If you "memorized the code" (as I did) from a printed chart of dots and dashes, or from a clever printed diagram or picture which vividly impressed the mind, you felt you knew it. Maybe it only took you twenty minutes to "memorize" it, as some advertisers claimed - or perhaps it took a day or two. Then if you tried to send something in code with your key, it was easy: you had a vivid mental picture as to just how long to hold each element of a character, and this seemed to prove you knew the code.
But it was when you started to receive, to listen to the code, that the trouble began. The sounds you heard just didn't seem to match up with the dots and dashes you "knew" at all. Why should it be so hard to translate the code sounds into the dots and dashes and letters that you thought you knew so well? Those who have made a study of memory tell us that we have several separate memory banks: one for sight, one for sound, others for touch, taste and smell. (See, e.g., "Memory: Surprising New Insights Into How We Remember and Why We Forget" - Elizabeth Loftus, 1980)
Now we see why: the code sounds we heard couldn't make any direct connection at all with our vivid visual memory: they were two different kinds of sensations (sound and sight) -- they didn't relate. In order to cross that gap and relate them we had to give conscious thought to build a bridge between them: to convert the sound pattern into a pattern of visual dots and dashes so that our visual memory, where the "memory" was, could interpret them. That is why we stumbled and, under the pressure of time, often missed out or even failed completely. If we keep on this way we will have to form additional association links for each individual code character in order to connect them. This can be done, and has been done, but it takes a lot of time and also raises a new risk - the danger of interference between them (two possible pathways, one conscious, the other the new association formed) and possible hesitation as a result.
Our memories are complex mechanisms. To fill in the picture, experimental studies on memory have for many years shown that we have not only several kinds, but also several levels of memories. First are what may be called the "sensory registers", the very short times during which, after we see or hear something, its sight or sound persists in our consciousness as if we were still seeing or hearing it (persistence of vision or hearing) for a moment, then quickly vanishes. However, if we are paying attention and are conscious of a sight or sound, it will enter the appropriate "short-term memory" and stay there for maybe 15-20 seconds before it, too, fades out unless we deliberately try to remember it a bit longer, or make a real effort to put it into our "long-term memory" bank by intending to remember it (by reinforcing it).
Long term memory is what we usually think of as our "memory." Because for most of us it seems easier to remember things we have seen than things we have heard, the visual approach to learning seems more attractive. But obviously, since receiving the code is a matter of hearing, we should begin the right way, by training our auditory memory banks. Now we can see why learning the code initially by eye is really the hard way, and actually creates a serious roadblock to advancement.
The intricate interworking of the various parts of our minds and brains raises questions as to what is going on as we consider receiving in the telegraphic codes. Memory studies are usually concerned with things we are fully conscious of and desire either to remember or to forget. With the higher skills in code, however, it is the operation of the unconscious parts of the mind and its relations with the consciousness that is of primary interest, and how these tie together with the memory.
As our telegraphic skill level increases, the ABC's of the mechanics of language become more and more the actions of the subconscious mind, which in turn may or may not bring them to the attention of our consciousness. In the process of copying, the consciousness of content may be zero: you just mechanically copy (dictation) what is received, while you may be conscious only of thinking of something quite irrelevant. However, in reading the code we are first conscious of the words, and later conscious more of the thoughts conveyed than being precisely aware of the words. In both these higher skill levels, the words and thoughts are generally collected together into at least the "short-term" memories, and often carried over into the "long-term memories," so that we "make sense" out of it all and follow what is being said as we do in conversation.
Perhaps the only thing we are conscious of, if we stop to think about it at all, is that we want to understand and recall some of the things said to us. Perhaps there is an analogy with driving a car. Here our eyes are receiving impressions from traffic, traffic signals, certain sounds, and our physical responses on steering wheel, accelerator, brakes are so automatic that if we are asked later about some particular detail, we just can't reply. These habitual physical responses to stimuli from specific events are especially strongly retained over long periods of time. The complete response once started carries itself out automatically and fully.
Another, less frequent occurrence is this: over the years it has been found that people sometimes have retained mental "pictures" or "sound recordings" of things in earlier life to which they had paid no attention or had any interest in. Under certain conditions they were able to recall them -- even things that made no sense at the time or later. One aged lady was able to recall verbatim long speeches (in a language foreign to her) she had heard many years previously. Another sang a song in the native language of her mother, a language the singer never understood at all. The experts tell us that "long term memory" does not mean either permanent memory or accurate memory. All memories tend to weaken or fade out with time, and further, that they can and usually are altered in various ways so that the recall is distorted, or sometimes even reversed from the original.
One exception is those memories associated with physically-related skills, such as playing a musical instrument, driving a vehicle, stenography, telegraphy, etc. People who have not practiced such skills for many years will generally show surprising agility after decades of non-use. A little practice will usually put them back to nearly their best performance, barring physical disability. This has been demonstrated over and over. There is certainly room here for further research into this fascinating subject as we look for specifically better ways to improve our telegraphic skills.
Those operators in commercial work who read the tapes by eye seldom if ever learned cw as we know it, but rather learned the visual appearance of words and letters on the tapes in groups. There is also another aspect to tape reading: it is more like reading print with each character in full context, not in sequential time. One operator accustomed to operating in the 35-40 wpm range was out of it for five years. When he sat down to listen he could copy only about 15 wpm: "I couldn't believe it!" By noon he was up to about 24 wpm and later in the afternoon was up to his old speeds again. Just a few hours of practice were needed. "One can indeed get awfully rusty," he said.
The Art and Skill of Radio-Telegraphy
©William G. Pierpont N0HFF