The Nature of Memory

“I remember . . .”. Famous first words. How often have we said them without even thinking about what we’re actually saying? What exactly is a “memory” anyway?

I remember growing up and hearing the adults in the family – siblings, parents, relatives and grandparents – say these words endlessly in conversations. Frequently “I remember” was the beginning of long after dinner conversations that, as a young child, made me cringe. I wished the adults would remember less so I could be excused from the table to go play. But the subjects of the memories were beyond question.

I didn’t hold the memory myself, so it wasn’t a part of me, but the fact that an adult said they remembered something made it unquestionably true. Sometimes there would be disagreements about the particulars of a memory if more than one person held it, but the details were left open to question and usually one party or the other would acquiesce a bit about the details. The important thing seemed to be that they could recall an event or occasion, paint a picture of it, and enjoy that recollection.

In school, as a child, some classmates had great memories, some had good memories and others could barely remember their names. Just kidding. Not about the relative strength of memories, however. Students with good memories excelled, while those of us with just average memories, were just average. From spelling bees to oral math, from names and dates of history to reciting poems, the classmates who did well were liked by teachers and disliked by the rest of us who struggled to keep up.

In time I developed enough skill at remembering things to pass tests and finish school and move on. And now that I’m one of those adults who sits around the table after a meal and “remembers when”, I don’t hold the memory sacred as I once thought the adults of my youth did.

Since the introduction of computers and their “memories”, we have formed a model of memory as a storage of distinct details, and this has served as a fairly convenient model for many years. We simply accumulate things, just as we accumulate stuff in our houses. We file events and information into filing drawers in our brains. As we age and start forgetting, we can use the excuse that there is simply too much data in our brain to find and pick out the specifics of anything, including dates, names and details of events. We tend to think that if we look long enough, we’ll find it eventually. And if we don’t, we even have a medical name for the fact that the “memory” no longer exists, or at least that we no longer have access to it.

Now as I reach the fuzzy memory stage of my life, I am forming a different view of memory. For several years now I have been thinking that we invent memories. I think that we don’t file memory in the brain as discreet bits of data. Just as new books are written using old words, we use bits of old data to create new pictures, and we say “I remember.”

I remember in psychology class reading about experiments where several observers of a single event were asked to recall details of the event, and each were different enough that they might have been describing different events.

I would be a terrible witness in a criminal case, because I would be at a loss to tell an attorney where I was on the evening of January 15 two years ago. In my world, the perpetrator of a criminal act might be average height, weight and build. Someone else might be able to give eye color, missing teeth, or the design of a tattoo revealed for two seconds as the criminal reached for a gun.

And who’s to know how accurate this description might actually be? Who’s to be the judge of the validity of a memory? Someone put into writing the details of the meeting of Grant and Lee at Appomattox, and we all believe what was written down. However, how do we know that the writer was anymore clear about the details than I might have been if I had been the witness?

And in the end, I’m not sure that it really matters. In a hundred years, who will know and who will really care, except that it might be worthy of conversation following a pleasant Sunday dinner with family and friends. And maybe that’s the real value of memories and conversations about memories. Perhaps the value is in the sharing and the caring for one another enough to spend the time together. For having the time together, I can be grateful.

Categories: observation, Uncategorized

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