Attention, the Bonding of Time With Memory

Why do we recall songs so well but not casual names?

Posted Nov 30, 2020

Joseph Mazur
Source: Joseph Mazur

Pick a musical piece that you heard some years ago. The Beatles Yesterday, considered to be one of the most famous songs of all time, is one that is likely familiar. Listen to it quietly in your mind’s ear.

As you hear the first seven syllables of the lyrics, Yesterday, all my troubles, along with the melody and the long pause at the comma, you already know the notes that follow, even if you’ve forgotten the next four words—seemed so far away. Those words follow a musical timeline of anticipation. Once before—years ago, perhaps—you had focused a great deal of attention on both the melody of passing syllables and the words. 

That attention—whatever it was—prioritized your mind’s pigeonholing of the musical essence of the song to reinforce retention over time. The first four words are not far from the second four. They might even have some overlays and intersecting connections that give us a picture of what comes next. In the Beatles song, the word, troubles, is searching for a verb in our memory pile while given a clue. Hang on to that guiding word troubles along with the ascending syllabic background notes for a moment to pull up seems so far away

As you recall some of the lyrics, note that something else is also occurring. You are conjuring up an old memory of the place and time where you first heard that song. Music places memories, just as music can bring them forward. The lyrics, especially the escorting melody, connect to other music in your past to summon other memories that mix with the present.                                                             

It’s like that with our conscious streams of thinking, which are not successions of events that pop up and disappear. Our thoughts don’t stop to wait for the next. The stream is a sequence of overlapping thought pods. In 1890, William James gave us an alpha-graphic representation. “In the present thought is of A B C D E F G, the next one will be of B C D E F G H, and the one after that of C D E F G H I – the lingerings of the past dropping successively away and the incomings of the future making up the difference.”

That 130-year-old quote is still just a theory. We don’t have lab evidence of such a scheme; however, if thought runs that way, why shouldn’t memory? There is more to it than that. As one evoked pod moves to the next, it sparks an associated memory to ride along, as if part piggybacked. So as the stream moves along, it carries a sequence of memories with it. Things we’ve heard or thought about before. It’s more than just a wave of pods; it’s a wave that creates a new thought, a created one.

We generally have thoughts—many creative ones—related to something real, an event, a history, or a conversation of the moment. Fragments of those thoughts endure as memories placed in a timeline of our experiences. Take, for instance, finger memory. A pianist may not be paying much attention to the notes played, yet “knows” through orders from his or her motor cortex, the coming notes, and expressive tone and timing of the music. But time has a way of fogging memories because time is memory. As time recedes into the far past, it blurs everything that went along with it.

Older people tend to recall songs of their youth quite well, yet some tend to forget the names of casual acquaintances. They meet familiar faces at a grocery store and say hello without a follow-up name. No, “Hello, Joanne.” Just, “Hello.” We forget names when we forget faces, and we forget faces when we don’t pay much attention to facial details. We should be mentally photographing the faces of people whose names we intend to remember. Or perhaps use the method of loci, the ancient Greek mnemonic technique of placing objects around a familiar place.

There is, of course, another age-old trick to recall a name. Refer to the alphabet in your mind for help by evoking the letters one-by-one in sequence. Chances are, by the time you get to J, Joanne will surface. That’s because the J brings up sounds close enough to and the phonic  brings forward several possible woman’s names starting with that phonic. It's an elimination process.

Distinct brain areas with somewhat specific functional roles share multidimensional information, so we might speculate that there is a causal association between time, attention, and memory. With discriminating millisecond temporal accuracy tools, neuroscientists can now use neuroimaging to understand where signals are in the brain and how the brain coordinates messaging along time-dependent response pathways. Memories are the significant markers of time. Significant events are permanent milestones in the timelines of our lives. Unless we attach a date or gather memorable events together, we confuse the timing of events in our memories.

It reminds me of an interview I had with a long haul trucker a few years ago for my book, The Clock Mirage. “Whenever I think of time,” he said, “I think of something that has either happened or is about to happen. I had been someplace some time ago, and I have someplace to go, and I’ll be there at some time later. That’s what time is, remembering what you did and where you were when you did whatever you did, or looking forward to what you will do. Maybe time is just memory.”

In his view, memory, time, and attention are one-to-the-other directly related in ways that place and guide us. Memory stands hallmarked by time. I’m with him. These truckers are “like the Babylonian shepherds who at one time watched their sheep while thinking about the stars above.”

Is there some specific faculty that permits us to be aware of time passing while pigeonholing memories for safekeeping? We feel time passing by relating it to events for which we were very attentive. We have memories built from experiences of life moving along from the present moment to the past. It was Henry James who asked the tough question, “How do things get their pastness?” he answered with a hypothesis referencing a glow-worm’s bioluminescence.  “Our feelings are not thus contrasted, and our consciousness never shrinks to the dimensions of a glow-worm spark.” Poetic, yes, it is the glow-worm that shines its light on minute areas as it moves. 

Those three words—memorytime, and attention—light up distinct parts of the brain. Attention grabs us and carries along with our perceptions as the day advances. Most routine experiences go unnoticed, but we do pay significant attention to strikingly uncommon ones, those landmarks of life that are often photographed by real cameras as well as the mind’s eye. They are vivid memories that often alter time. Active routines of life contribute to the impression that time is moving slowly, while the highlights of life move time more rapidly. Time sense comes from interconnected feedbacks from the way we live, from the vast storehouses of memories, and from the amount of attention we paid to minor and major events.

Memory is what it takes to bring the past into the conscious present, and that can happen only with time. Hope and wishful fulfillment bring forward the future, and that too connects with time. Stand in the present, become conscious of time; it will slow down. Pay direct attention to it, meditate on it; it will slow down even more. So attention too is related to time. Time plays tricks with anyone watching it. It grabs on to all those durations stored in the mind that could gently fade into a false memory.

If, instead of Yesterday, the first three syllables of that Beatles classic had been Scrambled egg, would you have trouble recalling the next four words that might be oh, my baby, how I love your legs…? Of course not, though your reason would have been different. You would not be looking for a verb; instead, you would be looking for a picture and a rhyme. Pictures and rhymes help recalls in time if you pay enough attention.

© 2020 Joseph Mazur.


Joseph Mazur, The Clock Mirage: Our Myth of Measured Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020), 142-43.

Henry James, The Principles of Psychology, vol. 1 (New York: Macmillan, 1890), 244.