The power of episodic memory

July 30, 2022 § Leave a comment

Remembering an episode when I saved the life of a man

A few nights ago, after a short sleep, I was awake at 2 AM and without trying to remember anything, a memory from my past started crowding my mind and memory. It was about an episode that happened in Helsinki, at the Central Railway Station, in the summer of 1965.

Perhaps it was the emotional content of that particular incidence that kept me awake. But it was and is also the end of July, August approaching and the feeling of summer was very similar to the time of the year when that memorable episode took place. Whatever the reason, the whole psychological experience of it, conquered my mind.

57 years ago

I was 17, soon to be 18, expecting to get my driver’s license and was on my way to see a convertible, a cream-color Chevrolet, of 1950’s. It was for sale in Hyvinkää, about 50 kilometers from Helsinki, where I lived, and I decided to take a train there.

At that time in Finland, each end of most train carriages had external, metal stairs, three steps, flanked by handrails to help passengers climb to the train from the platform. (See the figure). The carriages were connected by a short bridge and at the end there was a small space with four doors, one leading to the next carriage, one to the seat compartment and one door to either side of the train. It was a comfortable place to observe the passing landscape and everything that happens at the stations where the train stops. People would frequently pass by there, often searching for the restaurant on the train. 

I entered the train from its left side (seen from the station building), closed the door behind me and remained standing in the small space, alone when the train was about to leave. I remember thinking that I will stay there all the way, about 50 minutes to Hyvinkää and admire the scenery. 

I enjoyed observing people getting on the train and saying good-byes, hugging and smiling; it’s a small mystery to see and feel the train start, with its passengers, each one with her own unknown and new journey ahead. I had the American convertible on my mind. It was not too expensive for me then and it would be my first car.

I was wearing my pure-white ‘tennis shoes’, which I liked as they made walking, running, jumping comfortable and as a young sports-minded fellow, I used to do that everywhere it was possible, in stairs, over fences, down from cliffs, running across streets. There were no Adidas or Nike runner’s shoes available then, as far as I remember. Having hurt my ankle at a training camp which caused a break in my long jump career, I had taken weight lifting more seriously and even started some judo, so I was in a reasonably good fit. 

When the train started, slowly – it had a steam locomotive – I noticed how an old (to my eyes then) and scrawny man, dressed in a white, wrinkled trench coat, whiter than the cream color of the Chevrolet I was after, had not noticed the train leave. Then he started an awkward run towards his carriage which was in front of mine – it was more lumbering than running. He was too slow, but just fast enough to get a firm hold of the railing on the right of the train entrance stairs. Then the train accelerated and the fellow lost his balance and fell between the carriages, being dragged over the left rail, and could only hang with one hand on the railing.

I did not think much – if anything. I opened the door and stepped, or better, jumped fast down the three stairs, ran along the train and reached the stairs of the next carriage, and with my right hand, I could just get a good hold of the collar of the guy’s white thin coat, at his neck, and kept running and dragging him out of the peril, perhaps four-five meters, to save him from the looming death. I could feel the sand on the asphalt under my tennis shoes. It was somewhat slippery.

When I got him out of the danger, I just left him softly lying on the platform, and without checking his condition, I ran automatically after my own carriage moving ahead, and could just make it, stepped in, when the train was moving a bit faster. I believe the whole episode from my observing what happened to returning back to my space, took less than 20 seconds. Strange enough, I don’t remember that it had been any problem to jump on the moving train. Perhaps this was relative to the exciting moment only a few seconds before. 

When I reached my small private space in the carriage the train stopped abruptly. Someone, perhaps the train personnel had seen what had happened. The fellow had already stood up, when someone – him or her, that I don’t remember – came to him and it seemed that he had not visibly hurt himself. I observed the fellow walking to the train, taking careful steps on the stairs and a firm hold on the railing. I remained alone in my private space. It was a rather warm summer day. If he had not been dressed in a trench coat, I don’t know if I could have saved him. 

