use the form of address “Frau” on its own, like the French “Madame”, the Italian “Signora” and the Dutch “Mevrouw”. “Frau” has to be followed by the surname.

It must have been after twelve or thirteen of these meetings that I decided this was becoming too embarrassing. The next time, I would be able to elegantly greet my colleague with „Guten Morgen, Frau Frankensteyn! How nice to see you again!“

All I had to do was build a donkey bridge. Easy with a name like that, right? Just think of the main character in an early British gothic novel, with long black clothes and a white shirt, and a scary face. This character bore no physical resemblance whatsoever to my colleague, but that was not the point.

When I spotted her at the conference dinner the following year, I confidently marched up to her, gave her a hug and cheerfully exclaimed: “Guten Abend, Frau Dracula!”

Whenever I tell this story, the obvious question from my listeners is: “How did she react?” I don’t know. I have no recollection of the seconds or minutes after my gaffe. I am fairly sure she did not punch me on the nose. Maybe she literally did not believe her ears and blamed bad acoustics. Or her own brain protected her from this trauma and she instantly forgot it herself. Or she very generously forgave me. Whatever happened, I never noticed her bearing a grudge.

There I was with my donkey bridge. It was counterproductive. It was far too wobbly; no donkey in its right mind would have put a hoof on it. Mnemonics are powerful tools, but you need to make them foolproof.

Sometimes I wish my brain’s memory eraser had kicked in a few seconds earlier, so I would not have to cringe every time I think of this episode. But then I would not have a story to share.

Picture by Kim Sørenssen

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march, 2018

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