by Sue Ann Rybak
Thomas A. Dixon, Jr., 32, a Central High School alumnus, will never forget the day his life changed permanently — Nov. 22, 2010. While on a run, he was hit by a car and suffered a common type of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), a Diffuse Axonal Injury (DAI). According to Dixon, this type of TBI is common in military personnel who have been exposed to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).
“I started my run that day like any other,” he said. “I don’t recall the car slamming into me.”
He said the events of that day are completely erased. Fortunately, there was no swelling or bleeding in his brain, although he was in intensive care for a week and a half. As a result of TBI, however, he suffered episodic memory loss and seizures. “I can’t tell you what happened last week,” he said. “I mean I have no clue.”
Dixon, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Ursinus College in Collegeville and a master’s in educational psychology from Temple University, explained the difference between short-term or working memory, which affects processes like tying a shoe or following a conversation, and semantic memory loss, which affects someone’s ability to understand what a word means or to recall facts or concepts.
The Center City resident said episodic memory relates to context, experiences and specific events in time, from which we can reconstruct actual events that took place. He compared episodic memory to the episodes in a television show. He knows the show and the characters but can’t recall what happened in each episode.
“I can’t tell you the last time I had Italian food or when I went to a restaurant,” he said. “However, if you asked me if I ever went to a certain restaurant, I could probably tell you.”
Instead of adopting a “Why me?” attitude, Dixon decided to use technology, a private Twitter account and his iPhone calendar to create his own episodic memory. After four years of attempting to log and categorize his life in 140 characters or fewer, he decided to create a mobile app to help people like himself with memory loss.
Dixon reached out to Julie Stapleton Carroll from Blackstone Launchpad at Temple University. She introduced him to Nicodemus Madehdou, 20, cofounder of Jumpbutton Studio, an indie company that “seeks to solve problems, invoke change and inspire creativity through games, animated entertainment and mobile apps.”
“ME.mory is meant to be a superhuman episodic memory,” Dixon said. “We all have episodic memory loss. It’s just a matter of how severe it is. For example, you are not going to remember what you had for lunch two weeks ago, because it’s not going to help you. There is a reason we forget a lot. It’s inefficient. It would be terrible if we remembered everything. I don’t remember the accident, and it feels freeing to not have a lot of bad memories cropping up. In a way, that’s a benefit of my condition. I am not forced to have to reflect on (the accident) again and again.”
As of our interview, Dixon’s ME.mory account had 33,953 entries with a daily average of six, a weekly average of 46, a monthly average of 200 and a yearly average of just under 5,000. Research has shown that memories help to define us and shape our identity, so the Local asked Dixon how his personal identity or relationships have changed since the accident.
“In a lot of ways I have not changed, and in a lot of ways I have changed. Before the accident, I was a research coordinator at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. I was in a pre-med program studying to get into medical school and then to become a psychiatrist. I was on the right track. It was just a matter of time before I got published. I just needed to put in the hours.
“As someone who identified as being an intellectual — someone with a very high I.Q. — to become known as the guy who can’t remember what he did yesterday was devastating. It was like taking this person who is a great runner and breaking both his legs. What do they do now? It is a source of their identity.”
But Dixon feels lucky to be living in a digital age with so much technology. “We carry computers around in our pockets. If I lived in the 1950s, I would be walking around with all kinds of files, and people would feel sorry for me. Now when I am walking down the street, people don’t have a clue that I have a disability. I don’t have a physical disability, but I get to flash this card and pay half-price for what is a legitimate disability.”
With the help of Jumpbutton studio, Dixon is turning his tragedy into an opportunity to help others. Jumpbutton studio and Dixon are working closely with experts at Jefferson University and Temple University to make adjustments to ME.mory. The goal is to create an app that will not only log information, “but generate feedback, information and statistics… so not only will you be able to search your memory, but also learn from it,” according to Madehdou.
For more about ME.mory or to download the app, go to https://www.yourdigitalmemory.com/.