Nobody came to comment the incidence to me, I did not meet anybody and the fellow remained in his own compartment. I was the only witness of the whole episode and strange enough, felt calm, did not have any reactive or post-traumatic, emotional after effects of the dangerous situation, only a spontaneous and pure joy. When the train had started again, I expected the fellow to come and say hello and perhaps thank me, but this did not happen.

It’s quite probable that the lucky man did not exactly know what had happened to him. He could not see me since I dragged him from the collar and then ran ahead to my own carriage. Perhaps he has told it to someone, that I cannot know. His episode was certainly as memorable as mine, but our first-person views were totally different. Here we humans are profoundly different from computers. This has earlier inspired me to suggest a fresh data model for human-centric computations: episodic data structures. It would be handy in representing and processing the data of significant human episodes, especially natural, complex behavior.

Why this story?

After 57 years, the episode started ‘playing’ freely and repeatedly on my mind, not in the same sequence, though, but alternating as episode clips and larger sequences, but the core was the same, every time. There are some curious lessons to take from this memory experience. First, it was as if my mind wanted to gain something from this forceful exercise. Night-time, after sleep, was somehow perfect time for it to gain access to my consciousness so that I would not prevent or interrupt it with usual, everyday cognitive and other routines. I can speculate about these but some mystery remains, why now?

Then, episodic memories are first-person experiences, just like the real happenings (learning a new skill, any significant encounter, successful activity) have been, which are then memorized as such as well. It would be a mistake to consider episodic memories as rational collections of personal behavior sequences. Their emotional content is probably a binding glue that integrates the episodic story and keeps it as a whole and it is crucial in giving a first-person meaning to the experiences. It is contextual in nature. Sometimes, like probably in this case, the emotional content can be the critical key that triggers a specific memory. Indeed, in everyday life, we – some specific professions excluded – don’t often experience the emotions connected with saving a life.

In the case of my episodic ‘nightly exercise’ I believe that sensing the time of the year – July-August – was an unconscious trigger for it. There are many aspects in it that can initiate this kind of a mental process: the way it feels to walk on sandy asphalt, the light, the travelling, the shoes in summer-Finland. On the other hand, I had been on ’adult interrail,’ just two weeks ago and spent more time in trains than usual. Then I’m preparing some texts that include various first-person stories. 

There is the possibility that it’s about personal accomplishments. Indeed, it feels like having done something significant and even good in life, although it is just a single incidence. On the other hand, I have another story to tell to St. Peter, if he will be there to ask me.

Future and even present computer systems deal with an increasing amount of human behavior and experience data. Often human episodes are the core psychological objects which should be represented in a coherent and honest way in data systems. Game industry lives on these behavioral phenomena, but there is much to do in designing truly human-respecting data structures.

Finally, ever since the works of Sir Bartlett from Cambridge in 1930’s and Elisabeth Loftus, University of California, from 1970’s we’ve known how reconstructive memory can seriously twist the way we remember things, but in this case, I have told the story decades ago to some of my friends, in the same form as I tell it here. I even have photographs of my clothing from that time and they at least show my tennis shoes.

Some background detective work

That night at 2 AM I decided to get photos of the train carriages where the episode took place and tell the story how it all happened and where. I did not find suitable photo candidates or they had limited publishing rights. Then a coincidence: in Hyvinkää, the small town where I was heading in the train, to buy the car, there is an amazing Railway Museum, perhaps the best in Finland. They have preserved carriages which are, exactly, of the same model, I was travelling on. Visiting the museum evoked some new memories and clearly some reconstructions as well, while it also confirmed my story. The photos are from there and you can see the place where this episode took place. The car in the photo is very much like the one I wanted to buy, but I didn’t since it was in very bad shape. I ended up getting a short version Land Rover, 1952 model, with a removable roof.

Figure. The train was moving to the left (in figure). You can see the stairs leading to the carriage, the doors to the small space at the end of each carriage and I stayed in the carriage on the right, when the train started. The door was closed. The fellow fell to the space between the carriages. Here I have taken hold of the railing where the man was hanging with one hand. At the Railway Station in Helsinki, the platform almost reached the first step but there is also the groove where the rails are and where the fellow dragged his feet.

In the photo, there is a similar car to the Chevrolet. Rights: Hope for Children support U.S.

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