The palest ink is better than the best memory – Chinese Proverb

When I read this for the first time, I was puzzled by the meaning. Being quite a visual person I pictured pale ink on  a page and compared it to the best memories I have, which are bright, vibrant and full of detail.  I couldn’t grasp why something that was almost a shadow was better than a  vivid image. So I looked it up.

In summary it means that writing things down is better than trying to remember them, as even the best memory is not infallible and a written record is indisputable. This seems eminently sensible, but what happens when you can no longer read or write and your memory is failing? This is the double bind faced by many people with dementia who, in the early stages, may actually have quite a lot of their thinking skills intact, but who can no longer keep a lot of new data in their minds and so can’t read beyond a few sentences.

In designing Memrica Prompt, we’re looking at using images and sound rather than text to prompt recall of the things people want to remember; the names of friends and family, just what the neighbour said when they popped round or who’s going to be at the next social event. It seems to me that this is how memory works, we visualise things and hear the associated sounds  when we’re recalling something and so this seems a very natural way to prompt recall. It’s a challenge to get it right though, and that’s why we’ll be testing it with volunteers across the UK. Of course a prompt is only that, it’s not the actual memory, it’s a shade of a memory designed to bring back the fully fleshed version. And if you can’t access that, it’s still a useful reminder to the people around you of what you wanted to remember.

My original interpretation was wrong – if the original memory is no longer accessible, then a prompt is like the palest ink, it is there as a valuable record, a testament of what you wanted to remember, even if it’s not the brightest, deepest original.