Monday, November 25, 2013

Memory Is Weird

 My mind has a mind of its own.
—"The Future, Wouldn't That Be Nice?" The Books  

I've never known anyone else who does this—no one who's admitted to it, anyway: occasionally, I'll be walking down the street, just people-watching on my way to wherever, and I'll catch sight of a particularly interesting face, and think to myself, "Wow, no matter how hard I try, sometime very soon, I am not going to be able to remember that person's face. It's weird that I have so little control over that."

Sometimes, I try anyway.

On these occasions, I spend the rest of my walk doing everything I can to commit the face to memory: re-running over and over in my head the shape of the jaw, the line of the nose, the color of the hair or the lack of hair, the placement of the eyes, the presence and physicality and nuance of the face as a whole. It never works. I can recall having done this dozens of times without being able to remember a single face, the way a father might remember having attended numerous middle school band performances without any idea what his kids played on a given night (though with a dead certainty that he's heard "Hot Cross Buns" enough for several lifetimes).

I find memory upsetting because of how little control I have over it. I don't get to choose what I remember and what I don't. There are other examples. If I try and reach back into my memories of childhood, I find that, rather than the important events of my life—the things I'd choose to remember if I could—the most accessible memories are of silly, piddly things without consequence: the time my sister told me she'd dreamt about Barney the Dinosaur spitting on plants to make them grow, me telling my mom that boogers tasted great, and so forth. Memory seems to choose at random what to keep and what to lose, like an underpaid secretary tossing out files willy-nilly to make room for new documents. I end up losing mental images of old friends and retaining addresses for houses I've long since moved out of.

My fiancée likens memory to an iceberg covered in penguins. Whenever you learn something new, you get a new penguin. Eventually the iceberg is full of penguins. For every new penguin after that, one of the penguins already on the iceberg has to jump off. And you don't get to choose which penguin that is.

But neither of these metaphors actually captures very well what memory really is, and what makes it truly unsettling. A memory, it turns out, is not a stable thing. It's not a file that you reach into the filing cabinet to pull out. It's not a penguin that you can tap on the shoulder that will squawk back at you what you once knew.

No, a memory is more like an old story, a folk tale, or a joke: each time you go back and think of it again, you recreate, or re-imagine, the memory. When you remember something, you are in essence retelling the story of that memory, and just like a folk story or a joke, memories change in the retelling.

In the first segment of this podcast episode on memory and forgetting, there's an example of this that bears repeating:
The act of remembering is an act of creation...Every time you remember something, you're changing the memory a little bit...You think you remember something that took place 30 years ago. Actually what you're remembering is that memory reinterpreted in the light of today, in the light of now. The more you remember something, the less accurate it becomes...
Imagine a couple in love and it's their first kiss. He kisses her, and she kisses him. She remembers the kiss, of course, and he remembers the kiss. As they go through the rest of the romance and the next 36 years together, the kiss will essentially become replaced by two independently re-embroidered and increasingly dishonest kisses. Assuming they think about the kiss enough, that's what [this] implies...
Let's do it a different way. Let's suppose "Bob" and "Joan" kiss, and then they part...and they never think about it again...30 years later, Bob is in a railroad station, Joan comes out of the train, their eyes meet. Bob sees Joan, sees her eyes, and remembers, suddenly, that kiss. That memory is more honest than if he'd been thinking about the kiss every day of his life since. ("Memory and Forgetting," 17:30-20:00, emphasis added)
~  ~  ~
I really enjoyed college; it was full of fun experiences and activities and friends and outings. But when I was done, I was disturbed by how little I really remembered about it all. Knowing how hard it was to remember the details of my life, both the sublime and the mundane, with any certainty, I began journaling. My journals weren't about recording profound thoughts or cataloguing adventures for future retelling. They weren't even for cathartic or therapeutic purposes. My journals were nothing less than an attempt to stem the flow of memories constantly streaming out of my brain, to stuff them back in, or at least have a place to find them if I really wanted them. They were, if you will, extra icebergs for my memory penguins to stand on.

I wrote in Moleskines because I thought it was classy.

But writing in a journal doesn't make memory any more like penguins than anything else could. Even if I went back and read through my journals (I never do), I would still have to go through the process of re-creating, re-imagining the events in order to remember them, and in the process create a memory that is in some sense a fiction.

Having realized this, I've lost most of my drive for journaling. And that's okay, I think. I'm starting to come to terms with how different memory is from what I once assumed it was. I think it's okay that memory is a creative process. The fact that we are essentially making our memories up as best we can reflects the weird, unsettling, but ultimately beautiful fact that we're really making up our whole lives as we go, endlessly inventing and reinventing our stories, our understandings, even our very selves, on the fly.

Photo sources:
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Photo 2:
Photo 3: Me

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