Thomas Dixon has no idea what he did yesterday. Sitting across from me at an outdoor cafe, he tries to jog his memory by doing what a lot of us do habitually: checking his iPhone.
Specifically, he pulls up Twitter and starts scrolling through his own feed. “Ah right,” he says. “I was talking to my friend Stephanie about our New Year’s Eve plans.” On this drizzly Friday afternoon in downtown Philadelphia, nothing seems even remotely unusual about a guy checking his phone to look something up.
But unlike you or I, Dixon isn’t exercising a compulsive, unnecessary habit. Without his phone, he literally wouldn’t be able to remember what he did yesterday. Twitter is his memory.
You wouldn’t guess from having a face-to-face conversation with Dixon that his brain is damaged. That’s because nothing about his speech or general intelligence was affected by the accident. Indeed, Dixon’s high IQ has won him membership in Mensa and ensured him a 3.7 GPA when he finished his graduate degree in educational psychology at Temple University in May. He also recently recommenced a long-standing tradition of traveling to a different country every New Years Eve.
Four years ago, Dixon was out for a run near his parents’ house when he was struck by a car and injured so badly that doctors weren’t sure if he would survive. He doesn’t remember the accident, but it left a permanent and pervasive mark on his life: Since that day, his memory hasn’t been the same. In particular, his episodic memory—specific, autobiographical details like where he was, who he met, what he ate and the like—has been compromised by the traumatic brain injury he sustained that late November afternoon. “I’m always aware of what I’m talking about and who I’m with in the moment,” Dixon says. “I just don’t know what happened yesterday or the day before. My declarative episodic memory is shot.”
Since the accident, Dixon has relied heavily on his smartphone to augment the part of his brain that is no longer functioning properly. He uses Twitter throughout the day to make note of the details he isn’t likely to remember tomorrow: What he was reading about, what kind of coffee he ordered, who he spoke to. Even the details of his sex life, which he tweets about in Korean to avoid embarrassing over-the-shoulder moments. All of this goes into his private Twitter account, which he can later refer to, search, and analyze.
Dixon’s strategies for boosting his brainpower with technology are clearly very effective for him. It’s also striking just how normal it seems—It probably says something about the rest of us that a man with literal brain damage doesn’t look at all unusual consulting a tiny computer all day long. But while he inadvertently shames us for being glued to our smartphones, Dixon is also offering up free productivity tips: Here’s how lifelogging and setting digital reminders can help any of us automate our lives. But Dixon’s system could be especially valuable to other people with memory disorders.
“If this were decades ago, I would be walking around with binders,” Dixon says, envisioning how he would cope with his injury without a powerful, Internet-connected computer in his pocket.
The process of writing down everything he does—Dixon sometimes refers to this as “extreme journaling”—is reminiscent of those stories you hear about people who overshare their every move just for personal experimentation or simply the hell of it. But for Dixon, the practice has become a necessary part of life. It’s the reason he’s able to function independently and travel the world on his own.
Over the last few years, Dixon’s Twitter account has amassed more than 22,000 tweets, each one chronicling the details of his day-to-day experience. The account—which he casually refers to has his “memory”—serves as an on-demand personal archive that he can summon at any time. As the data has piled up, it’s also enabled Dixon to perform deeper types of analysis on his life. In this sense, his approach winds up supercharging his memory in a way that most people without traumatic brain injuries wouldn’t be inclined to do themselves. “I have a simultaneously better and worse memory than everyone I’ve ever met,” he notes. To analyze his digital memory, Dixon downloads his personal Twitter archive and opens it in Excel, where he runs searches and performs basic computations. Looking over this data, Dixon is able to see that he mentioned going to the gym 234 times. Coffee comes up 240 times. At first glance, it seems like pretty mundane stuff, but by quantifying the humdrum details of his life, Dixon can spot patterns. “Sometimes if I have like an hour, I’ll be like ‘How’s the last week been?'” Dixon says. “I’ll look at the past week and I’ll go, ‘Oh, okay. I really do want to get a run in.’ So I will use it to influence certain decisions.”
Dixon’s digital memory isn’t limited to Twitter. Like many of us, he uses his Gmail inbox as a list of reminders. “I treat my Gmail as another sort of external memory for general notes or meeting notes, summary of research, whatever,” Dixon says. “Email is anything I need to look at, like attachments for work. If it’s going to be more substantial I’ll do it an email, but I’ll mention to Twitter that I was working on the email.” Scrolling through Dixon’s iPhone calendar, he appears much busier than he really is. That’s because it’s loaded with daily reminders, each one prompting him to take some kind of action. Some of them, like doctor’s appointments, are the type of thing you can find on just about anybody’s calendar. Others, like the reminders to take a certain medication at a certain time or follow up with the friend he spoke to two days ago, are necessary prompts that help fill in the blanks left in his brain by the accident.
All told, Dixon’s approach is decidedly low tech. There’s no programming involved and he doesn’t even use any IFTTT recipes. It’s just email, a calendar, and Twitter, although he does occasionally experiment with potential add-ons to his system. The experience has inspired Dixon to look at things with an entrepreneurial eye. If this system is able to nearly eliminate the effects of his injury, what could it do for other traumatic brain injury patients? What about chemotherapy patients who experience memory loss? The elderly?
Dixon thinks his system could be merged into a single app that’s marketed to people with memory issues. He’s in the very early planning stages of creating a smartphone app called MEmory (prounced mee-mory). He’s gotten as far as prototyping a logo and sketching out the basic functionality, as well as chatting informally with developers about the technical details.
Brain injury patients are encouraged to engage in the kind of self-documenting strategies Dixon uses, but far too often the rehab facilities are stuck on the pen and paper method. It seems especially old school in light of how ubiquitous smartphones are these days.
As his injury and coping strategies gets more attention—he’s done a few local “Nerd Nite” talks and gotten some local press coverage in Philadelphia—Dixon’s begun to think more seriously about dedicating his life to helping others with memory problems. In addition to building an app, he’s considered marketing himself as a sort of consultant to others who could benefit from his strategies, or perhaps to the facilities that care for them. It would be a logical career move for Dixon, who has been on Social Security disability since the accident. His recovery has put him in a somewhat awkward position: Although he has clearly coped quite well, his employability is still up in the air. “They’re putting me in this gray spot,” Dixon says. “I’m not getting hired because I can’t remember what happened yesterday.” Even though he has, in a way, super-charged his memory with technology, his natural inability to recall the episodic details of his experience could lead to trouble in any number of traditional work scenarios.
In the meantime, he continues to refine his own processes in the hopes of figuring out what’s next for him. “I really want to know what’s happened in my life,” Dixon says. “Because that’s what the injury stole from me: context. The ability to keep track of life’s events. Why I went somewhere. All of that. This approach basically creates a sense that my life is not lost.”